Fall into a conversation at any dog show with someone who has been in the sport for 30 years or more and inevitably the subject turns to the decline of overall quality in so many breeds. I’ve had many such conversations recently.
Glamorous, showy, beautifully schooled and presented dogs abound at American dog shows, and many people are dazzled by their condition, trim and showmanship, and feel these dogs are amazing and so deserving of everything that they win. And then there are those of us of the Old School who remember when dog shows were as much about the dog as they were about the show. The quality of the dog came first; the showmanship and fancy trim were icing on the cake.
These days, they seem to be pretty much the whole cake, including the icing! We lament that so many top-winning dogs lack a number of breed characteristics so basic yet critical that we simply cannot believe that these dogs are heralded as great ones. Either few breeders and judges are reading the breed standards and striving to interpret them, or they have no true understanding of the requirements in those standards, or they simply don’t care as long as the dogs they are producing and pointing at are fancy and showy.
Many people who have been in dogs for a very long time are of the opinion that it is the demise of the large breeding kennels that has so adversely affected the quality of current show dogs. Those breeders with 100 dogs to choose from and the opportunity to create many litters a year did for sure have more room for error, more chance to experiment with pedigree combinations and many more dogs to pick from when choosing one for the show ring. For every one that surfaced as a show dog, there were probably 20 back in the kennel that were never seen by the public. Certainly there were advantages to this method of breeding, but I personally do not see the loss of these kennels as the reason for the decline in the quality of many of today’s breeds. In my mind it is not that current breeders lack large numbers of dogs to work with but instead it is that they lack real knowledge of their chosen breed because they missed the true opportunity to gain the in-depth schooling that comes from long-term mentorship.
Gaining Knowledge From Mentors
When I was a young child there was a lady a block down the road who bred Shetland Sheepdogs, taught obedience classes and ran a full-time dog grooming shop out of her home. Her name was Marie. This was in the early 1960s, and she was very progressive and innovative for that time. She owned, trained and handled the first Ch./UD dog of any breed in the state of Michigan. When I was about 6, my mother bought a Sheltie from Marie to be our house dog. Having been born fascinated with animals of all kinds (an affliction that I have been unable to shed in all these years), I was interested in every facet of what Marie did, and going to her house was like going to fantasy land for me. Marie’s children were grown and gone and not interested in her dogs, so this kind, eccentric woman took me under her wing. She became my first mentor in the sport of dogs.
When I started to regularly go to Marie’s house, I was so young that my mother and Marie had to help me cross the street. I spent as much time there as I possibly could, soaking up everything I could learn. By the time I was 10, I had trained and shown a dog to a CD title, I could put a pretty reasonable pet trim on a Poodle, and I had seen dogs bred, puppies whelped, grown out and sorted, and I had been taken along to many dog shows. I was forming a foundation in the sport.
When I was 12, I acquired my first Golden Retriever. She was nicely bred, though an outcross of field and show lines (not nearly the chasm then that it would be now in that breed, by the way). Along with that Golden came the woman who spent the rest of her life unselfishly training me about dogs. Her name was Betty. She instilled in me an ethic about dog breeding that I strive to uphold to this day. She was my go-to person for the rest of her life. I never outgrew her, and I surely never thought I knew more than she did about dogs. She was my second mother, my friend, my conscience and my strongest critic. She guided me, schooled me, reined me in when I needed it and forced me to think for myself by always offering me a choice when I needed help. (She never just gave me the answer: She gave me two, and then helped me work through to the correct answer.) Betty taught me many things, one of the most important being how to create a breeding program and build a family of dogs that would breed true to a vision of perfection that I would eventually create in my mind. She began by helping me with how to breed that very first outcrossed bitch. She was mated to her uncle on the show side of her pedigree, producing my very first homebred, owner-handled champion show dog.
I bred Goldens back and forth with Betty for many years, always attempting to build on the solid linebred foundation that I had begun with while introducing new traits from outcrossing when necessary. Though I no longer breed Golden Retrievers, my many years of training at the feet of what I consider to be some of the masters of the breed — Rachel Page Elliot, Betty Gay, Dick and Ludell Beckwith, Connie Gerstner (Miller), Marcia Schlehr, to name those who were the most influential for me — allow me to close my eyes and immediately conjure up the vision of a Golden that perfectly fits the standard that I worked so long and hard to understand.
The Breed Standards
And right here is where I think that so many people who are breeding (and judging) dogs today fall short. There is a reason behind every requirement in a breed standard. Descriptive statements were put into the standards by the founding fathers of the breeds so that future generations of breeders could understand the form that was required to produce the function that the breed had been created to fulfill.
Far too many people today have failed to get the training necessary to really understand the breed standards. Before you can build a successful breeding program, you must be able to ask yourself why each requirement in your standard exists and know exactly the reason behind it. And in most breeds, the answers always come from the original function of the breed. Today there is a serious lack of discussion about dogs that is based upon original function and purpose. Words like “cute” and “pretty” and “gorgeous” and “beautiful” are thrown around incessantly, but they are really useless in a discussion about breed type unless followed by a descriptive statement about a particular feature of the dog as it relates to a requirement in the breed standard. Many of today’s most prolific breeders ignore basic requirements of their breed standard in favor of producing dogs with faults and failings “because we like them like that.” I hear that statement all too often, and it makes me cringe.
If you were the architect who had created the blueprint for a functional building that was going to serve a particular purpose, do you think that the contractor hired to do the actual building should be able to make changes to suit his own whims because he “likes it better that way”? Of course not. And if he did, the end result would most likely be a building that failed miserably at its intended function or even collapsed. The same theory should apply to our dogs when we breed them. We need to keep them capable of easily performing the functions for which they were originally developed, not change them into caricatures that exude some sort of beauty but are riddled with failings when compared to their breed standard.
Type And Style In Breeding
It takes years to truly absorb the many nuances of a breed and learn how to produce animals that consistently follow the standard in type. While style in different breeding programs may vary somewhat from breeder to breeder, every program must produce dogs that fit the standard in type. Here is an example of how three very influential breeders in a particular breed consistently produced dogs that fit the standard in type while being instantly recognizable in style as having come from a specific breeding program.
I got my first English Springer Spaniel in 1972 after having admired the breed for many years. At that time, there were three breeders in Michigan who were extremely influential in the breed. Their names were Julia Gasow (Salilyn), Karen Prickett Miller (Loujon) and Mary Lee Hendee (Canarch). Each of them produced generations of Springers that fit the breed standard, but as each had a slightly different vision of perfection in their heads, dogs from their individual breeding programs were totally recognizable based on differences in style. No need to look in a catalog — just look in the ring, and their dogs all but had a brand on them. All these years later, I can conjure up a picture in my head of a wonderful dog from each breeding program, and I can describe with just one word the style characteristic of each breeding program that set their dogs apart from one another. The Salilyn Springers were glamorous. The Loujon Springers were elegant. And the Canarch Springers were “spanielly.” Only one word for each long-term, successful breeding program is necessary to define their style differences. But it would take many words to describe their similarities because all of these ladies worked hard to breed dogs that fit the standard in type. And all three were successful and had lasting impact on the breed that is evident today.
My first Springer was a linebred dog, but he was an outcross in style, being the product of a very spanielly little bitch from Canarch bred to a very glamorous young dog from Salilyn. But he was linebred on a sire that both breeding programs had used. He was a miracle for me as a foundation sire, going on to produce 66 AKC champions. He was frequently bred to bitches from all three of the above breeding programs. The type of his children made them obviously his, but the style of his children was based upon the bloodline of their dams. He was a tremendous learning experience for me as a fledgling breeder, and probably the only reason I didn’t really screw up my own beginning breeding program in that breed was because I was fortunate to have all three ladies to mentor me. I took advantage of every opportunity to listen and learn from these masterful breeders, and I eventually combined dogs from all three of their programs into the foundations of my now successful breeding family of Springers.
Breeding dogs should not be about using the dogs that belong to your friends, or being involved in a clique that uses a particular circle of dogs, or breeding to the current top-producing sire or breeding to last year’s top winner. If that is how you breed, you are just breeding dogs. Instead, breeding should be based on years spent learning about your chosen breed from knowledgeable mentors who are willing to share; understanding your standard and applying that standard to produce a family of dogs that breed true in type while having a style distinctly their own; and, most importantly, fit the breed standard as closely as possible generation after generation. If this is how you are breeding dogs, then you are a dog breeder.