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The Westminster: road to ruin

Our foremost show has wrecked many breeds. This week its judges could start undoing the damage

The most important dog show in America, the 84th annual Westminster Kennel Club Show, next week takes over New York's Madison Square Garden. For two days some 2,500 purebred dogs will wait in stalls in the Garden's vast basement for their turn to promenade in the green show rings upstairs. At midnight on the final evening one dog will be chosen "best-in-show," which means he will become the best-known dog in the U.S. for all of 1960. His victory, as likely as not, will also mean the ultimate ruin of his breed.

With the exception of a few breeds, such as the Bedlington (see cover), Afghan, Sealyham and West Highland white terrier, whose victories at Westminster have been few and spread over many years, all of the big-time winners have degenerated as their victories mounted up.

Consider the record for the past 35 years:

•Fox terriers won at Westminster seven times and were ruined.
•Cocker spaniels won three times and were ruined.
•Boxers won three times and were ruined.
•Poodles won five times and were started on a ruinous course of progressively lower breeding standards that is still going on.


Why should these disasters have followed these triumphs? The reasons—and, as we shall see, the remedies—are quite plain.

Three groups of "dog-lovers" must share the blame for the degeneration of so many best-in-show winners:

First, the judges. They are supposed to know what a dog should be able to do, as well as how it is supposed to look, but most of them judge solely on the basis of appearance, with little regard for temperament or ability. The obvious examples are the sporting breeds, the most notoriously abused dogs at any show. The premium placed upon conformation, at the expense of performance characteristics, has created a schism between field and show specimens that is now virtually unbridgeable. Just as the leggy, close-coated field spaniel bears only vague resemblance to its counterpart on the bench, so, too, are hunting Labradors, pointers, setters and hounds noticeably different in appearance and ability from those in the show ring.

Second, the public. No other dog show is so widely publicized or attracts so large an audience as the Westminster. The breed that wins at the Garden is almost certain to be the most fashionable of the year, and an enormous demand is created for it—a demand that usually exceeds the supply. In consequence, disreputable kennels begin producing for quantity rather than for quality.

Third, the breeder. Dog breeding on any scale is an expensive, time-consuming profession, and the risks a breeder takes are many. He may pay an exorbitant stud fee for a well-known champion and then have that champion fail to produce a litter; the litter may be unusually small or it may contain several badly shaped or badly marked puppies; he may have to order a Caesarean delivery, which is costly; or he may lose his entire stock to an epidemic disease. Any one of these situations can put him out of business temporarily or permanently, and when the chance comes for him to get ahead of the game he often will seize it.

There are various ways in which a breeder can capitalize on the momentary popularity of a breed, and none of them does the breed much good. He can substitute an inexpensive stud for the champion but leave the champion's name on the records; he can add to a small but excellently bred litter the pups of an inferior breeding, and register them collectively with the American Kennel Club; he can deliberately disguise the defects of an inferior puppy; or he may fake "papers," which is considerably easier than counterfeiting U.S. currency.

Fortunately, the majority of dog breeders are honest, hard-working people; but the dog-buying public, impressionable and ill-informed, may tempt a breeder to violate his own ethics. It is hard to resist selling an inferior puppy to a self-styled "expert" who doesn't want to learn anything and who is really concerned more with a fancy pedigree for his wall than with the quality of his dog. And the temptation, obviously, is even greater when a breed is suddenly rocketed into fashion by winning at a show with the prestige of Westminster.

Dogs that have survived Westminster victories have done so mainly because of rigid control of breeding practices. Ch. Rock Ridge Night Rocket, an ancestor of Ch. Femars' Cable Car, the Bedlington on this week's cover, went best-in-show at the Garden in 1948. The next year should have found Bedlingtons everywhere. It did not—because most Bedlington breeders refused to meet the demand by lowering standards to speed up puppy production. The Bedlington Terrier Club of America, and a number of other breed clubs, carefully polices its breeder-members, is quick to single out malpractice should it occur and is dedicated to improving the breed itself rather than to increasing its numbers.

But none of the dogs that have had long strings of Westminster victories have fared so well. The wire-haired fox terrier, for one example, won six of the 12 Westminster shows between 1926 and 1937. During this period fox terriers became the most fashionable dogs in America and AKC registrations jumped from 2,690 to 7,415. Any fox terrier with a paper was bred, and any fox terrier puppy which even vaguely qualified for registration was sold at a premium price. Terriers were pampered, promenaded and praised everywhere, and it seemed to make no difference that, as the breed deteriorated, they became increasingly snappy, high-strung, difficult to train and to control. The few breeders who protested what was happening were shouted down. Today, two decades later, the fox terrier is just beginning to recover from the damage it suffered in the '20s and '30s. That it has survived at all is due to the fact that two new breeds pranced into the winner's ring at Westminster in the '40s.

After the fox terrier, it was the turn of the cocker spaniel. With My Own Brucie's Westminster victories in 1940 and 1941, the cocker became the American dog. Cockers decorated Christmas cards, calendars, billboards, wistful mementos to departing servicemen and the homes of 20,000 people. The degeneration of the cocker from a fine field dog to a neurotic house pet was swift, and at the peak of the boom, the delicate, elaborately manicured showpiece gracing benches across the country was no longer even recognizable as the same hardy breed which a few years before could flush a bird, retrieve it and deliver it with a mouth as soft as a baby's.

In 1947 a new favorite emerged from Madison Square Garden. A sleek, powerful boxer—Ch. Warlord of Mazelaine—replaced the ill-tempered cocker spaniel. In 1949 another boxer, Ch. Mazelaine Zazarac Brandy, was best-in-show. By 1951, when Ch. Bang Away of Sirrah Crest took the Westminster crown, it was already a common sight to see women dragged along the streets behind 50-pound brutes and children knocked down by overplayful boxer pets. As the breeding and selling became careless, a growing number of owners and innocent bystanders were viciously mauled by boxers. In the last decade, in the actual records of attacks on human beings, boxers have displaced the former "champions," the German shepherd and the Doberman.


But the public seemingly has not profited from the boxer experience. In 1952 a Doberman pinscher, Ch. Rancho Dobe's Storm, won at Westminster. Since Dobermans have long had a reputation for viciousness, it might have been supposed that this breed, at least, would not suddenly become fashionable. Nonetheless, it did. The fact that at least one Doberman tried to attack the judge as he was being awarded best-in-show did not influence people who had decided they wanted one—and the boom was on.

It was, however, short-lived. New Doberman fanciers quickly discovered that they had bought an unpredictable and nasty beast that could neither be trusted nor enjoyed. The breed was not to be blamed. Rather, the problem rested with the untrained, unequipped people who carelessly bought dogs they were incapable of controlling. Under proper handling and circumstances, the Doberman is a superb specialist (SI, May 12, 1958), but brought into an inexperienced household, he will take it over faster than any other breed.

This characteristic helped save the Doberman from total ruin—this and the fact that there was never another to rival Storm, and thus keep the breed popular until it had been bred beyond all hope. And at the point when the big swing to Dobermans might logically have approached its peak, a poodle arrived in the best-in-show ring at Westminster to start the biggest breed craze since the cocker.

Poodles have won three of the last four shows, and today there are poodle motifs in everything from soap to jewelry. The boom has been hardest on the smaller poodles. A surprising number of males are born with undescended testicles. Eyes, in some toy strains especially, have become so popped that they project beyond the protection of the head. Yappiness and snappiness in a breed with which these characteristics are not normally associated is becoming increasingly common.

Whether the poodle survives the still-growing demand for it—in spite of an average $250 price tag—will depend upon how long it can withstand being the center of dog show attention. Should another poodle win at Westminster next week, the victory may well be the final step to oblivion.


What can be done about this shameful cycle?

The responsibility clearly rests with those judges and officials who find it easier to follow artificial show ring standards rather than to stand up for realistic standards; with the breeders who are willing to sacrifice integrity and honesty for a dollar quickly made; and with a naive public that insists on buying dogs the way it might buy cars, by style and model rather than by common sense.

Ultimately, the most important step toward reform lies in the control of breeding. Stricter controls enforcing the principles of selective breeding, in which desirable characteristics are selectively developed and undesirable ones eliminated, are needed. Such controls should be applied to a broad range of fine breeds by the existing breed clubs. These clubs should be policing agents of their breeds, not just publicity agents for them.

Improved breeding, however, is only part of the solution, and not the first part. Judging can be improved right now. A dog show should not be merely a beauty contest: judges should appraise a dog on the basis of the job it is supposed to do and on the way it is equipped—physically and temperamentally—to do that job.

Those same judges could, particularly at a show with the prestige of Westminster, bring the field dog back to the show ring if they were genuinely interested in improving the breeds they fancy. They, more than anyone else, are in a position to eliminate dual breeding in these dogs, whereby one line is bred deliberately to meet unrealistic show standards and another to produce a dog which can do its job in the field. They would have only to pass over the sleek but soft dog for the animal that is physically equipped to hunt. Why, after all, should a retriever with no desire to retrieve, a pointer with no instinct to point, or a bloodhound with no nose be permitted even to qualify for a major dog show? A surprising number of judges, as a matter of fact, do not even know what these specialized breeds should be able to do in the field.

Finally, the public needs to be educated as to just what a dog is and what it has to offer. It is nonsense to say, as no less a person than Arthur Frederick Jones, editor of the American Kennel Gazette, said recently: "In my view, all dogs are honest and true friends." No dog is an honest and true friend until it has been trained to be one. There is no question that, as a generalization, a purebred dog is a far better risk than a mongrel. Its breeding is a reliable indication of what it will be, both physically and temperamentally. Its shape, its abilities, its relative intelligence and adaptability to training can all be predicted to a reasonably certain degree when it is still a pup. But its potential will vary with different breeds, and the would-be owner should be alert to what these qualities are, and how well they suit his requirements in a dog—and, above all, he should know that the dog, any dog, has to be trained.

The owner also should face the fact that a dog's papers do not necessarily prove it to be a good dog or a dog suited to him. Westminster and other big shows have exaggerated the importance attached to the backgrounds of purebred dogs. Virtually the first boast of a new dog owner today involves the animal's papers. That he may not, and often does not, have the faintest idea what the papers represent is quite immaterial. For while so-called papers may actually be anything from a registration application to a hand-lettered pedigree, to some owners they seem to be indisputable proof that the dog he has purchased is a "good" one, particularly if it sports a best-in-show at Westminster somewhere in its background. And it is precisely this weakness of dog buyers for documented verification that the dog exists (and this is about all some papers prove) that has led to abuses in so many kennels.

Westminster could also pave the way for acceptance by the AKC of a number of outstanding breeds in this country that are still to be recognized in purebred circles. An obvious example is the American farm shepherd, which, according to Dr. Leon Whitney in his excellent new book The Truth About Dogs, is more numerous than any other breed in the country.

"Can you imagine what would have happened if so many of these dogs were observed by Americans traveling, let us say, in Argentina?" Dr. Whitney asks. "Why, they would have 'given it a breed' long ago, formed a great club and imported them by the thousands." Dr. Whitney, who is a Yale University authority on canine eugenics, believes that the American shepherd is one of the few breeds bred for general intelligence among all the dogs of the world. Yet, he adds, "Old Shep doesn't have an official breed name, but a so-called sheep-herding dog named komondor from Hungary is registered in the AKC."

Below the Mason-Dixon line virtually anyone will say the same about the redbone and bluetick hounds, which are as much a part of the South as corn bread and grits. Like the American shepherd, they breed as consistently to their own standards as any pointer or beagle. They can probably beat either pointers or beagles in intelligence, but nobody has ever seen one at Westminster—where bouviers des Flandres, keeshonds, Lhasa Apsos, pulik and Rottweilers are annually on view. This reflects a belief, long outmoded in most areas of U.S. culture, that anything American is inferior. A show as old and as stable as Westminster should have recovered from this colonial hangover half a century ago.

Whether the redbone and the blue-tick receive recognition in the near future, however, is less important than the fate of the so-called lucky dogs which are members of the "club." The first step toward restoring these breeds to their natural eminence as real dogs could be taken next week by the judges at Westminster.





FIRST VICTIM, the fox terrier, was ruined by repeated wins at Westminster show.


[See caption above.]

LATER VICTIMS include boxer (above), which became vicious attack dog, and the Doberman, which was saved from total ruin by its own fearsome reputation.



FIELD DOGS today are commonly bred to meet unrealistic show standards as typified by the delicate, carefully manicured, fur-blanketed show cocker above. The trim, rugged field cocker below was bred to emphasize his natural talent for hunting.