All about the Purebred Dog

by Linda J Shaw
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In my last post, I included several pictures of dogs taken more or less at random. They show the weak, over-angulated hindquarters that are so common. These dogs were not simply posed badly.  They were standing on their own, and I waited for them to walk themselves into a decent stance. They didn’t. They couldn’t. Many of these dogs went Select.

I was beginning to think I was wasting my time, when I spotted a very nice female who turned out to be the Winners Female. Whatever position she took, she looked good. I’ve always thought that it is hard to take a bad picture of a good dog, and this bitch proved it. She was clean from every direction. She didn’t sag to the ground while standing informally. She moved beautifully with a strong, clean, suspended gait. Remember suspension? That feature of the breed that the over-angulated dog is incapable of achieving? She didn’t overextend, or pop her head in the effort to throw her forehand a mile beyond her nose. She didn’t drag her feet, or flat foot her way around the ring. She was absolutely the most correct dog in the ring. I think she was last place Select. She should have been Grand Victrix.

Unfortunately, a really good dog will always look underdone when in the ring with extreme dogs. They don’t have the exaggerated stride length, so they appear short-strided by comparison. They don’t have the extremely sloping topline or steep croup, so they look higher in the rear. Judges hate that, at least some do. Plus so many specialty dogs are over-sized; the bigger the dog, the longer the legs and the longer the stride. And because the over-done dogs cannot suspend, they resort to speed. The result is all the flash that so many judges reward, and audiences love. It takes a really brave judge to put up a correct dog. It’s too bad judges don’t have the six to eight hours of gaiting that would leave the extreme dogs struggling and the correct dogs still working.

Fortunately I was able to spend time in the ring with this female, getting reference photos of her standing and gaiting. Informal or posed, she always looked good.

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by Linda J Shaw
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This year I decided to see the German Shepherd Dog Club of Canada’s National Specialty, or at least part of it. I hadn’t been in years, and the first thing I saw was a large, mostly empty parking lot. I remember there being a lot more cars last time. Wretched weather could account for some of that, but this was the day the specials were judged. Walking into the arena, I could see the stands were mostly empty. Scanning the intrepid souls who had turned out, it occurred to me that in ten years or so this show will be hosted on the grounds of Shady Acres Retirement Home. The entry wasn’t impressive either: 27 males and 18 females I believe. I didn’t see the males, but the females were mostly a reiteration of the extreme theme of the last thirty years. See pictures below.

The show itself is, and always has been, a lovely show, with a beautiful sod ring and all the trimmings. It has always seemed very well organized. A lot of people spend a lot of time and effort putting on a very professional presentation, but I wonder if they ever step back and look at the big picture that is looming over them.

Recent economic conditions have certainly taken their toll. Things are improving of course, but the price of oil is not coming down. The cost of showing dogs is considerable, and will only increase, especially in a big country like Canada.

The sport of showing dogs followed the fortunes of the Baby Boomers. As the boomers’ affluence expanded they could afford the space, time and expense of raising large dogs. People entering their golden years naturally tend to downsize. Younger people are not so attracted to a hobby that is so consuming of time and cash.

The breed itself is no longer the splendid animal that the Boomers inherited. The breeders, handlers and judges of the last thirty years seem to have become oblivious to how the breed appears to everyone else. It has become a long, low, slinky, in-bred looking creature, not the powerful, upstanding dog that built the breed’s reputation.

So, it is hardly surprising that interest in showing the breed is withering, and it’s not about to turn around any time soon.

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by Linda J Shaw

Purebred dogs, ever since Victorian days and the beginnings of kennel clubs, registries and conformation shows, have been viewed as genetic islands. Every single breed, as soon as it comes under the authority of a Western kennel club,  is treated as a discreet, isolated, unique population which is never permitted to interact with any other population. The idea is that the registry will oversee the improvement of the race, by preventing any polluting influence by any other race. I believe this is called eugenics.

genetic map 1Like the diagram as left, each breed is a different pool of color that never overlaps with any other.

It’s also not very smart. If a breed has a very broad gene pool and several different viable families, it’s doable. But under the current system of rewarding top winning show dogs with increasing shares of breedings, and the relentless insistence on uniformity of type, genetic variability inevitably declines.

In the past, prior to dog shows, farmers or hunters or landowners selected breeding partners, not on their superficial appearance, but on their ability to fulfill a purpose. Bitches were bred to males that had proven their abiltiy as ratters, or herders, or hunters or whatever.  The bulk of the population could be said to be of the same breed or type, more because of geographic isolation than breeders’ intentions, but the edges were fuzzy. If a hunter wanted to improve the scenting ability of his bird dogs, he might cross in a suitable hound. If a farmer wanted to increase the power of his terriers, he might cross in a bit of bulldog blood. All breeds are the result of crossing both accidental and intentional. Stephanitz, the founder of the German shepherd dog, combined several very different types of European herding and farm dog to come up with a type that combined most of the best qualities of all of them.

genetic map 2This produced healthy, useful dogs with open pedigrees and hybrid vigor. Their appearance would be more variable, but isn’t this preferable to animals that look like clones, are prone to breed specific diseases and problems resulting from inbreeding?

The second diagram illustrates an alternative view of purebred dog populations, with boundaries that are permeable and allow for intermittant, selective crossing with qualified individuals that can bring in needed characteristics and hybrid vigor.

This is already being done with good results. A brilliant English breeder of Dalmations crossed in purebred Pointer to successfully correct a common genetic deficiency in the production of uric acid, but the Kennel Club didn’t make it easy for her.  And breeders of police and military dogs have been crossing Malinois and Dutch and German shepherds to come up with effective service dogs without the health issues common to these breeds.

If the kennel clubs don’t accommodate intelligent breeders who are seriously looking to improve their dogs, and wish to cross out to suitable dogs of other, likely related, breeds, then it’s probable that they will go ahead and do it on their own. The current practise of continually in breeding the same families over and over is ultimately a genetic dead end.





by Linda J Shaw

A reader sent me this. Something anyone who professes to love dogs should think about:

When I was a puppy, I entertained you with my antics and made you laugh. You called me your child, and despite a number of chewed shoes and a couple of murdered throw pillows, I became your best friend. Whenever I was “bad,” you’d shake your finger at me and ask “How could you?” — but then you’d relent and roll me over for a bellyrub.

My housebreaking took a little longer than expected, because you were terribly busy, but we worked on that together. I remember those nights of nuzzling you in bed and listening to your confidences and secret dreams, and I believed that life could not be any more perfect.

We went for long walks and runs in the park, car rides, stops for ice cream (I only got the cone because “ice cream is bad for dogs” you said), and I took long naps in the sun waiting for you to come home at the end of the day.

Gradually, you began spending more time at work and on your career, and more time searching for a human mate. I waited for you patiently, comforted you through heartbreaks and disappointments, never chided you about bad decisions, and romped with glee at your homecomings, and when you fell in love.

She, now your wife, is not a “dog person” — still I welcomed her into our home, tried to show her affection, and obeyed her. I was happy because you were happy. Then the human babies came along and I shared your excitement. I was fascinated by their pinkness, how they smelled, and I wanted to mother them, too. Only she and you worried that I might hurt them, and I spent most of my time banished to another room, or to a dog crate.

Oh, how I wanted to love them, but I became a “prisoner of love.” As they began to grow, I became their friend. They clung to my fur and pulled themselves up on wobbly legs, poked fingers in my eyes, investigated my ears, and gave me kisses on my nose. I loved everything about them and their touch — because your touch was now so infrequent — and I would’ve defended them with my life if need be. I would sneak into their beds and listen to their worries and secret dreams, and together we waited for the sound of your car in the driveway. There had been a time, when others asked you if you had a dog, that you produced a photo of me from your wallet and told them stories about me.

These past few years, you just answered “yes” and changed the subject. I had gone from being “your dog” to “just a dog,” and you resented every expenditure on my behalf. Now, you have a new career opportunity in another city, and you and they will be moving to an apartment that does not allow pets. You’ve made the right decision for your “family,” but there was a time when I was your only family.

I was excited about the car ride until we arrived at the animal shelter. It smelled of dogs and cats, of fear, of hopelessness. You filled out the paperwork and said “I know you will find a good home for her.” They shrugged and gave you a pained look. They understand the realities facing a middle-aged dog, even one with “papers.” You had to pry your son’s fingers loose from my collar as he screamed “No, Daddy! Please don’t let them take my dog!” And I worried for him, and what lessons you had just taught him about friendship and loyalty, about love and responsibility, and about respect for all life.

You gave me a good-bye pat on the head, avoided my eyes, and politely refused to take my collar and leash with you. You had a deadline to meet and now I have one, too. After you left, the two nice ladies said you probably knew about your upcoming move months ago and made no attempt to find me another good home. They shook their heads and asked “How could you?”

They are as attentive to us here in the shelter as their busy schedules allow. They feed us, of course, but I lost my appetite days ago. At first, whenever anyone passed my pen, I rushed to the front, hoping it was you that you had changed your mind — that this was all a bad dream… or I hoped it would at least be someone who cared, anyone who might save me.

When I realized I could not compete with the frolicking for attention of happy puppies, oblivious to their own fate, I retreated to a far corner and waited. I heard her footsteps as she came for me at the end of the day, and I padded along the aisle after her to a separate room. A blissfully quiet room. She placed me on the table and rubbed my ears, and told me not to worry. My heart pounded in anticipation of what was to come, but there was also a sense of relief. The prisoner of love had run out of days.

As is my nature, I was more concerned about her. The burden which she bears weighs heavily on her, and I know that, the same way I knew your every mood. She gently placed a tourniquet around my foreleg as a tear ran down her cheek. I licked her hand in the same way I used to comfort you so many years ago. She expertly slid the hypodermic needle into my vein. As I felt the sting and the cool liquid coursing through my body, I lay down sleepily, looked into her kind eyes and murmured “How could you?”

Perhaps because she understood my dogspeak, she said “I’m so sorry.” She hugged me, and hurriedly explained it was her job to make sure I went to a better place, where I wouldn’t be ignored or abused or abandoned, or have to fend for myself — a place of love and light so very different from this earthly place. And with my last bit of energy, I tried to convey to her with a thump of my tail that my “How could you?” was not directed at her.

It was directed at you, My Beloved Master, I was thinking of you. I will think of you and wait for you forever. May everyone in your life continue to show you so much loyalty.

~ © Copyright 2001 Jim Willis ~

A Note from the Author: If “How Could You?” brought tears to your eyes as you read it, as it did to mine as I wrote it, it is because it is the composite story of the millions of formerly “owned” pets who die each year in American and Canadian animal shelters. Please use this to help educate, on your websites, in newsletters, on animal shelter and vet office bulletin boards. Tell the public that the decision to add a pet to the family is an important one for life, that animals deserve our love and sensible care, that finding another appropriate home for your animal is your responsibility and any local humane society or animal welfare league can offer you good advice, and that all life is precious. Please do your part to stop the killing, and encourage all spay & neuter campaigns in order to prevent unwanted animals.

by Linda J Shaw

Just when I was beginning to get ambulatory, my elderly mother passed suddenly and I was pitched into settling her affairs, renovating an old house for sale, and packing up for a move to a new place. Today is literally the first day in almost a year that my time has been my own. There is still much to do in the next few months, but hopefully I will be able to update this site more regularly. I have several illustrated articles that had to be put on hold, and once my studio/office is unpacked and functioning I will be able to complete them.

In the meantime, I have been thinking about how GSDs, or any pure breed for that matter, is generally selected for breeding. The conformation show is the primary vehicle for determining suitability for breeding. Whether American or British or FCI, they are all pretty much the same – the dogs are selected on the basis of how they look. Some clubs, like the SV, make an attempt to raise the bar a bit higher, and many private breeders institute additional screening processes for hips, eyes, genetic diseases or whatever. But it is the conformation show ring where the money is, where the big titles and trophies are doled out, where the cameras and sponsorship and public attention is trained. It has become entertainment, high theatre, where announcers breathlessly await the flourishes of well dressed judges, to the thunderous applause of audiences who wouldn’t know a working dog from a baboon.

For years after I got into the breed, I would hear that the purpose of showing and breeding was to improve the breed. Forty years later I can think of no breed that has been improved by the show ring. You would think that after forty years and no progress, breed clubs would figure out that the system isn’t working very well, and find a better way to screen breeding animals. But people love theatre, and the show ring isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So if I could wave the magic wand and do only two things, these two things are what I would change:

I would like to see conformation judges banned from uttering the phrase “work ethic”. A dog’s willingness to run around a ring has absoluletly nothing to do with real work ethic. I don’t think a conformation judge should be allowed to comment on any dog’s temperament, that he or she has not seen work, really work. They can say it’s a nice dog, that it seemed stable or approachable at that time, or that it showed specific weaknesses, but real working temperament cannot be judged in a show ring. How many times have I seen “great work ethic!” in ads or on web sites for dogs that have never been properly tested for anything. A breed judge is doing the breed no favours when he attaches unqualified praise like this to a dog that may or may not deserve it.

The other thing I would do is ban handlers from touching their dogs. No prodding, posing, poking or brushing. If the dog is not ready for the ring, it’s too late once it’s inside. No more pulling the hindquarter into the weird artifical pose that has evolved over the decades.  If a dog is over angulated and cannot pull itself into a decent stance, or if it sinks its stifles (knees) into the grass, so be it. If the dog is roached backed and stands hunched up like a turtle, leave it be.  A well structured dog will always look good.  Train it to show itself as well as it can, bait it into a standing position when the judge needs to see it, but let the dog show itself.  Make the dog show about the dog and not the show.




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