All the breeds in the Sporting Group were developed for a specific hunting function in a specific geographical locale. The type of coat that each breed possesses reflects this hunting heritage and the geographical location where the breed was developed. As a result, some breeds have longer coats and others, shorter coat. For example, the six Retriever breeds have amongst them breeds that require longer coat, short coat, curly coat, and straight coat. In the more than 40 years that I have been involved in the Sport of Dogs, we have seen a number of changes in the presentation of nearly all breeds in the Group.
Accompanying this article are photos of big winners from the late 1960s to more recently. Take a few moments to look at the comparisons. It’s very interesting to see some of the top winners in various breeds and the differences in coat and presentation over the years.
While there will always be an evolutionary process over time in each breed, a question asked by many serious breeders is whether or not all of the changes are for the betterment of the breed. It can be legitimately argued that changes in coat preparation are, at least partially, the result of two things—the now-common use of the strong blow drier and the wide range of grooming preparations that change the texture of the coat and allow the groomer to hold the coat in place, once applied, in addition to permitting other more sophisticated grooming techniques. Some would say that changes in grooming over time can be considered extreme in some breeds.
The “whys” of this are of interest. Many say that, in the rush to win, professional handlers, breeder-owners, and owner-handlers alike do whatever they can to enhance the appearance of their charges in hopes of increasing their chances of winning. Some of the “tricks of the trade” are aimed at making the dogs look more appealing, whereas others were developed to try to hide imperfections in the dogs’ conformation. These tricks are used on short- and long-coated dogs alike, and involve both cosmetic “enhancements” and changed handling techniques. Though professional handlers may have started some of these trends, amateur handlers have been quick to follow the pros’ lead in the quest to win. As a result of this perceived need, grooming techniques sometimes don’t follow the requirements of the breed’s Standard. It is interesting to note that, at least technically, many of these techniques are also illegal under current AKC rules. However, these rules are very rarely enforced.
There is another presentation phenomenon that has appeared in the last 20 years or so and does not seem to vary much from breed to breed (or Group to Group, for that matter); one that, personally, I find particularly displeasing. This is the tendency to race dogs around the ring at speeds that are far too fast for the construction and original intent of the breed. We have all seen the spectacle of the Cocker Spaniel keeping up with the Irish Setter or the Sussex moving around the ring at a speed that keeps pace with the English Springer Spaniel. Why people seem to think that feet flying in the air—especially the rear legs—equates with good movement is something I cannot understand.
Good, efficient gait is not the same for all breeds, and all breeds should not be moved in the same way. For that matter, not every dog within a specific breed moves properly at the same speed. Correct speed is dependent on the construction of the individual dog as it meets the requirements of its breed standard.
The Sussex and Clumber were bred to be a (sometimes senior) sporting gentleman’s hunting companion afoot. The dog should move at a moderate speed, showing
good reach and drive. The Clumber Standard reads, “Because of his wide body and short legs he tends to roll slightly.” Further, “The gait is comfortable and can be maintained at a steady trot for a day of work without exhaustion.” The rolling topline that is undesirable in some Sporting breeds is desired in the Clumber. The Sussex is typically lower to the ground than the Clumber and, again, the breed’s Standard notes that it has a typical “rolling gait” and moves deliberately, though “is in no sense clumsy.” No racing for either of these breeds.
Several Sporting Breed Standards ask that the dog be, as the Golden Retriever Standard states, “…moved on a loose lead to reflect true gait.” Yet many handlers (professional and amateur alike) hold their charges on quite a tight, short lead, often leading to movement faults in the forequarters as the dog is pulled off-balance from his natural stride. The really clever handler will know the requirements of the breed’s standard and adjust speed to what is best for that individual dog. In Sporting dogs, generally, endurance is more important than racing ability.
Another change is the accepted method for stacking, both in general and for many of the individual breeds in the Group. Baiting was not done with any of the current frequency 40 years ago; just a few times to show the judge the dog’s expression. Bait was rarely thrown in most breeds and, when it was, it was retrieved before moving on so as not to distract other dogs. Stacked dogs were “top and tailed” with the head and tail held, often from a kneeling position. Nowadays, baiting is universal and dogs are, seemingly, almost constantly baited. It sometimes seems to the uninitiated that the purpose of showing is to feed the dog! Further, the baiting keeps the ears erect on, top of the head at all times. This is even true for breeds that mandate specific placement of the ears. Goldens, for example, should have ears that are set about on a level with the corner of the eye; but when you look at the Golden ring, the ears are almost always erect and it’s the rare judge that asks to see the ears at rest. How can anyone tell if the dog’s ear set is correct?
In many Sporting breeds today, dogs are stacked with the front legs placed far forward on the body, sometimes even under the neck, and the rear legs are stretched way out behind the dog. This was not practiced years ago, especially with breed standards that call for a level backline. Sweeping rears with extreme angulation are often seen now, though this very often eliminates the desired bend of stifle of many breeds. Seeing a Brittany, for example, stacked well out behind is almost comical in a breed that warns us not to judge angulation standing—but only when moving—since most Brittanys appear to lack angulation when stacked. Over-stretching certainly minimizes the desired square outline of the breed. Again, I wonder why this practice has become standard, often to the detriment of the dog’s conformation. Don’t agree? Stack your dog in front of a mirror and take a good look at how you are presenting him to the judge—from the judge’s perspective. Is that what you really want? Remember that some return of the upper arm, so that the front legs are beneath the withers, is usually desirable.
An example: When I first started showing my Golden Retrievers, the accepted method of stacking the dog for examination was to “top and tail” him, place the front feet well under him below the withers, with the rear feet just behind the back of the dog so that a line drawn down from the buttocks to the feet would pass just in front of the toes. Then, the head was held forward of the body and the tail was held straight out and behind the dog with, at most, a slightly upward curve.
Little baiting was involved, the dog’s backline was level as called for in the standard. Nearly constant baiting, done so that the head is held high with an exaggerated arch (too often with the neck over the withers), creating the look of a straight front (lacking proper angulation) was never done. This changed in the later 1970s when a professional handler showing an outstanding bitch, but one with a rather plain head and low-set ears, started standing or kneeling in front of her and baiting her almost constantly so that her ears were erect and framing her head nearly always, improving the look. She started to do some serious winning, including a National Specialty BOS and BOB, and multiple Groups. As a result, many exhibitors started mimicking this baiting, thinking it would make their dogs win as well—even if the dog already had a very correct head and expression. Soon, everyone was doing it whether it improved the dog or not. The practice continues today. I know this story is true, for it was my bitch.
It is always interesting to compare photos of top-winning dogs of the same breed whose wins are years or even decades apart. For example, Ch. Sagamore Toccoa, a big-winning Cocker Spaniel in the ‘70s, won the Sporting Group at Westminster in 1973. When compared to GCh. Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction, the 2011 winner at the same show, there are differences in presentation and the way the dogs are trimmed. Take nothing away from either dog; both are outstanding examples of their breed. However, over time, some of the words of the Breed Standard are ignored.
The Standard says: “The ears, chest, abdomen and legs are well feathered, but not so excessively as to hide the Cocker Spaniel’s true lines and movement, or affect his appearance and function as a moderately coated sporting dog. Excessive coat…shall be severely penalized. Trimming to enhance the dog’s true lines should be done to appear as natural as possible.” The accepted trim for a Cocker Spaniel today results in a dog with much more coat than in the past.
To be fair, it should be noted that in the minds of exhibitors, the definition of “excessive coat” has changed over time. The allowed additional coat of today developed over many years. I remember “Toccoa” was criticized by some as having an excessive coat. “Beckham” carried no more coat than nearly all of the other Cockers being shown. Still, the changes over time are interesting to note.
Coat preparation has certainly changed in the last 40 years. Look at the Golden photos. Drawing on my experience in Golden Retrievers, when I started showing in 1971, standard ring preparation consisted of some trimming of the feet, ears, and tail and, perhaps, a minimal bit of coat removal when there was an excess in some areas of the body, and a bath the day before the show. The dog was dried while wrapped in a towel to hold the coat flat against the body so that it would appear straight and wrap the body when dry. At shows, a bit of final, minor trimming might be done, and a light spray of a coat conditioner like Full Bloom might be brushed into the coat. Powder was occasionally used on wet or dirty leg and tail feathering, but carefully brushed-out before going into the ring. That was it. Total grooming time at the shows was anywhere from ten to twenty minutes.
Today, the dog is kept standing on the table for at least an hour—and often longer—while it is wet-down and then dried with a strong blow drier that fluffs-up the coat so that it stands away from the body. Various grooming products are applied to hold the coat in its fluffed-up position and to sculpt a smooth outline to create the look of an arched neck and excellently angulated front assembly with a level backline—whether or not this reflects the actual structure of the dog. As with all breeds, the idea is to fool the judge’s eye into thinking the dog has it all. The wise judge uses his hands to confirm that what appears to be there is actually in place. Look at the two Goldens in the photos. Quite some evolution!
The Golden is certainly not the only Retriever or Sporting dog to receive this treatment. Not only are nearly all the coated breeds in the Group carefully sculpted, but even the short-coated Labrador Retriever’s tails are also routinely fluffed to create the correct “otter tail” that is desired, whether it is actually there or not. Changes in grooming presentation are true in nearly every hairy gundog, the Brittany being, in general, one exception. The German Wired Pointer and the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon have seen some changes as well. I recall one breed comparison judges’ seminar where a professional handler took an untrimmed Griffon and groomed it so that it became an acceptable German Wirehaired Pointer. No, the two breeds are not that similar, but grooming can make them appear to be.
Setters have seen their share of changes too. Over time, grooming presentation has changed from a more natural look to one that is more stylized, with perfectly trimmed underlines creating an outline that may—or may not—reflect what is beneath the coat. As with every breed, these changes did not occur overnight but are a gradual evolution of grooming styles over time, often started by a clever handler wanting to emphasize or de-emphasize a particular aspect of a dog. If the animal wins, others will copy and a trend begins, eventually becoming the accepted method
Stacking Setters has changed over time as well. What might appear as an exaggerated slope of topline is often seen in the Irish Setter. The Standard says, “Topline of body from withers to tail should be firm and incline slightly downward without a sharp drop of the croup.” The sweeping rears most often seen today have changed also. The Standard asks for a “well angulated stifle,” though stacking as it is often done now takes much away from the angulation, making the rear look straight. Is this the picture that is desired? Even the less stylized Gordon Setter has changed. Look at the photos; much straighter lines on the underline of the more recent dog.
Like the other Sporting dogs, Spaniels have seen changes in the way they are presented. Why take a dog that moves with ease and proper breed-typical reach and drive at a slightly slower speed and move him faster so that the feet fly in the air? A hunting dog moved at that speed would surely tire quickly and become useless. So, why do we do it so frequently in the show ring?
Spaniels, with their long coat, come in for some serious grooming preparation for the show ring, and there certainly have been striking changes over time. As shown today, nearly all the Spaniels require a good deal of grooming and trimming to accomplish the accepted ring presentation. If we can grow more hair on the dog, we do it! There are very specific breed standards that describe trimming requirements that vary from breed to breed. Even breeds whose standards read like the Sussex’s statement that “no trimming is acceptable except to shape foot feather, or to remove feather between the pads or between the hock and feet. Feather between the toes must be left in sufficient length to cover the nails” are routinely and fairly heavily trimmed. The Sussex is supposed to be a wash-and-wear dog, according to the standard. Yes, adhering to this requirement is probably less practiced today than in years past.
The English Springer Spaniel Standard gives specifics on trimming the breed, noting that it is “legitimate to trim” specified areas of the dog. However, it adds, “Overtrimming, especially the body coat, or any chopped, barbered or artificial effect is to be penalized in the show ring, as is excessive feathering that destroys the clean outline desirable in a Sporting dog. Correct quality and condition of coat is to take precedence over quality of coat.” Compare the photos of the 1971 and ‘72 Best in Show winner at Westminster, Ch. Chinoe’s Adamant James, to the 2007 winner, Ch. Felicity’s Diamond Jim. The changes on the overall look and presentation of the two dogs is apparent. Without commenting on its correctness, there seems little question that the more modern dog is presented in a stylized manner.
Finally, it seems to me that when I started judging nearly 30 years ago, many of the dogs were in much harder physical condition. Today, far too many suffer from the soft backlines and soft thighs that come from a lack of conditioning. Yes, most show dogs are not hunted and so they don’t get the same exercise as those that are, but they still can receive enough exercise to maintain reasonable condition. Coats are regularly conditioned. Why not the
So, have these changes been a benefit to their respective breeds or are they harming those breeds? You decide.
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2013 Dogs in Review magazine.