The Past Is a Foreign Country …
I am not entirely sure exactly what prompted L.P. Hartley to come up with this memorable line in “The Go-Between,” but it is one that seems to have great relevance to the present day’s dog world.
The appearance of Covid-19 has meant that our little micro world was in many ways put on hold, giving all participants an enforced and unwelcome period at home. Time to think, and time to reflect. Even with a period of just 12 months or so away, I am repeatedly hearing (from exhibitors and judges): “Things have changed.”
Perhaps it is old age that causes us to look back on the past with unduly fond memories, but I have come to the conclusion that we do not necessarily see our beginnings in the sport through rose-tinted spectacles. It may be true that when we started off we did not have preconceived ideas as raw novices, but somehow things seemed to be more structured in the past.
As the fancy in Britain and the United States may have developed in slightly different ways, with a much more “professional” element being a keynote to the American purebred dog world, I will confine my reminiscences to our relatively small island – small geographically and yet one that continues to hold dog shows that are generally speaking larger than anywhere else in the world.
Most of us who have been involved with the sport for 50 years and more came in originally as pet owners, having bought a companion dog in a breed we felt would suit our lifestyle as regards character and physical appearance. We may have been made aware of dog shows through our first dog’s breeder, or possibly because of a chance meeting when out walking our pride and joy, and someone who knew something about dog shows sowed the seed by enthusing over our companion and suggesting it was good enough to exhibit.
Those of us who were intent on researching the subject as thoroughly as possible turned up at a dog show minus our dog, looked and listened. Obviously, we would have been glued to the ring where “our” breed was being judged, trying to make sense of the first show catalog we had ever seen. A well-meaning ringsider may well have explained that the catalog entries included the dog’s registered name, date of birth, owner, breeder, sire and dam.
There was a chance that in the ring we spotted relations of our own dog, in which case we may have been tempted to approach their owners (hopefully when they had finished in the ring!) and ask endless questions, most of which would probably have been rather irritating to the seasoned exhibitor. It is at this point that our enthusiasm could either be encouraged or dampened, and so there is a huge level of responsibility lying with these experienced breeders when they meet a keen amateur for the first time.
Given that enthusiasm had not been dampened, we began researching our breed and dog shows in general, and in the pre-internet days that meant BOOKS! We read as much as we could and were keen to get our hands on those “bibles” that we had learned were considered essential reading if someone was serious about a breed. These would usually have been written by an icon in the breed and were frequently out of print and so difficult to get hold of. It puzzles me these days that so many breeders and exhibitors have very limited libraries and tend to restrict their book collection to those generic breed books written by high-profile authors where the text remains fairly static and just the photographs seem to have been changed.
Breed-club handbooks were highly sought after and photographs indispensable. We studied our starter dog’s pedigree and tried to find pictures of as many of its ancestors as possible. We went to more and more shows, often trying to talk to breeders who actually remembered these dogs, rather than being just names in a pedigree, and listening to their valuable opinions, as they could so often give an insight into a dog that would never be apparent in a photograph. At the time we were attending handling classes where we tried to overcome our nerves and learned from those with much more experience, so that when we did dip our toe in the water, we had a modicum of confidence.
When the big day arrived and we considered that we were ready to compete at our first dog show, we tried to get our dog looking as good as possible; we watched the more seasoned exhibitors and tried to blend in. We tried to do as the judge asked and kept one eye on him or her and one on our dog, making sure it was never seen at a disadvantage. If we won a prize card we were thrilled, no matter how lowly the placing, and we looked at the dogs that had beaten us with envy and admiration.
Of course in those far-off days we started at small competitions – dog matches if they were accessible, or the smaller Limited and Open shows. In our novice years we would never dream of rushing into a Championship show ring. Today it seems that many exhibitors think nothing of making their debut at the big Championship shows, where the competition is hottest, and rather than admiring the dogs that have beaten them they tend to view them with suspicion and an undeservedly critical eye. Even those with very limited experience and showing their first-ever dog seem well informed these days as to who is a “face” within a breed, and it is always claimed that the latter’s standing and reputation account for major wins, rather than the merits of their dog – which can often be the product of years of hard work and generations of selective breeding.
We enjoyed our dog shows, not primarily as a competitive vehicle, but more of a social event where we met people who shared a common interest. We gravitated toward fellow exhibitors who were showing the same type of dog that we had, often similarly bred, and we learned from them. After a year or so we appraised the success our dog had achieved in the ring – or not – and tried to understand why. Was any disappointment due to the dog’s inferior quality, or was it simply not being done justice by unsophisticated handling and presentation?
Those of us who were sensible and realistic often made the decision to let our first dog remain at home as a treasured companion, and we went off in search of a superior dog with which to start showing seriously; invariably, as the idea of breeding now began to appeal, that would usually be a bitch. We studied the “look” of the dogs produced by the successful kennels and worked out if the dogs that appealed to us had common ancestors. If so, this was probably the breeding we should pursue.
If we were bold enough, we would approach one of these major breeders and ask if we could be considered for a puppy, clearly explaining our history, hopes and ambitions. We understood that we would have to wait for the right puppy. If we were lucky, we stumbled across a breed elder who recognized genuine enthusiasm and was prepared to part with a quality bitch puppy that could become our foundation. We were guided by “our” breeder, who also became an advisor and mentor. We asked which stud dogs would be suitable when it came to breed our bitch, we made our own suggestions and were prepared to accept that any response was made with the best of intentions and free of bias. Many lifelong friendships began in this way.
It is sad that these days so often when a leading breeder parts with a highly promising youngster to an overzealous newcomer, all advice is ignored, and within a short space of time the new owner is actually offering pearls of wisdom to the breeder, usually the result of ringside gossip. It is not hard to understand why such new owners are soon written off by their breeders and turn into yet another bitter and twisted disappointed loser.
There is a unique enthusiasm generated by putting a homebred baby into the ring. It is a source of great pride and an indication of the level of knowledge that the breeder has acquired. Exhibitors do not take kindly to having their homebred hopefuls criticized, but the sensible ones who will stay the course try to see them as objectively as possible. If their new star begins to win well, they were always quick to give credit to their mentor breeder and remained humble in the spotlight. Such mentors took great pleasure in seeing the protégés succeed and derived huge satisfaction from the fact that their faith and trust were not misplaced.
I have never understood the mentality of successful breeders who resent the wins of those they have started off – even if it means they have actually beaten their mentor on occasion. Surely that must be the greatest compliment of all? Yet today I see this happening more and more. We seem to have a generation of breeders who measure their success by what they do in the ring with the dogs they own, rather than the global picture of dogs produced from their stud dogs and bitches they have sold. It used to be more about THE BREED than the kennel.
When I was starting off, as exhibitors became breeders and appeared more frequently in the ring with quality homebreds, they were frequently spotted by the senior figures in the breed, who kept a discrete eye on them. When these breed elders suspected they were ready, they would often arrange a small judging appointment for the emerging breeder where they would watch their performance, often commenting afterward. If the reaction was a positive one, subsequent appointments would follow at more significant shows until such time as the fledgling judge was approved to judge their breed at a Championship show. They had served their apprenticeship and done it the right way, the way that was considered the norm in those days.
Today it is not uncommon to be aware of an exhibitor showing their very first dog expressing an interest in judging, and getting themselves voted on to a breed club committee to advance their career. They have come to the totally inaccurate conclusion that being a judge will help their own dogs’ chances in the ring, and it would never have occurred to them to question their knowledge or capability. In the old days successful exhibitors basically had to be pressured into taking on the judge’s mantle; today it seems they cannot step into the center of the ring quickly enough.
I remember a time when it was the dogs that did the talking and were the focal point of our dog shows. Outstanding dogs were acknowledged and recognised – whether they were being shown by a breeder of many years standing or a rank novice. Nowadays it seems that the dog world has seen a specialized kind of social climbing where the more ruthless and ambitious clearly think that their chances of success will be dramatically increased if they are seen in the “right” company, and many dubious “friendships” are cultivated with this express objective.
Judges who continued to be breeders and exhibitors accepted the fact that if they were invited to judge at a show, their dogs obviously could not compete at that show. Those who maintained respect were perfectly happy to combine their judging and exhibiting activities, the exhibiting tending to take priority if they were ever actually questioned on the subject.
Today, when human greed seems to know no bounds, we see established judges so desperate to also win that their dogs are officially transferred into the most tenuous of ownerships, be it husband, wife, son, daughter, distant cousin … or even hairdresser! No rules have actually been broken when a judge can officiate in one ring, his own dogs being shown in the adjacent ring by a handler. The conflicts of interest are unending – but they continue, and sad to say some of the main offenders are those in high office who are actually in a position to make the rules. It is little wonder that there is not the respect there once was for those at the top.
In the past, disappointments were discussed in the car on the journey home with a travelling companion. The day was analyzed and the judging discussed in minute detail. Sadly, it now seems that, often before arriving home, thanks to the cell phone, criticism is expressed on social media, where it seems that some people have no filter. Judges are pilloried, rival dogs pulled to pieces, characters assassinated … and invariably by people who would never dream of expressing such opinions publicly or face to face.
Longing for a return to the old days, with old values, creates great nostalgia, and much of it is justified.
Yes, the past certainly is another country.