By Gregory Clark, December 3, 1932
The difference between a dog show and a baby show is that the mothers are not trying to sell their babies and, as a rule, the dog fanciers are.
“What strikes you most forcibly as you walk through the aisles of stalls at the dog show is the tense, anxious and absorbed air of the ladies sitting on the edges of the kennels beside their pets. It is the deadly seriousness of the men standing guard over their dogs.
The smaller the dogs, the greater the seriousness. The men with the police dogs and bloodhounds are almost cheery. Down the line the cheeriness departs, until you come to the Bostons, the Pekes and the tiny toy dogs. And there you find ladies, as a rule, and they wear an air of almost tragic despair.
That is the most comic part of a dog show.
But there is a good deal of comedy about the dog business, both visible and unseen.
To be a good breeder of dogs to win prizes at shows, you must be a good poker player, a first-class politician and a real smart barber.
In fact, barbering may be the first requisite. By clipping, plucking and otherwise hairdressing a wire-haired terrier or a spaniel, you can disguise his bow legs, his weak chin, his funny back, his splay feet and any other defect with which mature may have endowed him. Go to a dog show and see the wire-haired terriers with their stiff, thick little legs, their extraordinary square heads and beards like a Scottish divine, and then go home and look sadly at your own wire hair.
There is not even faint resemblance between the average pure-bred wire hair you see on the streets and the one that takes the prize at the dog show. What is the difference? Just barbering.
Underneath all that primping and manicuring may be in your homely terrier a better dog, from every true standard of dog breeding, than the terrier that won the ribbons.
A handler of dogs at shows told me cold-bloodedly that it was a common practice for the show people to trim a poor little dog’s toe-nails so close to the quick a few days before the show, that he was forced to walk delicately and mincingly with that sprightly and dainty trend, so as to spare his poor, paining feet.
Is it possible that judges cannot see these tricks and throw out the dogs that are dressed for the show ring by trickery? As a matter of fact, the days of trickery are fast vanishing. A few years ago, the dog show business was based almost completely on commercialism. The winning of ribbons was part of the business of selling dogs for high prices. The most incredible things were done to dogs. Distorted breeds were made popular, toy breeds were bred to look like frogs or golliwogs, bulldogs were so “altered,” as they say, that they could scarcely breathe; Bostons had their eyes popped right out of their heads, little terriers had hair grown on them so that the poor little critter underneath it all was like a frail little man wearing a Santa Claus suit all year round.
What About the Show Dog?
Today, the whole sentiment has swung. The much-abused police dog is evidence of the violence of the change in public taste. From flat-faced, crooked-limbed, bug-eyed, hairy, spindly dogs, public taste has faced about toward the normal, healthy, natural dog. The spaniel and airedale showed the way. The poor old police dog, so-called, is the present extreme of the swing. In dog-loving cities like Toronto, where half the homes or more possess dogs, the most popular breeds are straight terriers, such as the fox, wire hair, Airedale and Scotch; and the spaniels.
With this return of common sense in dogs, the show business has come to be cleaner. Judges are looking for the dog underneath the barber shop work.
Col. G. F. McFarlane, whose hobby is bull terriers, and who is recognized as a judge of that breed all over America, admitted that the ideal of dog breeding to-day was to succeed in awarding at shows the ribbons to the dogs that came nearest to the standards of perfection in each breed, which world-wide experience and competition had revealed over a long period of study.
“There still remains in the dog-breeding world,” said Col. McFarlane, “an element of dyed-in-the-wool fanciers who pay much attention to trifles and tricks that have nothing to do with the dog’s real character or his use. For example, I remember causing a sensation at an important show in large American city some time ago. I was judging bull terriers. A bull terrier is supposed to stand well up on his toes. That is an important feature. From time immemorial, it has been a trick in the showing of bull terriers for the handler to hold the leash tight, lifting the dog by the neck so as to cause him to appear to be standing on his toes, as he should. At this show, I demanded the handlers to slack the leashes. You never heard such indignation. Naturally, the terrier that really stood up on his toes won the decision. But there was a great sense of wrong in the minds of all those handlers who felt that it was enough if the dog seemed to be up on his toes.
“Proper teeth is another point in these terriers. I came to one fine specimen, and when I went to examine his teeth, the handler warned me not to touch the dog, as he was vicious. I ordered the handler to open his mouth and, as I expected, the teeth were bad.”
As a matter of fact, the mere training of a dog for show purposes contains not a little hardship and rough treatment. From puppyhood, once a dog appears to be a championship candidate, many handlers cuff him to stand steady, they comb and pluck and oil him, they train him daily to stand and show on a leash, and any happy quality the dog may have that interferes with the serious and all-important business of being a show dog is soon cuffed out of him. More and more the judges are looking for signs of that sort of training. More and more they are trying to judge a dog on his merits rather than on theatrical tricks taught for the purpose of showing off his points.
There are roughly three kinds of dogs: pets, working dogs and sporting dogs. Any dos destined to be a pet is not harmed by being trained as a show dog. Working dogs may also be trained for show since the discipline and loss of spirit may be useful when the dog has to answer commands in working. But hunting dogs trained for the show bench are almost always ruined by training for the show. And what is more to the point, the greatest sporting dogs would rarely if ever win a prize in a show.
This may be true also of pets and of working dogs; the best dog would not win in a show. It is a commonplace remark amongst dog fanciers that bench winners are good for nothing else.
Doesn’t this suggest something radically wrong with the whole show business?
Scientific Study Needed
Light on this angle of the dog question was thrown by several vets, notably Dr. Alan Secord, a new arrival in Toronto’s animal constituency.
“Certain breeds of dog,” said Dr. Secord, “especially the popular police dog, are the descendants of a very few ancestors imported into this country. In other words, every police dog in your neighborhood is more or less distantly related to every other police dog. This inbreeding over a short period of years, but in vast numbers to meet the demand, has resulted in a serious decline in the quality of the species. They are weak physically and mentally. They catch distemper and are goners, as sure as shooting. It takes the greatest care to save them from diseases that a common mongrel will weather without the slightest trouble.
“This fact is true of several popular breeds of dogs. It is due to man’s habit of taking periodic and passionate fancies to certain new breeds. A few fine specimens of that breed are imported, and presently you have a thin and inbred generation of that kind of dog that bears no resemblance whatever to the noble creatures that were imported. They have neither brains nor physique, yet they still bear the outward signs of excellence that catch ribbons at shows.
“A few more years’ experience along these lines,” said Dr. Secord, “and a little wider scientific study of dogs, and dog-loving cities like Toronto will favor old and widely disseminated breeds that will survive and serve in a way they have always been intended to.”
Dr. Secord points out that there has never been a public or government fund for the scientific study of dogs. Not until the fox breeders formed an industry and got government grants for research was there founded special branch at the agricultural colleges for laboratory work on canine diseases and care. And more has been learned about dogs since the scientific study for the benefit of fox ranchers than in any similar short period in history.
Nowadays it is commonplace to operate on dogs for appendicitis, tonsils, mastoid, cancer. Pyorrhea is treated in toy dogs that get too much candy and slops. The X-ray department of the human hospitals are receiving visits from dogs with fractures, and marvellous splints are being devised, bone plating is being done. They even have an apparatus for blood transfusion in dogs. Caesarian sections for the birth of “altered” breeds such bulldogs and Bostons have been commonplace for a long time.
What mankind has done to dogs in the passion for special and fancy breeds can hardly be credited to man’s nobility. But these experiments must be laid to the door of the fanciers, because the sporting breeds, some of them hundreds of years old, such as hounds and spaniels, have never been tainted with alterations other than in the direction of strength and intelligence.
But while one man raises a dog to be barbered and weighted and splinted, curled and combed and cuffed for the bench, another man, honored with the ownership of the blood brother of the other dog, wants him to run gaily with him down the street, or guard his wife and children at the summer cottage; or if a lover of the gun, to seek and put up partridges, rabbits.
We once had a black cocker whose brothers and sisters rose to fame in the dry-goods business, amassing ribbon by the yard. But Bonnie had too much brains and not enough lines for the show bench.
What he used to do, the minute supper was over, every night of his life, no matter how the fun raged outdoors, or how interesting the company downstairs, was to proceed with all dignity to the door of the upstairs room where a baby sister slept.
Across the door sill Bonnie would stretch out his jet black length, and there, never moving for hours he would lie, hall asleep, waking to every turn or twist of the sleeping baby, until at length the grown-ups came to bed.
Then Bonnie would toddle and scratch-foot his way downstairs to his old basket in the basement.
He was not taught this. He just thought it up for himself.
It gave him a purpose in life.
It dignified him in his own eyes.