On Dog Shows

I am the happy owner/guardian/whatever of a mutt. A mutt with a seriously mixed genetic bag. Brilliant, terrified, structurally-sound, riddled with allergies. A loud-mouth who does not give strangers the benefit of a doubt. A champion snuggler who would never dream of waking me up early on the weekend.

People seek out pure-bred dogs to even their odds. Breed isn’t a sure-bet, which I wish the general public was more aware of, but you at least know what game you’re playing. As a person who, to push the metaphor a little further, got off the plane in Vegas and walked unknowingly straight to the high-stakes poker table, I am deeply sympathetic to that.

My official stance is that I don’t see any harm in dog shows. I do see the harm in individual breed clubs favoring extreme exaggeration of certain traits, to the detriment of the dog’s overall wellbeing.

But, where it gets tricky is that every dog breed isn’t like that. We can all bemoan the worst examples, and you know what they are, but they aren’t the majority. Any dog, mutt or show, can have certain genetic faults (see: Silas) without that necessarily being a condemnation of an entire breed.

What I think is more common is a gradual softening of the breeds. Terriers, for instance, have slowly drifted upward in size and downward in prey-drive. Many hunting breeds have been split into “show” and “working” lines as an attempt to preserve function and drive. For most would-be dog owners, our modern lives don’t really fit with many of these dog breeds, which were formed when the world was a very different place. Is it our obligation to preserve, above all else, those specific functions? What about the ones that the world doesn’t need anymore? Before you jump to a conclusion about that, remember that there are entire breeds originally intended for nothing other than fighting. Or, on the other hand, is it okay to preserve a kinder, gentler version of any given breed? Is it ethical to dial a dog’s natural inclinations down a little? If so, how far?

Of course, if you pursue that line too far you hit another snag. Working is a natural way to prove health. A Bernese Mountain dogs with bad hips and a heart condition is not going to be the best cart puller. Those German Shepherds with weak rear ends are not taking down bad guys. Function keeps the form in check. Toy breeds, in this respect, are a cautionary tale.

In my mind there are three types of dog breeds out there: 1) genetic nightmares, 2) watered-down (for good or for ill) versions of long-standing breeds, and 3) breeds that preserve something worth preserving. Aside from a few outliers on either end, though, it’s very difficult to put a breed into one category or another, especially since you’ll see a smaller version of that same continuum within a given breed.

It’s frustrating to see the extreme myopia that often comes along with dog shows and breeding (see: Dalmatians, for the most concrete example), but I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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12 thoughts on “On Dog Shows

  1. Great post! Glad to read your more fleshed-out thoughts about it (for all its weird merits, Twitter is not an ideal platform for sharing serious opinions). And I like your division of 3 types of dogs! That makes sense to me. It’s easy for me to lambaste the show-line dogs, without thinking about the plain truth that most people don’t want to live with working-line dogs, because they’re exhausting. (We have a show-line and a half-working/half-show dog, and the half-working part of Edie is TIRING.)

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    1. Silas has a lot of drive, too, and YES, exhausting. He’s more mentally active than physically, largely because that’s what he’s used to, but we play dog-games/training pretty much three-four hours a day.

      One of the wrinkles I *didn’t* mention here is that when those high-drive dogs do wind up with the general public it ranges from sad to outright disastrous. I think that the best and most responsible breeders screen homes well enough to prevent that, but not always. Not to mention that the ignorant side of the public can’t be trusted to use a good breeder, which is the thing that really does make me nervous about idolizing the pure-bred dog.

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  2. You make so many very good points about things I have been giving a lot of thought to myself lately. While I used to push rescue/adoption on everyone I knew who wanted a dog, I’m starting to dial that back some. Particularly with the points that Patricia McConnell makes about how important early development is, I think that we should be supporting the small, reputable breeder that selects, nurtures and matches with ethics and knowledge, rather than demonizing them. I love my crazy, complicated mutt (and if you want to talk about a drive-y nut, people are /purposely/ breeding Border Collie/Jack Russell mixes – great for sports, not so great for families) but she would have overwhelmed the first-time dog owner, anyone with small children or anyone with a less bold cat than mine, and probably found herself back in the rescue. I think the main thing that has to shift is patience. People looking for a dog are not patient enough to wait for a good breeder’s next litter, so they’re off to the pet store or the internet. Even the hoops that a rescue group has potential adopters jump through are off-putting to some, but if you’ve been involved in rescue at all they are totally understandable.

    I love dog shows, because I love dogs and my boyfriend and I are in fact going to a big AKC rated show here in Denver on Sunday, but I am disappointed by some of the physical exaggerations and seeming disregard in some breeds for functionality. My boyfriend loves all the brachycephalic breeds, and they have never been appealing to me for aesthetic or health reasons. German Shepherds are another that I see with their haunches practically dragging on the ground and say “why”?

    I feel like my personal favorites, Norwegian Elkhounds – at least the examples I see every year at the show – are balanced in structure and have friendly, lively temperaments. I’d love to have an elkhound puppy some day but don’t know if I could give up my rescue habit.

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    1. I think it is really important that *someone* is supporting the really great breeders. They’re doing good work, usually for very little gain. I’ve been watching Suzanne Clothier’s videos of how they’re raising their current litter, and it’s crushing. What could even crazy Silas have done with advantages like those, instead of (probably) living isolated under somebody’s porch for the first five weeks, then getting dumped way too young?

      I’m pretty well committed to the fact that I will *never* rescue another puppy. I’ll either rescue adult dogs, with established temperaments, or I’ll go for the best-bred puppy I can possibly find. Silas is a classic case of “I rescued a puppy because I felt bad for it and I was looking for a dog, then it turned out to be a terrible fit for my life.” We’re talking thousands of dollars, no exaggeration, of training and medication to keep him from barking at every sound on the street, 24 hours a day. I would never have deliberately gotten a Border-collie type dog (which is temperamentally what he is, according to the behaviorist), because I *knew* they were bad for our super-urban life. Not that I don’t love him, but he really is a miserable city dog.

      I think the consumer-side of the dog market is definitely what needs the work. Unfortunately, people are not rational about their desires.

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      1. I would never have gotten a Border Collie OR a Jack Russell – I used to look at people like they were crazy for wanting those breeds unless they lived on a farm. Ruby was listed as Corgi/Chihuahua, though I didn’t really think that was accurate, either.

        I thought that she was a great age – even knowing that I missed the ‘critical socialization period’ – but not realizing that she was probably right at transitional adolescence when a lot of issues surface. Not that I would trade her, it’s just that rescue is such a gamble as you said, and while many are well-adjusted, resilient dogs, their early lives and puppy hoods were likely the stuff we don’t like to imagine.

        My (reactive) elkhound was five when I adopted her, and not a great conformational example of the breed as far as I could tell. I suspect she was a pet store puppy, and she also lived in a backyard for the first five years of her life, with very little people or animal socialization.

        I have an inkling of how hard things have been for you with Silas, and have the utmost admiration for your commitment to him.

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        1. It’s funny, I never really think of Silas as being that bad, because he’s a really great dog most of the time. The border collie comparison was a big shock. Of course, I have a long list of conditions that I’ve just internalized–he’s a really good dog because I never even think about doing X, Y, or Z or going place A, B, or C with him. I actually struggle to even articulate the list anymore, aside from him not being able to walk on the sidewalk.

          There was definitely a time that was just one problem after the other–his anxiety reached its adult levels about the time that his food allergies got so bad, and I was really stretched very thin. If I’m remembering correctly, that’s about when I started the blog.

          I think, in a perverse backwards way, that it helps for him to be my first dog. His crazy way is the only way I know. For example, it wasn’t until I took him to the behaviorist, when he was over two years old, that I realized that other dogs just go lie down somewhere, even when they aren’t going to sleep. I still actually don’t have a good sense of how Silas’s day-to-day life stacks up against that of “regular” dogs. That’s probably for the best. 🙂

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        2. Since I’ve had one of each (and my reactive elkhound wasn’t even in the same realm as Ruby), I was somewhat prepared and also have the wistfulness of comparison. My dad said something along the lines of “she never just goes and lays down, does she?”

          I feel like I’m pretty acclimated to life with Ruby, but as you say, there are certain things that just aren’t even possibilities for us. Considering her energy level, it’s pretty astounding to me that she can be trusted home alone. I do think she finds me rather boring, and I’m looking forward to her having a playmate soon.

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  3. I wanted also to mention that having been deeply involved with horses for most of my life, there are the same trendy and detrimental things being done to many horse breeds. Selecting for the most-desired color instead of the best mind, rewarding exaggerated features that compromise functionality, etc. We humans are the strangest breed of all…

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  4. Dog shows are only to judge conformation of the dogs. You cannot judge working ability or temperament at a show, (well unless the dog is a loose cannon and then you will see that). The job of bettering the breed lies with the breeders. They are the ones who ultimately decide which direction any breed will go. Most I know work tirelessly to better the breed. Yes you can get extremes in type the “big” shows, like labs which is a darn shame, but at the local level, you don’t see it so much.

    I agree that with so many of the sporting breeds, the drive has been stripped right out of them to make them more biddable. If you look at the retrievers that are bred for Leader Dogs or therapy work, they are really soft dogs. A soft dog will not a hunting dog make. That is why we have Chessies. These dogs can truly do it all. They often go from the show ring to hunting to therapy work. Many breeders around here are breeding a conformationally correct hunting dog and that is what you will usually see in the ring. But at the beginning, Chessies were very different animals. In temperament they were extremely rough and the change in temperament is a change for the better. But that change happened over 100 years or more. That is all selective breeding is supposed to do. It is to improve the breed. But it is not the breed for everyone. That is why a great breeder matching dogs to owners is the best thing for any breed.

    Hubby and I have seen crazy driven retrievers with no off switch. (If you think Silas is a lot of dog, you should see them.) Sure they might ribbon at a field trial, but we live in a neighborhood. No way would that dog be a match for us and I do see that breeding as an extreme that should probably not be replicated. Another reason we don’t have a “field” Chessie. They can have rough temperaments and we are not going there. Maybe closer to the original dogs, but not for us.

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    1. Yeah, I think we’re getting at the same thing about working dogs. Your Chessies are obviously capable of doing their jobs, WITH a softer temperament than their forebears. But you can definitely push that too far. I think most labs and some of the toy breeds are just really boring. Of course, that’s what some people want from their dog.

      I believe that there are really great dog breeders out there, doing everything they can for their breed. I get the feeling that a lot of people who are opposed to dog shows don’t see that side.

      UNFORTUNATELY, being human, sometimes we get attached to the wrong things. Hence, Pugs. Or the modern English Bulldog. Or the modern Basset Hound. Less common breeds certainly benefit from being out of the public eye.

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  5. Thanks for this balanced look at dog shows. Ever since Westminster, it seems I’m inundated with opinions on how bad dogs shows are, and I’m hearing a lot of bashing of breeders and purebred dogs (sometimes, most frustratingly, from people who have purebred dogs themselves). Like any world, there is good and bad in the show world, but I absolutely agree that it is the good breeders, who are working hard to better their breed, who really are working to produce the best examples of their breed possible. They pay attention to the structure, temperament, function, and even to
    the history of the dog, and they are producing some wonderful dogs. Yes, there are those who are not paying attention, or who breed for exaggerated traits that ruin the overall health of the breed, but that is not everyone, and I hate the way the good breeders efforts are overlooked.

    And it can be difficult to preserve function. In the Japanese dog world, some people are dismissive of the Shiba and the Akita, two breeds who are no longer used to hunt. But both dogs are difficult breeds anyway, and the average person–who is going to end up with these dogs as pet–cannot handle an drivey or sharp version of these breeds. I suspect that the way to deal with the function argument, especially in rare breeds, is to have a multi-pronged approach, and to make sure some hunting lines are preserved, but to understand that many of these dogs will never perform their original function, and that it is ok to have some softening of the breed (temperament/drive) to produce dogs that people can live with. Ideally, I’d say that individual breeders should breed to their strengths and interests. Some may continue to produce working/hunting dogs, while others may choose to produce dogs more suited to conformation shows and companions. Its a complicated conversation, especially in terms of preservation of very rare breeds, because their may not be enough dogs, yet, to allow individual breeders to choose their own direction, but I do think ideally, there is room for both. I do find it frustrating, though, when people go on about the absolute need to preserve function, and yet they do not hunt with their dogs (or cart, or sled, or whatever). Living with a drivey dog is difficult!

    And I was also annoyed by the casual “these dogs do the work they are bred for” comment at Westminster, when it is clear most of them do not do that at all. The needs of working dogs are different than the needs of show dogs and companion dogs, and that’s fine, and there is no need to insist one side is right or wrong. The most important thing is breeding for good health, and to better the breed!

    (In general, a little less absolutism in the dog world might be nice. I don’t see the need for there to be absolutes in rescue vs. buying from a breeder either. There is room for people to make the choices that works best for them and their situation.)

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    1. The original aggressive Shiba was one of the dogs on my mind when I wrote that, LOL. They just aren’t suited for modern life in cities, which is where they mostly wind up. Does that mean that we should let a great breed lapse? Or is it better to deliberately select for softer dogs that still have *some* personality? How much of that is okay?

      I’m also more okay with deliberate hybridization than most show-fans are. Not “designer mutts” per se, although some of those are improvements (I’d be thrilled for the Puggle to replace the Pug), but deliberate outcrossing to correct for some obvious genetic faults. Like the Dalmatian thing, or something that I saw about Afghan hounds.

      My feelings on rescue are so complicated that I can’t even articulate. But yes, I’m all about the grey area. I also think that rescues need to get better about temperament evaluations and more careful about what dog goes with what owner. Breed-specific rescues tend to do well with that, but shelters can be way too indiscriminate.

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