559 Showing Pedigrees

by   David Hancock

In his valuable two-volume The Dog Book of 1906, the under- rated Scottish writer, James Watson, describes quite scathingly those in the world of purebred dogs who fail to realise that a pedigree is only a piece of paper. He records a conversation with the great Irish Terrier breeder of one hundred years ago, William Graham, who cast his eye over a show entry of his time and declared: 'Some men show pedigrees; I show dogs and take the prizes.' Vero Shaw, the distinguished canine authority of that time, gave the view in a show report that, all too often, the pedigree was worth more than the dog. And to this day, you still hear an indifferent animal excused on the grounds that it 'has a good pedigree'. As James Watson observed: ‘No one with any knowledge of the subject will breed to a dog merely on pedigree...a good dog makes a pedigree good, and not the other way. ‘

 There used to be a saying in dog breeding circles: No animal is well-bred unless it is good in itself. I haven't heard it spoken of as a received wisdom for some years. Much more important than the names on the written pedigree is the ability to 'read' it, translate the names into physical content. As the great Scottish Terrier breeder, WL McCandlish wrote in his book on the breed: 'The names in a pedigree form are merely cyphers, designating certain groupings of features and certain sources of blood, and pedigree is of no value unless the breeder can translate what these cyphers mean. ' Yet even some quite experienced dog breeders get dazzled by names on forms, rather than by dogs, supported by blood from distinct ancestors. The eminent canine geneticist Malcolm Willis has written: 'Never does pedigree information become more important than information on the dog itself.'  We must always value dogs that are good in themselves.

 Twenty years ago, a dog fancier in the south of England, imported a magnificent example of an overseas breed she admired, as so many Britons have for centuries. She chose well; it was a top-quality dog: imposing, athletic and extremely handsome. It was so physically impressive that a few Mastiff breeders used this import, clandestinely, as a sire. The dog was not just an impressive specimen of his breed, he was an outstanding canine, with wonderful temperament. Then, in 1991, a law was drafted by the Home Office and, on the advice of the Kennel Club, the breed of dog this dog belonged to was banned from our shores. He was a Japanese Tosa. His breed, having been abused by man in his native country, was now to be abused in ours. This blameless dog now had to be castrated and permanently muzzled when in a public place. This is a bizarre way to treat a well-behaved top-quality dog in a civilised dog-loving country. It is a stupid way too of treating valuable genes; it is the genes which have the value, not the breed, and never the pedigree.

 A decade ago, the Bullmastiff breeder Claire Ridsdale, produced an outstanding dog, Wyburn Nightcap, a superbly-proportioned extremely handsome brindle canine athlete. She knew I would admire him and arranged for him to be brought to a show where I could see him. He was not entered for the show; he was not the type of Bullmastiff favoured in the show ring. He was a throwback to the old gamekeeper's nightdog, where the breed has its roots. I can understand why this top-quality dog wasn't shown but regret the fact that he would never be bred from, because of this lack of contemporary show type. He would have made a most suitable outcross for Mastiff breeders seeking a reversion to truly typical type in their breed; a strapping Bullmastiff, Tawny Lion, was used to restore the Mastiff after World War II. We really should make full use of outstanding dogs, they produce the blood, not the paper they are registered on; our ancestors bred impressive dogs, not impressive pieces of paper.

 Another outstanding Bullmastiff, bred by Antony Buckley (Bogatyr) and now with the Italian Green Dragon kennel, International Champion Bogatyr Rapture of Bunsoro, fortunately has been bred from, possessing great quality and perfect breed type. Such an outstanding dog deserves to feature in the KC publication Illustrated Breed Standards, epitomising the beau-ideal for the breed and exemplifying the words of the written standard. Top quality dogs are a joy to see and deserve wide admiration. I have never seen a better Airedale than those I viewed as a teen-aged 'vet's assistant' in Molly Harbut's (Bengal) kennel over half a century ago. The memory of them however will stay forever in my mind. Top quality dogs are truly memorable. I don't recall written pedigrees.

 When I was making a commercial video on the Labrador Retriever some years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing the dogs in the kennels of the late Gwen Broadley and Carole Coode. It was abundantly clear that both these breeders had a very clear idea of what an outstanding dog in their breed should look like. I think of them when I see overweight faulty Labs at shows and in the park. The late Natalka Czartoryska produced some outstanding Anatolian Shepherd Dogs and had a clear concept of what constituted a quality dog in her breed. I have seen some top quality Akitas, Vizslas, Dobermanns, Amstaffs and Great Danes in recent years. I can recall too the top quality 'of Ware' Cockers and the Whitwell Pointers. It is a joy to see a fine Leonberger like Fran Williams's Tariq, bred by Madeline Lusby. I admire too the American Bulldog 'Reba' bred by Stephen Bacon and the Bulldogs bred by Lolly and John Wilkinson in Canada. Top quality dogs can be truly inspiring.

 Some dog breeders get lucky and find a blend that more by luck than judgement gives them an outstanding specimen. The really gifted breeders can produce generations of top quality dogs. At several World Dog Shows I have seen classes of Amstaffs which all look as though they have come from the same dam. Foxhound packs too can produce a 'pack-signature' in which just about every hound can closely resemble its fellows. In contrast, in a Bullmastiff ring you can see almost a collection of 'any variety Bullmastiff', the variations are so wide. This is not good for breed-type, is no help to a judge and not a good omen for the breed's future. But the breed-fanciers seem content with this situation. Ignorant judges too sometimes reward dogs which breach their own breed standard, especially with regard to the length of the jaw. There is a huge difference between a Bullmastiff and a Pugmastiff!

 There is a huge difference too between one Bulldog by name and another. I am impressed by the number of artisan Bulldog breeders who are not content to see what might be called the KC Bulldog being considered the real thing. The Sussex Bulldog fanciers will probably receive nothing but scorn from KC Bulldog devotees, but there is no doubt in my mind who has the sounder, more historically-correct dogs. For some, the biggest negative they can find for these well-bred quality dogs, is that they don't have 'papers'. Such a comment tells you more about the person than the situation! Breeding records are important, but not as important as the dog. A skilled Irish Greyhound breeder once said to me: 'A really good look at the dog tells me what he might do on the track, his papers might tell me what he'll breed'.

 In the pedigree dog world, much is made of the stud dog of the year competition, which is entirely based on the show success of the progeny of often over-used sires. The progeny of such successful sires could have bitten children, savaged other dogs or died young of some inheritable disease. Is this truly the best we can do? Does this, as the leitmotiv of the KC puts it, improve dogs? When I was working in Germany nearly half a century ago, I learned of the work, in the German Democratic Republic, from a book by Dr FK Dorn, entitled Hund und Umwelt or Dog and the World Around Him i.e. his Environment. Dorn devised a system of four categories: A=Type, B=Appearance, C=Conformation and D=Temperament. Within each category, Dorn devised a numerical scoring system, in which, for example, Al=shelly, A8=too heavy and clumsy; BO=lack of pigmentation, B5=excellent appearance, outline and symmetry; DO= nervous or timid, D3=cautious, not self-assured and D8= unafraid but not aggressive. Such details could then be written on a dog's pedigree for use when breeding plans were being formulated.

 This became known as the Merseberg scoring system, after the GSD breed club there. Dorn was seeking to establish a clear picture of the hereditary qualities of the whole bloodline of a dog. But now, half a century later, our pedigrees merely list the ancestors for five generations, without any checks on their accuracy or the slightest whiff of real information about the dog. Is this progress? Is this in the best interests of good breeding? Prizes for phenotype and beauty are given sole weight and to hell with such basic information as health, intelligence and working ability. In livestock breeding, a stud has no value until the performance of its 1111offspring but on their successful stance in the ring. Does that produce the best companion animals? The KC's self-imposed mandate is the improvement of dogs, not the improvement of show dogs. Is their remit being met? Have we truly progressed in the last century or so? The Kennel Club does not support the continental system of grading an entry in the ring, according to their qualities. Such a system may take longer but if improvement is desired and the 'best of the very best' truly being sought, is time in the ring really relevant? I would support it as a pursuant of excellence; more importantly, I would support it as a way of assessing judges; some would be exposed by the discrepancies in their gradings against those allocated by their peers. In his informative book, Control of Canine Genetic Diseases (Howell Book House, 1998), George Padgett DVM, argues for registries/kennel clubs to provide genetic information on the written pedigree, not just a list of ancestors. He writes that any registry 'that purports to be effective in the control of diseases must provide the information that breeders need...' The KC has had an in-house geneticist for some years now; but still we have the 19th century pedigree form.

The most famous terrier breeder of the early twentieth century, Sir Jocelyn Lucas, once wrote: 'The greatest tragedy that can ever befall a breed is to become a fancier's dog.' I recall those words when I see Victorian Bulldogs, Dorset Bulldogs and Sussex Bulldogs, as opposed to KC-registered Bulldogs, and when I see Fell Terriers, Patterdale Terriers and Plummer Terriers, as opposed to KC-registered terrier breeds. These unregistered breeds are produced by men who know the difference between a good pedigree and a good dog. There is a humility about them; they are devoted not slavishly to a breed but to the production of sound healthy companion dogs, whilst respecting the traditional role of their dogs. In so many registered pedigree breeds, the fanciers have lost their way.

 The ever-forthright Sir Jocelyn also wrote: 'The show dog pure and simple is bred from, no matter whether he be clever or a fool. It is the show points or the external appearance alone that count…'  If there is truth in that statement today, would not the introduction of a truly 2lst century pedigree form reduce that risk? How valuable to have not just a list of names, but a grading of those dogs, a guide to their genetic well-being, and, some use of Dr Dorn's visionary scheme for assessing the whole dog. When are we going to stop valuing our precious breeds of dog on their appearance alone, when their temperament makes them a successful companion animal and their quality of life depends on their genetic pedigree? Surely, if we honestly seek better breeds, better dogs and wish to contribute to a breed during our lifetime, we should be campaigning now for truly comprehensive pedigree-form information.

 Perhaps highly significant statements such as 'No animal is well-bred unless it is good in itself', 'Never does pedigree information become more important than information on the dog itself', 'Some men show pedigrees; I show dogs' and 'a good dog makes the pedigree good, and not the other way' need to be given greater impact. The phrase 'become purely a fancier's dog' need not become immediately associated with deterioration, but be an acknowledgement that that breed is best-bred -and has wide-ranging thoroughly-comprehensive KC-certification to indicate that. Quality assurance is the name of this game.