All Things Dog — Bridging A Great Divide

From the monthly column "Becoming". ShowSight Dog Show Magazine, April 2019 Issue. Photos Courtesy AKC. Click to subscribe. 

I just responded to a post that came in from an advocate of working Bedlingtons on a new Bedlington Facebook page. The working Bedlington fancier wanted to know if this new page was more for the conformation people, or if it was geared towards the working dog owners. The new page administrators welcomed him warmly and responded that it was an inclusive page that wants to reach out to all people who love the breed, regardless of their personal interest. Wise response! And the flow of conversation that followed on that page is a testament to why it is so important to be inclusive in our world of dogs.

For the second time in a couple of months I began to feel a little hope that perhaps purebred dogs are not doomed after all.

My first hope came from visiting the new AKC Museum of the Dog. This museum is everything I imagined it could be, and more. The exhibits are beautifully presented in a modern environment, and they clearly depict purebred dogs through the eyes of talented artists from centuries of interactions with dogs. Many of the pieces show dogs that do not look anything like their modern counterparts, but clearly maintain the essence of the breeds as they were envisioned when developed. Some of the exhibits are interactional computer-generated teaching games. A small historical library is open to the public, and there is an interview studio on-site to record important happenings in the dog world. The front of the building displays silhouettes of dogs walking across an unseen path. Most of the dogs are recognizable as purebreds, though many of them take on the shape of obviously pet-quality examples of their breed. I personally love the idea that the dogs used were not just the conformation champions because we obviously want to draw in pet buyers to this museum, and these are the dogs they are used to seeing. We cannot begin to educate or train their eyes if we can’t get them through the doors. Making the opening exhibit appealing to the masses was a stroke of genius. I particularly loved the Chihuahua who began to run in the opposite direction for a while. If that doesn’t speak volumes about that breed, I don’t know what does!

The Museum of the Dog is in a wonderful location right across the street from Grand Central Station, and it has generated a lot of positive publicity for the AKC. I welcome the attention and the positive face it gives this entire world of purebred dogs. I strongly encourage all dog clubs and individuals to support this magnificent effort to present our world to the public in an historical, accurate and positive manner. If you go to New York, put the Museum on your itinerary—you won’t be disappointed. And if you are lucky enough to know a board member, ask if you can get a tour of the new AKC offices in the same building. Their art collection and library are equally impressive, and very much worth seeing.

Now if we can just keep this purebred world from becoming a relic only visible through the eyes of a museum curator.

One thing you will notice immediately in the Dog Museum is the lack of distinction between those who owned and bred for sport or work, and those who bred or owned conformationally beautiful dogs. If there were ever serious divisions, the Museum did not focus on them. The story of purebreds is purpose-driven and inclusive. While only wealthy noblemen may have been able to afford to keep a large pack of hunting Foxhounds, the common people could all afford to have a vermin-killing terrier or a hunting dog to retrieve game that fed their family. The bond between humans and canines is unmistakable. We have evolved together, and I do not foresee a time when the Animal Rightists will be able to break that bond. But they can do damage in their quest to end domestication of animals, and the results can be seen on a daily basis. They have convinced a huge segment of the population that “rescue” is good and purebred is bad. They demonize breeders without questioning where the “rescues” come from or who bred them. The under-educated population of pet owners has yet to start questioning where the next generation of puppies will come from if all dogs are spayed and neutered. I wonder if biology classes are not big in schools any more. To get puppies, dogs need to be bred, and isn’t it nice when they are bred by people who want to maintain the health and beauty of their chosen breeds? The museum won’t answer that question specifically, but it certainly is a delightful place for the public to learn about the history and evolution of the breeds we know today. Introducing the public to the breeds that caught our fancy is a good way to begin building demand for more well-bred 
purebred dogs.

My second revelation of hope came when a couple of Bedlington people decided to start a new Facebook page that allows everyone the ability to post photos and comments without the tight moderation found on the official Bedlington Terrier Club of America page. They have rules, of course, but no one is prevented from posting directly to the page. That means the discussions can take any direction the posters want to take them. One fellow wanted to know if the page was geared toward conformation Bedlingtons or working Bedlingtons. What a great question!

The fellow who asked the question is a huge advocate of working dogs, so he is used to seeing a big divide between the so-called working Bedlingtons and the conformation Bedlingtons. The administrators welcomed him to the page and asked to learn more about what he meant by a working Bedlington. Many also suggested that their conformation-bred dogs were quite good at killing vermin. The discussion started to take the expected route. As the some owners suggested their dogs could do real work, he began to sound a little defensive, explaining that breeders of working dogs always chose for working ability over form, and he was quite sure that people who bred for form rather than function could never produce a dog that could do work as well as dogs bred specifically for work. He then posted a meme with the following sentiment: “The pedigree shows what a dog should be, the showring what he seems to be, work what he really is.”

I didn’t really like the meme, but I was prepared because I had participated in a similar conversation with a working dog breeder in the UK, and I have listened to the arguments brought forward by breeders in this country who lament the divisions in many sporting breeds—field Labs and conformation Labs, field English Setters and conformation English Setters, working Brittanys and conformation Brittanys. I’ve heard the arguments for as long as I have been in dogs, and that’s closing in on five decades. It never seems to get resolved, though Brittany breeders are doing a really good job at making sure their dogs can compete in all arenas.

And then I had an epiphany! First, I recalled the problems my neighbor had breeding Black and Tan Coonhounds for bear hunting. And then I thought about the insanity of dividing up the community of dog lovers. As the founders of the new Bedlington page were discovering, inclusiveness, and sharing of information between factions could be the answer to many of our 
worst problems.

I explained to the working breeder that my neighbor was breeding a line of dogs who were great at hunting—except they had a structural problem that was so severe he was having to put-down young dogs as their fronts broke down and they had no stamina for the hunt. The problems became so severe that he ended up giving up on his line of hunting hounds because the heartbreak of putting down young dogs was more than he wanted to go through. I recalled seeing some of those dogs, and often commented to my husband about their structural unsoundness—unsoundness that would never be tolerated in conformation. A conformation breeder would have identified the problem and immediately set out to identify the source, and work to prevent it from coming into future puppies. We would not have been able to sacrifice the soundness of the dog for, say, its head type or hunting ability. But in lines of working dogs, they had begun to focus so much on hunting ability that they were not even able to identify where the structural unsoundness was coming from. They knew all of the ancestors only by how good they were at hunting, but the information about those horrible fronts was not found in annotated pedigrees. Sometimes what we don’t know is more important than what we know for sure.

I also pointed out that the work of dogs has evolved. In modern society, ridding urban areas of vermin is every bit as important as hunting was 100 years ago. So when the Bedlington breeders of today talk about their dogs’ skill at killing vermin, that is absolutely as valuable as the hunting work done by dogs in earlier times. Modern dogs can also be trained to do scent work for detection and rescues, and a lot of other work that could not have been imagined 200 years ago. All of these jobs are best done by well-constructed dogs that can withstand the training and rigors of modern society. As our needs have evolved, so has the work of our dogs. I concluded my post by saying, “I don’t want to hunt, and you don’t want to show your dogs, and that’s fine with me. But neither of us should assume that the others’ dogs are not fit for the alternate environments. That is not a useful division.”

To my delight, the working dog advocate admitted that I had made some good points. He still was not willing to admit that maybe some of our conformation dogs would make excellent working dogs, but he was willing to admit that focusing all efforts on a single trait at the expense of the whole dog might be a problem in working dogs. And he readily agreed that people who love dogs should not be pitted against each other. That would do none of us any good at all in preserving our breeds of choice.

I think dog breeders are beginning to see the folly in allowing others to pit us against each other. We don’t all have the same goals in mind, but we should at least respect the others’ right to exist—and maybe even learn from the differences. The AKC Museum of the Dog reflects who we can be when we are at our best. We now have to forge a path forward and do what we need to do to keep our breeds alive into the future. We can’t continue to do things the way we have always done them. That is going to require a lot less animosity and divisiveness, and a lot more creativity, thoughtfulness and inclusiveness. I personally, am more than ready to start the process of “newthink” for our breeds. Their future depends upon it. 



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