Purebred Preferences: Puppies & Veterans

From the May 2019 Issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe. Pictured above: In 1958, the Cocker Spaniel was an incomparable choice as partner in the field and playmate at home. Photos courtesy of The National Geographic Book of Dogs

This is the second article in a series that considers America’s preference for purebred dogs through the pages of a single book. This month’s literary source is The National Geographic Book of Dogs, published in 1958 by the National  Geographic Society.

It is significant that the National Geographic Society (NGS) would publish a dog book in the middle of the 20th century. Founded in 1888, the non-profit organization had established itself as a leading voice in the promotion of environmental and historical conservation. As one of the world’s largest scientific and educational organizations, the NGS popularized the natural sciences to an American readership that had only recently emerged from two World Wars and the Great Depression. As returning GIs married and had children in unprecedented numbers, their families often included a middle-class status symbol—the purebred dog. Many veterans wanted a dog like those they encountered in Europe and the Far East. Their Baby Boomer children simply wanted a puppy. So, to assist American families in their search, the NGS Book of Dogs presented the wide variety of purebreds in a historical and cultural context. This format enabled every family to find the perfect dog to help raise the kids, guard the home, help out on the farm or simply provide a little companionship.

Sporting Spaniels

During the first half of the last century, many honorably discharged servicemen exchanged their military rifle for a shotgun. The majority hunted upland birds and waterfowl, and many chose a flushing Spaniel as the most versatile companion for both types of shooting. English Springer Spaniels came to dominate at field trials, but it was the Cocker Spaniel that proved an incomparable choice as partner in the field and playmate at home. “For the type of cover found in upland hunting in the United States, the bulkier Springer is regarded by many as a better bet than the Cocker,” suggests NGS staff writer Roland Kilbon. “But fanciers of the latter breed maintain that the Cocker Spaniel, one of America’s favorite house pets, can give a good account of himself in the field.” In 1946, the American Kennel Club officially recognized the companion-bred Cocker Spaniel and the English Cocker Spaniel as separate breeds. Kilbon acknowledges the American dog’s proud hunting heritage, but reports that the “apartment-sized” breed has made its mark in America primarily as a household companion. He writes, “The smaller dog’s effervescent personality as a pet and his achievements in the show ring and field made him the United States’ most popular breed for a record 17 years.” But Kilbon forewarns readers that the merry Cocker is slow to mature. He cautions, “The affectionate, flop-eared Cocker ingratiates himself with every member of the household. Active by nature, he particularly loves to romp with children. The playful little dog does not accede to full Spaniel dignity until relatively late in life.”

The Plott Quickens

“Of all the stirring sounds in nature, none to me has a deeper elemental appeal than the bugle music of a hound pack in full cry,” Freeman Lloyd rejoices in the chapter titled, “Hark to the Hounds.” A prolific dog writer and canine historian, Lloyd celebrates the tradition of the chase as it came to be practiced in the New World. He writes, “In America the English type of fox hunting has won popularity, especially in the Middle Atlantic States where horsemen and women in smart hunting pink ride to hounds and thrill to the shout of ‘Tallyho, the fox!’” But Lloyd also describes a distinctly American form of fox hunting practiced across the South in the cool of the night. “The ‘hunters’ sit around a campfire while the chase goes on through the dark countryside around them; by the quality of the distant tonguing they follow every move in the contest of wits and speed,” he notes. “At last the fox slips into a hole and lives to run another night.” In the Book of Dogs, several night-hunting hounds are featured that were not officially recognized at the time of publication. These include the Redbone, Bluetick, Walker and Trigg Hounds. Together with the Black and Tan Coonhound (recognized in 1946), they all come down, in part, from the Foxhound. However, staff writer Howard E. Paine introduces readers to another night-hunting hound. Descended from German boar hunting dogs, the Plott Hound (known simply as the Plott today) was brought to the Great Smoky Mountains by Herr Jonathan Plott from Heidelberg, Germany, in 1750. “The Plott family still breeds the black-saddled, brindle hounds,” Paine reports. “Hunting in packs, they show unmatched grit and stamina in tracking and baying big game. Besides bear, they hunt wild boar, wolves and mountain lions.” The Plott is featured in a very dramatic photo with a caption that reads, “A chorus of howls tells the Arizona hunter his pack has treed a snarling mountain lion. These speedy, clear-voiced Plott Hounds will bay for hours, if necessary, until the hunter arrives.”

Pictured below: The Plott (Hound) hunts in packs, demonstrating unmatched grit and stamina in tracking and baying big game.

Saints Be Praised

The dominance of hunting dogs in America was impeded somewhat by an increased desire for canine companions at home. “As time passed and interest in purebred dogs of all breeds increased, this dominance of the field dogs ceased,” writes Westminster Kennel Club’s show Chairman John W. Cross, Jr. By 1924, many Non-Sporting breeds were afforded greater visibility when they were placed into the newly-created Working Group. With a competitive arena to call their own, the guarding and herding breeds experienced a surge of support from a whole new generation of dog lovers. Perhaps the most acclaimed Working breed at the time was the St. Bernard, celebrated through stories of rescue and adventure. “Since childhood I had been fascinated by tales of heroic St. Bernard dogs in the Swiss Alps,” writes contributor George Pickow whose fascination with the breed brought him on assignment to the Great St. Bernard Pass that links Italy and Switzerland. “I had heard that these huge animals would lie in the snow next to an exhausted traveler and keep him warm, while others raced for help; that one named Lion had saved 35 people; and another, Barry, had saved 40, including an unconscious child pulled from an icy ledge no man could reach.” Pickow’s interview with a hospice monk discloses one final rescue mission for Barry the Lifesaver. “There’s a story that the 41st man he found in the snow was a soldier,” shares Father Emery, the priory’s kennel manager. “He was freezing and befuddled. When he saw Barry leaping toward him, he thought he was a wolf and killed him with his sword.” However, the truth of Barry’s demise is revealed in one final tale. As the story was told to Pickow, “He worked faithfully for 12 years, and when he seemed near the end of his strength the prior sent him to Bern. He was well cared for and lived another two years.” Barry’s effigy is displayed at the hospice museum where visitors can reflect on the Saint Bernard’s legacy of hijinks and heroics.

Pictured below: Heroic tales of the St. Bernard in the Swiss Alps fascinated many young readers of the mid-1950s.


Sealyham Show Dogs

Few breeds achieved notoriety in the show ring during the first half of the 20th century as did the Sealyham Terrier. By the time the staff at the National Geographic Book Service had attended Westminster on assignment for the Book of Dogs, the Sealy had added three Garden victories to its credit. The breed’s plucky spirit and distinctive appearance had proven tailor-made for the competitive world of conformation. It also proved irresistible to Frederick Jones who wrote about the breed’s many charms. “Visiting a kennel of Sealyhams when I first began writing about dogs, I was amazed at their friendliness and captivated by their sense of comedy,” he shares. “Sealies like to be handled; they have a way of looking out of the corners of their eyes that shows they want your attention every second. The Sealy is not a large dog, but he has a big and enjoyable spirit.” Jones informs readers that the breed was developed a century earlier with the courage to stand up to the badger and otter. “But the Sealyham, for all its hunting ferocity, never lost the qualities that endear him as a pet,” he is quick to note. “That inimitable clown, the Sealyham Terrier has retained his gay sense of humor despite all efforts to make him a single-minded vermin destroyer.” Bred for pluck, yet barbered for beauty, the Sealyham Terrier is presented as an admirable companion in the home. For Americans in search of a family dog with true grit and a comic streak, the Sealy was (and is) a worthy choice. “He not only learns tricks with ease but he loves to perform them,” Jones tells readers.

Pictured below: Few breeds achieved notoriety in the show ring during the first half of the 20th century as did the Sealyham Terrier.


A Terrier in Toyland

As more and more Americans moved into the middle-class, the desire to have a dog to pamper increased along with a family’s disposable income. Many Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s welcomed one of several Toy breeds that were formerly kept only by royals. These diminutive dogs were bred down from hunting and working stock, but their sole purpose in life —then as now— was to provide companionship and be spoiled in return. Such was the case of the Yorkshire Terrier whose vigorous spirit and luxurious locks made him the perfect companion animal for many. “In the 19th century the Yorkie caught rats for millworkers in Yorkshire, England,” writes Freeman Lloyd. “He had just emerged from crosses between the Skye and other Terriers. Selective breeding reduced him in size and lengthened his coat (one dog grew hair 24 inches long!)” That steel-blue and gold coat made the breed hard to resist as a status symbol on the bench as well as in the home. According to Lloyd, “The superb coat of the Yorkshire makes him so valuable that one owner insured her pet for $25,000-$5,000 a pound. But if you asked the dog, he’d probably say his coat is nothing but a bother.” Lloyd informs readers that the breed climbed rapidly in esteem among the general public “from workingman’s ratter to aristocratic lady’s pet-during Victorian times.” In the U.S., the Yorkie caught on in fashionable circles and was a favorite among the Hollywood jet set. However, movie stars and moguls tend not to share the spotlight, so their Yorkies’ coats were usually kept short. So too were the dogs owned by the average American. “To keep him neat almost requires a valet on 24-hour duty,” Lloyds cautions. Thankfully, the breed’s companionable nature has never been dependent on the length of its hair to bring happiness into the home.

Pictured below: A half-century ago, the Yorkshire Terrier’s vigorous spirit and luxurious locks made it the darling of Hollywood.

The Dapper Dal

Not every mid-century American family wanted a dog to spoil. For every home that welcomed a Terrier or a Toy, there was another waiting to open its door to a larger dog that could keep up with growing children. When English author Dodie Smith published her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1956 (followed five years later by the release of Disney’s animated film One Hundred and One Dalmatians), one breed that dates from the Tudor period instantly found favor in homes on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Merle Severy, founder of NGS’s book division, the first written mention of the Dalmatian was made by the pen of an Elizabethan writer: “There is also at this day among us a newe kinde of dogge brought out of Fraunce (for we Englishe men are marvailous greedy gaping gluttons after novelties, and covetous cormoraunted of things that are seldom, rare, straunge, and hard to get). And they bee speckled all over with white and black, which mingled colours inclined to a marble blewe, which bewtiyeth their skinnes and affordeth a seemly show of comlynesse.” In England, the Dalmatian had earned its keep as a coach dog. But in America, the breed accompanied horse-drawn fire engines. Mr. Severy points out, however, that the breed “showed versatility as draft dog, shepherd, pointer, tracking hound, retriever, and ratter.” Such versatility was not lost on the American public. As Severy emphasizes, “Many talents indeed, but they were stock in trade to the intelligent, easily trained dog whose sprightly costume and memory for tricks well fit him to play showman and clown.” The Dalmatian seemed the perfect children’s companion for many in the days when mothers managed the household full-time. As Severy summarizes, “His alert mind and the quiet reserve of the Dalmatian character makes him a sensible, dependable family dog, friendly but courteous, playful but protective.”

Pictured below: Originally a coach dog, the versatile Dalmatian has always been associated with horses.

The Policeman’s Partner

Another canine protector proved to be an indispensable partner not only in the home, but also in the public sphere. “Today’s handsome, intelligent German Shepherd is a highly refined composite of several herding types of centuries ago,” writes Edward J. Linehan. “The [breed’s] remarkable record on police patrol and World War I battlefield made worldwide attention inevitable.” The NGS staff writer reports that in the mid-1920s, every third dog registered in the U.S. was a German Shepherd. But the breed’s meteoric rise in popularity dwindled during WWII when its name was changed in Britain to Alsatian. It is a testament to the German Shepherd’s character that it managed to survive during this period when fewer than 800 individuals were registered. In 1958, the Book of Dogs featured the breed prominently as a representative of AKC’s Working Group. (The German Shepherd was moved to the newly-created Herding Group in 1983.) As the conformity of the 1950s gave way to the tumult of the ‘60s, the breed’s versatility again came to the fore. However, its usefulness as a police dog was exploited during the Civil Rights Movement. Things were changing rapidly in America, and the role of the purebred dog in society was about to change with it. 

Pictured below: The popularity of the German Shepherd Dog has endured two world wars and more than one social upheaval.

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