You probably think I am going to lament the quality of the dogs I saw at the Basset National, but you would be wrong. Actually the quality of show dogs is pretty good right now, even in the Veteran and Field classes. Could things be better? Of course, but that hasn’t changed for as long as I have been showing dogs. Is the breed becoming rare? No. Actually it is so popular they are even making television commercials about how to hook up with fellow Basset owners with Facebook Groups for a Basset play date. The breed is relatively healthy, and most AKC breeders are participating in health and DNA testing. So what’s wrong with the breed?
It’s not the breed itself that’s in trouble, it’s the future of Bassets within the world of dog shows that’s in trouble. The current crop of breeders and exhibitors is aging, and we are not replacing ourselves with young people who want to show this breed. I think the average age of the people who attended the National this year in Denver was about 65. We had few young exhibitors and only two Juniors entered this year. Many baby-boom breeders have already retired or will be retiring soon. Most are not mentoring new breeders. National entries that had been 400-500 just a few years ago are now between 150-250. Bassets will soon become a rare breed in the world of AKC dog shows, though still quite popular with the public. Breeders can easily sell as many puppies as they can produce.
In many ways I understand why young people don’t want to take on this particular breed. It’s not flashy, it has a reputation for being difficult to breed, and they are a challenge to train. Nothing about the breed, except for their grooming and daily maintenance, is easy. Junior handlers don’t want to show dogs that are not as likely to get them the wins they want when they can just as easily find a Golden, a Dobe or a Shorthair Pointer. Handlers like to have Bassets in their line-up because they are easy keepers, but they don’t want to breed them. So for now the world of commercial and backyard breeders is supplying the huge demand for puppies in this this breed.
Personally, I think what is happening in Bassets is an indicator of some of the issues that plague the entire conformation showing world. There is such a disconnect between what we do in our competitions, and what the wider public wants or sees as valuable. They like to watch Westminster once every year–just like the Miss America pageant. But they don’t honestly see themselves owning one of those fancy dogs. The pet buying public loves Bassets because of their temperament and ease of care, but it is like pulling teeth to try to convince any of them to show their dog. They don’t understand why it’s necessary. They love their puppies even if they never win a ribbon.
I love the push the AKC is making towards explaining why preservation breeding is important, and encouraging more breeders to produce more litters. But the elephant in the room is still the conformation breeders’ insistence that they are somehow holy because they don’t make money on their dogs. Many bought into that notion as though it is a badge of courage and commitment. If they don’t breed their dogs to make money, then they must be doing it right. Their dogs are worthy because they were not bred to produce a profit. Not only does that silly idea give breeders an excuse for breeding only one or two litters every other year, but it also provides cover for breeders who continue to breed dogs that cannot reproduce easily on their own, or that have structural issues that require a lot of human intervention. Of course you won’t make a lot of money if you have to spend nearly everything you earn from puppy sales on vet bills to keep the puppies alive. That is not a sustainable economic system.
I have said before, and it needs repeating. If you can’t make enough money on the sale of your puppies to cover your expenses, then something is wrong with your breeding program. Maybe you need to reevaluate the viability of your brood bitches, or price your puppies better. Maybe you need to breed more puppies. Maybe you should not breed bad mothers just because you think they’re beautiful. Maybe you need to do an honest reassessment of your breeding program. Maybe it’s not good for your breed to keep breeding bad mothers. Maybe you can stop assuming that things must be done the way you’ve always done them, and start a conversation within breed clubs about the long-term health of breeding toward extremes in conformation dogs.
I found in my own line of Bassets, that a bitch’s ability to reproduce, carry puppies full term, whelp easily and properly care for their puppies was being passed along genetically, not unlike physical traits I was breeding for–like a well-laid back shoulder. When I decided to cut off the branch of my family tree that was passing along the genetic inability to whelp and nurse naturally, I did it to make my life easier. I was tired of hand-raising puppies. But it did not occur to me until much later, that my experiment to line breed on good reproductive traits was also good for the breed’s survival, though I admit I lost some breed type in the first and second generations. As I began to breed the better mothers I became more confident that the people who were wanting to breed a Basset for the first time would have a good experience without a lot of outside intervention or extra cost. They could enjoy the experience and their new babies without constant worry that the puppies were going to die. I don’t know too many people who could afford to stay with a new mother 24/7 for two full weeks and still make a decent living. Yet that’s what we Basset breeders were expecting our potential new breeders to commit to. And if they didn’t, then they could not have one of our precious bitches. The only option we left them with was to spay or neuter their puppies or breed the way we want them to breed. And now we’re wondering why we cannot attract more people into breeding and showing conformation Bassets. What have we done to encourage them? We tell them it will be very hard and time-consuming, and they will not make any money on the puppies. What a deal!
We are in different times. The dogs are not irrelevant, but we are becoming irrelevant, and we’ve only got ourselves to blame. People want dogs, and they want to do stuff with their dogs. They want healthy dogs, but they have not been educated to understand how line-breeding can sometimes be used to enhance healthy genetics. Some breeds have been changed so much that they can no longer reproduce naturally, and some have physical structures that make them unsound in many climates. Humans have always manipulated animals and plants with selective breeding, and that by itself is not bad. It has brought us the predicable nature of many of our purpose-bred dogs. But we have also had the propensity to take some of the changes to ridiculous extremes, and these extremes are now threatening the existence of some breeds. Dog breeders are not alone in this push to extremes. One quick look at Arabian horses over the past 50 years will tell the same story. If a little is good, more must be better!
I think conformation breeders ignore some of the Animal Rights complaints about us at our own peril. They are making a pretty simple argument to the public. Breeders breed extreme looks without regard to overall health and welfare. Sometimes we really do sacrifice our breed’s overall health and welfare for our changing ideas of what makes a dog typey. Stroll through the Museum of the Dog and you will see the remarkable changes that have taken place in some breeds in the past 100 years, while other breeds have remained remarkably similar. No one could show a Bulldog today if it looked like the Bulldogs at the turn of the last century, but some of the smooth fox terriers from that era would be able to compete just fine at today’s shows.
I think we need to start discussing the financial impact of breeding without being embarrassed. We should be charging enough money for our puppies to keep our breeding programs going, and we should stop believing that profiting from the sales of our dogs is somehow evil. We work hard. We produce a valuable product that is very much in demand, and we should be financially rewarded for our work. That’s about as American as a concept can get–work hard and get paid. I think people are honestly shocked when I report that to date in 2019 I have grossed more than $20,000 from puppy sales alone, and that only required me to sell eight Bedlington puppies for $2,500 each. Two litters. Do I also have some expenses? Of course! And some years are better than others. This year I had some major veterinary expenses, but at least I had the revenue to cover them. One breeder I know puts aside the sale amount from one puppy in each litter to cover expenses for the next breeding. You may not be able to predict exactly how many sales you will have, but some form of budgeting is advisable.
Breeding more healthy and viable dogs will keep breeders relevant. The public is slowly getting the message that predictable is good, and rescues are often unhealthy and always unpredictable. I don’t know if this will save dog shows, but it sure won’t hurt the market for our purebreds. And as numbers of well-bred purebreds increase, maybe a resurgence in the willingness to participate in the judging of livestock will also return. Then we just need to clean-up the dog show image of being political beauty pageants. But that’s another story.