True to Form
By Pluis Davern
To keep our dogs whole, breeders must build on the underlying sense of purpose
in the standard - and put it to the test both in the ring and in the field.
No one who has seen a sighthound flowing through the field in pursuit of game
or witnessed the rock-steady point of a bird dog after a long quest can fail
to be awed by the skill of such dogs - or the foresight of the breeders who were
able to develop and enhance these qualities in their breeding programs. The sheer
diversity of form that enables these functions to be met is a visible tribute
to dog men and women of yore.
Maintaining Type and Ability
Maintaining this integrity of breed type and performance ability is the challenge
that dedicated breeders across the country have accepted and made their life's
work. In an effort to produce a true dual-purpose dog - one that can shine in
both the ring and the field - they choose to walk a fine line between moderation
and mediocrity. It is a challenge not only to produce such a dog - or, over time,
a line of such dogs - but also to refute the pervasive thought among fanciers
that any such breeding is by its very nature neither fish nor fowl and therefore,
by definition, mediocre.
When we examine the original intent of those breeders of yesteryear, we realize
that the criteria for breeding has changed over the years - and sadly, in a majority
of cases, to the detriment of the breed's original purpose. Admittedly, the necessity
for having a dog find game, herd sheep or cattle, or bring in the fishing nets
is limited to the very few whose livelihood depends on those activities - and
even in those cases, technology now provides them with the means to do these
jobs faster, though not always better.
However, the many different breeds that originated in small geographic areas
around the world are unique in their ability to handle the terrain and conditions
prevalent in their so-called backyard. As we breed and exhibit them in the show
ring today, we have the tremendous responsibility to nurture and preserve all
the qualities that define each and every one of them - and that means putting
them to the test in the field.
When asked, the majority of dual-purpose breeders feel their prime concern in
producing true dual-potential dogs is to use those with the most correct structure
for the job. This does not necessarily mean breeding to a top-winning dog in
the show ring, although the majority of them are likely to have their conformation
Overall correct balance is the first prerequisite in breeding a multifunctional
dog. A dog with a superb shoulder layback and angulation and matching rear assembly
is of greater value to these breeders than a dog carrying a profuse and glorious
coat. Moderate size was stressed as most desirable, even though in the conformation
ring, larger is often considered better. Second, breeders must look at attitude
Selecting for Structure and Balance
Melissa Newman, a breeder of dual-champion English Setters, chooses her puppies
based on structural balance, followed by reach and drive. Newman breeds for side
gait then picks the puppy with the most natural instinct and attitude. A great
working dog, as well as a great show dog, says Newman, should have an intensity
and desire that make it stand above the crowd.
When questioned about this, Dr. Grace Blair, a modern-day pioneer in the world
of the dual-purpose standard Poodle, voiced her concern that even a highly motivated
dog cannot do the job for which it was bred without the necessary physical attributes.
A deep, slab-sided chest and a straight front cannot help maintain the reach
and pull in the water that a retrieving breed must have to bring back ducks and
geese. A "ewe neck" (a neck in which the topline is concave, rather than convex),
which causes a high head carriage when retrieving, drives the rear down and makes
swimming an arduous task at best. Such flaws, which may be artfully masked by
superb grooming, can become the downfall of a working dog.
So if it is possible to produce a dog with proper structure, a desire to work
and a tractable nature, why are there not more dual champions in our performance
breeds? A review of the original purpose of each breed - and the evolution of
the measures by which we test these functions - should shed some light on this.
Most of the sporting dogs were designed to hunt with a handler on foot, thereby
moving at a reasonable pace and at a reasonable distance from the gun. Trials
were held where these parameters were tested. Over the years, however, the tenor
of these competitions has changed, resulting in speed becoming one of the foremost
criteria for successful trial dogs. As a consequence, many breeding programs
followed suit, often compromising breed type and original intent.
Carol Chadwick, a breeder of six dual-champion German Shorthaired Pointers, says
all-around breeders face tremendous pressure. To compete successfully in field
trials, Chadwick's first criterion is performance - looking for the dogs that
have soundness, run and style. Breeding since the early 1980s to dual lines that
have consistently produced winning offspring, and avoiding using only field pedigrees,
she has sacrificed playing on level turf at the performance end. In doing so,
however, she has maintained breed type and integrity.
Renowned multigroup and field-trial judge Dorothy Macdonald, also a successful
breeder of Brittanys, emphasizes that in her breed, litters are graded first
and foremost for natural ability, independence and style. "You are breeding," says
Macdonald emphatically, "for the field." Of all the sporting dogs, the Brittany
standard is most adamant and direct about attributes the framers felt were of
paramount importance in sustaining the working heritage of the breed.
Taking Purpose to Heart
A number of years ago I was exhibiting a magnificent Rhodesian Ridgeback with
great ring presence. His only problem was that he was huge. At a small California
show he was the only male entered, but subsequently did not go Best of Winners.
My disappointment must have been obvious because some time later, while walking
past that ring, the judge, a respected breeder of Afghan Hounds named Carol Esterkin,
beckoned me over and gave me an insight that clarified the philosophy of form
and function once again.
Esterkin's reason for not awarding the dog points was that as a coursing breed,
mass and velocity must be such as to enable the dog to turn and change direction
after its prey without losing time or ground. My dog was magnificent as a show
dog, but not as working hound. Although I finished him fairly easily, Esterkin's
comments reminded me how important it is to take the true purpose of a dog to
A similar dilemma faces Labrador and Golden Retriever breeders who strive to
produce a dual-purpose dog in the face of the polarized events of conformation
shows and field trials, such as they are. Retriever field trials have evolved
from hunting trials to competitions based on the superlative training of dogs
approximating that of Olympic athletes. The gentleman's shooting dog is not to
be found there - and, alas, the likelihood of a true dual champion in any of
the retriever breeds in America today is becoming ever more slim.
Michael Woods, a noted Canadian all-breed judge and Labrador breeder, recently
visited Australia and New Zealand, where he had the privilege of adjudicating
a few shows. He was delighted to report that there are more than a handful of
dual champions in both those countries. Their field trials, however, are based
on requirements for a superlative non-slip retriever, as in the original trials
established in England.
With the dawn of the performance test program, the AKC created an opportunity
for breeders who strive to keep their breeds whole and unique to showcase their
stock. Since its inception, the program has become a forum for breeders and competitors
who carry the torch of tradition, and the subsequent proving ground for dogs
that can do it all - terriers, hounds, gundogs, coursers, herders and coonhounds.
In the long run, it just may be these true dual-purpose dogs - the conformation
champions that are also master performance titlists - that prove once and for
all that although form follows function, function fails without form.
Pluis Davern is a professional handler, field trainer and breeder from Gilroy,
Calif. Dedicated to the sport for more than 30 years, she has taken part in,
and trained dogs for, conformation, obedience, hunting tests, field trials and
AKC GAZETTE articles are selected for their general interest and entertainment values. Authors' views do not necessarily represent the policies of the American Kennel
Club, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement by the AKC.