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 championships.

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 and ability.

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 heart.

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 search-and-rescue work.

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.