by Carol D. Hawke
These tremulous topics are subjects I have been carefully contemplating for better than a decade after we first began to hear rumors from British friends about the unsettling disappearance of renowned bloodlines and having personally witnessed the decline of individual mentoring here in America. The disconcerted whispers have evolved into various public outcries as numbers of longtime breeders, handlers and judges worldwide have united in mutual concern.
In all recorded decades past in America and over much of the centuries written of dog breeding, serious dog breeders have always worked diligently to produce “bloodlines.” Americans are still inclined to fondly refer in slang to their breeding programs as their ” lines.” These were typically direct canine lineages that traced back to one or more foundation stock of note. These “lines” remained consecutive as the decades pushed steadily onward, with breeders adding and removing characteristics in the same fashion as an artist adds and removes detail from a masterpiece in progress. Sometimes that forward momentum came at a crawl and other times in leaps and bounds, yet serious fanciers rarely abandoned their “lines.” In actual practice, bloodlines were only rejected when a deadly defect or perilous plague allowed no other option. For a few breeders, such disaster spelled the end of a life’s work. The venture was over insofar as they were concerned. Others found opportunities to begin again with some related stock shared by a former pupil or two. The point remains; dedicated breeders remained intensely loyal to their original programs.
Each major bloodline presented a differing view of the standard while all of them offered some presentable version. Every kennel or “line” did its’ own share of winning and staked-out a firm place in the annals of canine history. Large or small, each one made a contribution, of that there can never be any question or doubt. One could count on those “lines” inasmuch as they were identifiable types, to produce dogs that would in turn, produce more dogs that bore the distinct resemblance of “the line.” There was a notable, positive measure of consistency both phenotypically and genetically. A common practice was for the next generation of dog breeders (the mentored) to take up foundation stock from two popular “lines” and create, much to their own and everyone else’s great delight, a “new line.” Wisely mentored, talented individuals found ways to bring out the very best of differing “lines.” Such efforts frequently made fast friends of longtime show opponents. After all, both lines contributed to a reawakened success in much the same fashion proud grandparents are spontaneously united. In a few cases where the “lines” clashed and the new efforts failed, each side could blame the other for the unhappy results. Regardless, a mutually satisfying proposition resulted however the tossed genetic coin may have landed. If one cross failed, another was attempted until success was eventually obtained. The entire process was accomplished under the watchful eyes of scrupulous mentors. A successful breeding program of one’s own marked the rite of passage for the past two centuries of dog breeding in America until the most recent decades. Tendencies and trends in dog breeding have suddenly taken a series of sharp turns. Times have changed, yes, but times always do change while dog breeding as a hobby is manifesting an entirely new face.
What shall we entitle this fallacious facade? Nobody I have the pleasure of knowing at length in dogs is able to fully grasp this anomaly and accurately identify it. Is this a transitional phase in dog breeding or is it the wave of the future rendering many of us the tail end of an ancient entity that will cease before our very eyes? The visible characteristics of this incomprehensibly unorthodox approach to dog breeding reveals first and foremost the loss of distinct “lines” as we knew them. Subsequently and secondarily we note the rapid decline of clearly identifiable variations within breeds owing to an apparent lack of resolve to preserve known lines or even develop new ones for that matter. Evidently, many of today’s trendy fanciers may view dog breeding as a sort of genetic ‘smorgasbord’ wherein it really does not matter what one starts with or ends up with as long as it produces a winner instantly. What we are witnessing is the rejection of the proven practice of long term breeding from a particular line or lines in order to manifest some version of the breed standard along with the essential fine-tuning that it has always necessitated. I have personally noted (along with many who have arisen from the traditional role of dog breeding) that no apparent mental concept of the breed standard seems to be required by this new generation of dog breeders. In its’ place resides the quaint desire to refrain from producing a show specimen with any disqualifying faults or other serious refractions that might prevent winning. If every critter produced by such breeders and their typical, entangling alliances is entirely different in type, temperament and structure from the next, this is apparently incidental if not amusingly quirky – rather than appropriately humiliating. This recent phenomena poses a genuine dilemma for the mentors currently addressing dog breeders and doubtless, to our reigning judges.
Much of the murmuring amongst longtime breeders and judges reflects the rarity of locating two dogs with remotely equivalent virtues in any given breed, much less in any class at a dog show today. There appears neither rhyme nor reason to the breeding techniques being implemented. One might surmise from the evidence presented that today’s dog breeder expects to win at each outing with every show prospect entered. Infinitely worse, far too many are wont to sell as show prospects all remotely saleable individuals from each litter produced without regard to consistency of quality or future prepotency. Perplexingly overlooked is the simple fact that a great deal of time has always been expended at home by serious, ethical dog breeders planning, growing out and placing the majority of litters who are not and never will be, show or breeding quality dogs. That’s just the way dog breeding pans out. Only the best were brought forth for public exhibition. Every pup a conscientious individual produces doesn’t rate ‘show prospect’ nor should they all be considered as breeding stock by virtue of the obvious fact that they share the same illustrious pedigree. This lack of common sense (or excessive greed, if the truth be revealed) is one of the primary factors that engenders severe anxiety for longtime mentors who are valiantly risking their own reputations to educate and represent novice breeders, just as their illustrious predecessors once did.
It has historically been stressed that no individual can successfully breed a line of dogs without a very specific breed template in mind. Similarly, ethical breeders have always been taught to conscientiously remove from the breeding program all stock that failed to meet those criteria. This is the foundational motivation behind judging dogs and the primary protocol for assessing them in a show ring. Today’s version of novice unfortunately tends to reveal the stereotypical know-it-all who eagerly acquires a dozen differing bitches from equally as many breeders (often worldwide) and pack them right off to the top winning stud dogs in their breeds. Such blatantly shortsighted behavior is still preferable to nauseating scenario B. Consider the latter case wherein those same bitches are bred to the most local and convenient stud dog(s) the breeder can find or pick up inexpensively. The fact that these naïve newcomers are frequently financially raped by what should be ‘reputable’ dog breeders (especially overseas) is another issue entirely. Owing to a considerable lack of deep thinking or just glaring ignorance, countless modern breeders are more interested in health clearances than pedigrees and show records than prepotency. Health clearances are marvelous (we’ve promoted them for years ourselves) but they can never substitute for the intimate knowledge that will reveal exactly which lines tend to produce which defects. A series of health clearances achieved by a dog from a line that has consistently produced those defects is like a rubber sword. It’s not going to protect your breeding program in the end run. You may be inclined to disagree with this; but I would rather breed to a dog from a line I know rarely produces a certain defect even though my choice may have failed that test, than the previous candidate. Equally vitally, an experienced analysis of pedigree quality and depth is vital to the success of any breeding program. The inability to wisely apprehend each of these invaluable tools and utilize them from the standpoint of experience will render a pedigree little more than a fancy piece of paper and health statistics and show records no better than an interesting collection of facts. Widely available are wonderful books and new programs designed to help instruct the breeders of this era but again, I reiterate and strongly advocate; personal, individual mentorship has absolutely no substitute. Only a mentor can personally impart every detail of an intimate knowledge while role modeling ethical and conscientious conduct. Successful breedership is taught not bought!
Herein lies my second key point today. Until a wannabe breeder develops a specific breed photograph (hopefully, based upon the breed standard) internally and makes the choice to honor proven, worthwhile mentors who will devote themselves to their pupils success, he will fail to create any long term impact on his chosen breed. Today’s candidates seem to compose a burgeoning group of rootless competitors that buy dogs left and right in each breed and hop right into the ring with them longing desperately for winnersŠor, at least wins. Every year they sport new dogs, new lines and a new look. It causes one to ponder precisely what happened to last year’s models! These people don’t have the groundwork to breed dogs of the merit they desire. Compare any such individual to another who is championed by successful mentors and is blessed with the wisdom and patience to actually heed their advice. Both individuals will output similar amounts of time and effort but the former, self-appointed orphan will nearly always struggle vainly and likely abandon the effort. Others just switch from breed to breed, hoping for better “luck.” Worse yet, many become bitter renegades determined to regain their initial investment one way or another. Perhaps the impact being sought currently is a different one than that so admired in previous decades. If the motivation is simply to “win, win, win!” and subsequently, “any dog will do you,” then our nation’s mentors really ought to step back, take a deep breath, uncurl their toes and fingers and let come what may. My assertion has long been, “Big winds blow over,” but perhaps in this case; “Big wins blow over,” would be more apropos. The end result of each individual’s efforts will eventually become visible in conformation and performance circles and in the annals of canine history, as it always has. However, the likelihood of this fast-food mentality (as applied to dog breeding) ever producing consistency in type, temperament or soundness is well beyond the realm of a slim chance and if it were to gain foothold, we would be forced to concede that the days of bloodlines and prepotent producers may be nigh over. These strangely inspired opportunists will still manage to produce winning dogs hither and yon but never two and three in the same litter. Moreover, such dogs will seldom pass on the characteristics that caused them to win in the first place. Flash-in-the-pan winners may even produce healthier pups in the short term owing to the blessing of outcross vigor but in the long run, the progress will not be sustained. It takes generations of working through genetic defects to breed them out to a very safe distance, if you know “the line” and what it tends to produce consistently that is. It also requires generations to breed in virtues that will reproduce faithfully.
Allow me to relate an incident at this point. It’s a true story so I hope all prospective dog breeders will sit up and pay attention. When I was a teenager I worked very hard for a lady who raised German Shorthairs. One day she informed me we were going to clean a large kennel owned by a wealthy fancier of the breed. My mentor warned me to be wary of the dogs and not speak openly regardless of what I saw. The elderly fellow who owned the place was no longer able to manage the operation properly but she also insisted that he had been “an eccentric” all his life. In fact, that is what everyone in our area called this man, “eccentric.” Over a period of decades the patron had built a beautiful, full-fledged kennel with indoor/outdoor runs on a lovely parcel of acreage. Inside this brick facility were special rooms designated to breed, whelp and rear pups and even space for displaying show and field trophies. A small home on the property had been provided for live in kennel help. Large yards to exercise the dogs were overgrown while previously well-kempt flowerbeds had withered away. In previous years they must have supplied a lovely grandeur to the exterior. Once inside the kennel, all lofty expectations fell desperately short. The dogs were as many types as one could ever dread coming across in any given breed. There were tall ones; short-legged ones, coarse headed and snipey dogs and not one that looked remotely like the next. There were friendly, tail-wagging dogs kenneled next to neurotic, circle-spinning, crazy dogs that would as soon bite you as look at you. To tell you the truth, it was rather nauseating. I had to seriously rethink the prospect of breeding dogs as a hobby for some time after we finished cleaning the kennel and departed. That chaos was the end result of decades of breeding based upon the incredibly mistaken premise that “winning is the only thing,” and little else mattered. What cemented the dismal failure in my young mind was the realization that the rewards (ribbons and trophies) accumulated over those decades were rendered utterly trivial and meaningless by the lack of consistent virtue in those dogs. This ‘breeder’s’ efforts provided nothing of value and in some ways, served to set the breed back locally. He had accumulated a few, tarnished trophies and wrinkled ribbons but nothing consequential was accomplished. If one can be satisfied with so little then I will admit that this fast-track mindset regarding dog breeding may be of an extremely limited value.
Here is another case in point for those who feel personal mentoring should remain a lost art. An individual whom had migrated from another breed decided to focus an effort at linebreeding on the most prepotent stud dog of the past century. Although himself a dog of many grand virtues, he possessed equal and grievous faults that he managed to set into his offspring. His main fault was a weak, round headpiece featuring a narrow, triangular shaped muzzle (instead of the broad muzzle required) with its’ accompanying narrow, wry jaw. To a lesser degree, he was also straight stifled. Without the meticulous, personal mentoring that should have been provided in order to point out to this newcomer those serious deficits, they became quickly overlooked. As time passed, this confused individual concluded that the miserable headpiece that came to characterize that breeding program should be promoted as a correct feature for the entire breed. These dogs were widely advertised throughout the canine world until many judges began to accept this outlandish conglomeration of faults as an acceptable version of standard breed type. This tragedy may not have occurred if just one particularly prodigious breeder had been properly schooled individually regarding the correct utilization of the breed standard and modern bloodlines. A qualified mentor could have steered this novice around the immobilizing point of blind ignorance. Those judges who fail to read and apply breed standards and who judge by advertisement (familiar faces) alone do purebred dogs an equal disservice. Very often, a simple lack of proper tutoring is all it takes to instill a negative trend into any given breed.
There are invaluable concepts becoming lost to our recent generation of dog breeders. Either that or the wrong shaped pegs are being pounded against their will into the incorrect holes by the stubbornly ignorant for lack of other suitable explanation. I cannot personally conclude that the dog world is so lacking in serious, experienced mentors as it is deplorably void of dedicated, loyal students who are determined to ‘mind their mentors’ and invest more than their silly, petty funds. Rather, let them invest something into the Sport of lasting value such as their time, talent and devotion. I would cheerfully trade ten thousand of these ridiculous, “Top-Ten-Syndrome” devotees with fistfuls of dollars for one modest, respectful and loyal breed student. Moreover I would prefer one without a spare penny. Such a prodigy will be far less wasteful with my precious bloodlines than some exasperating, bill-folding biped that deliriously suspects she can magically create a breeding program from thin air by waving a few bucks in the right direction. Deluded individuals are further inclined to believe that currency can induce lost bloodlines to reappear intact at a moment’s notice. I suppose that our longtime handlers feel equally plagued standing knee-deep in so many upstart “instant agents” who collect dogs to exhibit at sundry fees like garbage men do waste from our sidewalks on a weekly basis. This miserable misconduct readily explains what we end up with in our rings each weekend! Am I suggesting that all modern dog breeders are hopelessly sidetracked? By no means, only that peculiar faction that fit neatly into the trappings of the disclosed package. What if you wish to succeed as a novice breeder but dread falling into this pattern? How can you identify the wrong track if you are on it?