I was really pleased to see the New York Times devote some space to a story about a “dock jumping” competition for dogs.
The competition is pretty general: just jumping, length and height. But at least the dogs are judged by their ability. And it looks like good fun for them and the owners. Maybe it should be combined with other lure-coursing and obedience contests.
As you know, most of today’s familiar dog breeds were created for a functional purpose: retrieving, hunting, herding, and ratting the most common. Most dogs in Europe and America are now used as companions only, whatever their original purpose. These breeds have been gradually “softened” for this.
One of the biggest problems for domestic dogs is the supremacy of Westminster-style dog shows in the minds of dog breeders and fanciers.* I happen to like these shows. But they privilege a dog’s appearance above everything else, leading to a breeding culture that doesn’t necessarily prioritize a dog’s health and function. See this story from the New York Times Magazine on how the English bulldog has been transformed and possibly irretrievably damaged by this process.
And that isn’t the only breed having trouble. King Charles Spaniels come to mind as well. Recently in the U.K. there has been tremendous controversy over the admission to the Kennel Club of a Dalmatian, Fiona, who is 13 generations removed from a Dalmatian that was out-crossed with Pointer in order to restore gene that prevents a number of serious health problems in Dalmatians.
There are two trends in the dog world mitigating agains this degeneration, and they arise from two distinct social classes, and both are loathed by the traditionalist fanciers.
The well-off are increasingly interested in “designer” mixes. I see these dogs when I visit Ridgefield, Conneticut. The naming conventions come out of the “Brangelina” school of just smashing names together. Goldendoodles, Yorkipoos, Cockerpoos. It isn’t clear yet if these will become established breeds in themselves, but they are bred to be pleasing to look at and to be good companions. And by opening up the gene pool and reshuffling, they tend to be healthier animals if bred carefully. For the health and biodiversity of dogs and the enjoyment of their owners, it may be good if the most popular of these became breeds in their own right, with sensible standards (and names).
But there is another trend that works against genetic deterioration, though it has some problematic associations.
The function of a dog was not overlooked in an earlier dog-show culture. Well into the 20th century in Ireland, a Kerry Blue Terrier (a breed I adore) could not qualify to be judged against his breed-standard until it passed a “gameness” trial, although sometimes these things were more farce than trial. These tests were outlawed for their similarity to “badger baiting,” a kind of country bloodsport.
But the practice isn’t dead. There are reports that an illcit subculture of badger hunting with dogs is growing in the U.K. It still exists in the United States. It is led by “terrier men,” basically good ol’ boy dog fanciers. There are tremendous debates about what constitutes legitimate badger hunting and illegitimate bloodsport, badger baiting. The difference is usually in whether the handler uses the dogs to track and flush a badger, or uses them to fight one.
Some farmers invite these terrier men onto their properties to deal with pests. The media characterizes this technique for dealing with badgers as “medieval.” It is considered “badger persecution” under the law. The terrier men use electronic collars to track their dogs as they borrough through badger and fox holes.
But I can see a good reason even today to train a terrier in ratting and varmint-killing if you lived on a farm property, or even if you kept a garden. And dogs do get scratched and bit doing this work, but a well-handled dog will only see scratches in the first few adventures, usually learning how to avoid even minor injury quickly. There is no more “green” way of handling rodents on a farm than a little smoke and a set of trained Jack Russells.
But I have to say the dogs that these terrier men are breeding and popularizing: the small but “game” Patterdale terrier, and the impressive Bull Lurcher are stunning animals. I’ve seen videos on YouTube of Patterdales absolutely thrilling to the hunt of a badger. They are not recognized by the kennel clubs because their genetic stock is regularly replenished and diversified.
These trends towards designer mixes and new working dogs, with a little institutional self-discipline, could contribute to the happiness and health of our domestic animals. One trend works to adapt dogs to their a life in which they are primarily house pets. The other re-institutes them as vermin-chasers and puts them to work. Both of them, crucially, break this cycle of ferocious inbreeding, and can provide an example of healthy dog lines.
It actually would be pretty easy to adjust the Westminster show culture to promote healthy breeding by judiciously altering the breed standards, and awarding some points based on the health of the dog’s ancestors. And getting back to the original article, it might be best to include some points for functional tests: jumping, lure-coursing. and retrieving.
*Yes, there are other problems, namely the incredible overpopulation of pit bulls, which can be a lovely family dog. More pit bulls are euthanized each year than dogs registered with the American Kennel Club.