From the 2015 Jan./Feb. issue of  Sporting Classics, on newsstands Dec. 26. 


My sister is an habitué of secondhand bookstores, preferably those of the dusty and disorganized variety. The result is that she frequently stumbles over gems, and if they happen to be the kinds of gems she knows I would like, I am the happy recipient of her finds. The result, among many other things, is two antique books on dog breeds.

One is The Book of Dogs, by James Gilchrist Lawson, a slim volume that was published in 1934 and is short on words but long on photographs of the 103 breeds recognized at that time in the U.S. and Canada. The other is The Complete Dog Book, a leather-bound edition of the 1921 classic by Dr. William A. Breuette (then editor of Forest and Stream), also long on photographs, but far longer on words, particularly words on type, health care, and breeding.

These are nothing more than curiosities for the canine-loving bibliophile, and yet looking at the photographs, it is shocking to see what has become of some breeds.

Most of the coursing hounds and retrievers in the old pictures look much as they do today, with the exception of the Labrador. Both books show an athletic, balanced Labrador just like today’s hunting Lab, but quite unlike today’s show-ring specimen, the amiable, tank-like slob of a dog that most resembles a black bowling bowl that would instantly sink under its own excessive weight.

Many of the terriers and spaniels of today sport coats that make them little more than animated dust mops, certainly not the kinds of coats that would be conducive to a productive day of hunting, the kinds of coats that were the standard in 1921. 

But what is most shocking is the change in the companion breeds and in the breeds that once earned their keep in ways that are no longer fashionable or legal and are now bred solely as companions. The bulldog of 1921 was already heavier and more cumbersome than the original bull-baiting ball of tenacious fury the British prided themselves on, but it was still leggier and more athletic than the sorry, clunky, gasping, snorting joke of today. The bull terrier of 1921 looked like what it was: a lean and supreme dog- and rat-killing machine right out of Bar Sinister, but the only resemblance that remains today is the white color. 

And the dog that was once considered the king of the working breeds has practically vanished in its original niche. The German shepherd then was leggy and regal and healthy; go to a dog show today and you will see specimens with a topline so angulated that the hind legs cross each other at the hock with each step, dogs no more capable of performing the police and army work von Stephanitz intended them for than an NFL linebacker is of becoming a jockey.

It’s no wonder that most police departments have stopped using shepherds and switched to the Belgian malinois. Or, for certain tasks, mutts from the pound.

I could go on. 

Condensing a wealth of history into a few words, the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the Revolutions of 1848 across continental Europe, spawned a newly affluent middle class, and those who were dog-obsessed began their own revolution, cementing breed traits in dogs that already existed in some form or another, or creating new breeds entirely. By the end of the 19th century dog mania had reached fever pitch: the first dog show in Great Britain took place in 1891, and on the continent, particularly in Germany, organizations were being created to improve and cement the traits of the newly created breeds.

Let’s compare two breeds that emerged roughly around that time—one that already existed and one that was created out of whole cloth.

In Great Britain, the Labrador already had a following among the aristocracy, with names like the Earl of Malmesbury and the Duke of Buccleuch breeding a dog very like today’s hunting Lab. By 1891, when Charles Cruft created his show, the Lab was already on its way to becoming one of the most popular breeds of all time. The Duchess of York (later HRH the Queen Mother) loved Labs enough to be formally photographed with one of her favorites, a yellow, sitting at ease in a chair while the Duchess stands formally in attendance, just like any Lab of today. As a result of the dog’s early popularity and versatility, the Lab has one of the largest gene pools of any breed, but it is still a closed gene pool.

In Germany, a group of dog-loving hunters set out to create a versatile hunting dog. Led by Freiherr (Baron) von Zedlitz und Neukirch, they crossed an English pointer with a now extinct variety of the German hunting poodle and created a breed known as the pudelpointer. Then trouble arose. 

The Baron believed in the concept of an open gene pool; his fellow club members did not, and the result was that the Baron took his puppies and went home to create his own breed. He added the now extinct stichelhaar, the Deutsch kurzhaar (the German shorthaired pointer) and perhaps some griffon, but—and this is the key—he did not close his gene pool. In fact, he took as his motto, “Take the good where you find it; breed as you like, but be honest about it; let the results be your guide.” In other words, if you need to go outside your own creation to keep your creation viable, do so.

One of the natural results of this was that until the Nazi party came to power and ardent hunter Herman Göring pronounced it “Germany’s hunting dog,” the drahthaar was looked down upon by German hunters as a bastard non-breed. One of the other results was—and still is—excellent health.

There are many universities and organizations that study and track genetic diseases in canines, but for purposes of uniform comparison, comparing apples to apples, I will use only the data from the University of Cambridge. And to be absolutely clear, by “genetic disease” I mean a heritable disease caused by a mutation or alteration in both the structure and the function of a gene or multiple genes.

In theory, because the Labrador has such a large gene pool, it should be a very sound and healthy dog. Yet according to the University of Cambridge, the Lab is either prone or susceptible to 41 different genetic diseases. The drahthaar, which only closed its gene pool following World War II, is prone or susceptible to two, hemophilia B and type 2 von Willenbrand disease.

(Of course, now that the drahthaar gene pool is also closed, it will eventually begin to suffer the same genetic maladies common to all species subject to man’s desires and vanities.)

If you believe the Labrador’s 41 heritable diseases are bad, then consider some others:

The Boykin spaniel is relatively healthy, subject to only four genetic diseases (the breed club actually claims six), but one of those is hip dysplasia with an incredible 37 percent rate. The great Chesapeake Bay retriever, the workhorse of American market hunters, is prone to eight heritable diseases, but he is a masterpiece of robust health compared to the golden retriever with 39 known genetic diseases. The standard poodle is subject to 11; the American cocker has 17 listed diseases; the English springer, 24; the Brittany spaniel, eight; English setter, eight; the German shorthaired pointer, 29; Gordon setter, eight; Irish setter, 17, Weimaraner, 12.

There are many more; this is not a complete list by any means, nor should it be taken to mean the other breeds are disease-free. And it gets far worse among companion, working, and herding dogs wherever extreme popularity or breeding for one specialized attribute such as size or color or whatever has been allowed to dictate appearance. In fact, I am unaware of any popular breed that is completely free of heritable diseases.

Let’s look at this from a different perspective. What do you think would happen if somehow, for some reason, all dog breeds were required to breed naturally and survive or die on their own without any human intervention? In the case of most of the hunting breeds, after decades of sorrow and heartbreak, there would be far fewer representatives, but the breeds themselves would still exist at least in recognizable form.

However, if your favorite breed is one of the more extreme breeds (i.e. a breed with only one specific color allowed, or great size, or an abnormally developed head, large or small relative to the overall size of the dog), you’d probably be out of luck. 

Consider the English bulldog: most breedings have to be done by artificial insemination, and practically all (more than 90 percent) of deliveries must be done by Cesarean. If your favorite breed is this season’s current pet accessory favorite, the French bulldog, you very well might not have a recognizable breed at all within a few decades. Not only are most Frenchies incapable of reproducing without recourse to AI, but it is recommended by veterinarians that virtually all births be done by C-section. In other words, both breeds have essentially lost their viability; is that good or desirable by any standard?

Man’s intervention and manipulation have produced dogs that are capable of extraordinary feats that would almost certainly not be possible if left to nature’s own devices. I think of some the unbelievable retrieves my great old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Max, made over the course of his life, where professional trainers advised me to call him off because no dog could ever find a bird in there or that far away or under those conditions.

I remember the legendary pudelpointer trainer and breeder Bodo Winterhelt stroking my Gordon setter’s head and saying he could not believe any dog was capable of the kind of work she had just done in a hard wind on the coast, work that was no reflection of her owner’s training ability. I remember my little rescue Pembroke corgi, Annie, sailing in with suicidal courage to try and save me when I was rolling on the ground in a fistfight with a pit-bull. I remember so many loving and beloved heads in my lap as I watched the evening news. 

No one wants to lose those characteristics, but more than just characteristics will be lost if we continue to reproduce an ever-increasing list of maladies and problems that could be solved by following Freiherr von Zedlitz und Neukirch’s advice. “Take the good where you find it; breed as you like, but be honest about it; let the results be your guide.” In other words, if you need to go outside your own creation to keep your creation viable, do so. +++


From the 2015 Jan./Feb. issue of  Sporting Classics, on newsstands Dec. 26. 


Cover image courtesy William Secord Gallery


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