Foxhounds in a 19th-Century kennel.
Wed, 03/24/2021 - 10:01am

Change of Scene

Andrew Brace traces the transformation of purebred dog breeding

When dog shows first began in the U.K., the participants tended to be polarized within the social spectrum.

There were the wealthy landowners who could afford gamekeepers and numerous kennel staff and who kept primarily sporting gundogs and built lavish kennels. The working classes tended to focus on terriers and other small breeds; dogs kept down vermin in many small households, while the breeders often kept dogs on small plots away from their homes. Indeed, where I grew up in South Wales I can remember several local terrier men who kept their dogs on their allotments (small plots of land away from home), along with chickens, pigeons and large vegetable patches. They would often finish work, many of them being coal miners, and spend many hours in their sheds hand-stripping their terriers for the next show.

The Victorians’ love of both dogs and hobbies meant that dog showing and activities became very popular in the 19th Century. The first conformation dog show was held in the Town Hall, Newcastle-on-Tyne, in 1859, and the next decades saw explosive growth in this new and fashionable hobby.

The first organized field trial took place at Southill in 1865, and this sport also gained a large following. While field trials were very much for the country gent, dog shows were an urban activity, accessible to people of all classes and popular both with exhibitors and spectators. 

During this period, companion breeds that are now classified in our Toy Group increased dramatically in popularity as dog shows became more numerous. The role of the dog show was originally something of a breeders’ shop window. Breeders were eager not only to display the stock they were producing, but they were also interested in seeing what other breeders were turning out, keen to identify dogs that might be of use in their own breeding programs. In those days travel was not easy, and often dogs would be sent with their handlers by rail to attend important dog shows.

In the early days, paperwork and pedigrees were rather haphazard, but the formation of the Kennel Club helped to formalize recordkeeping. The founders of the Kennel Club wanted to ensure that all dog shows and field trials were run fairly and honestly and with the welfare of the dogs in mind, so they set up the Kennel Club to govern these events nationwide. In 1874, the first Kennel Club Stud Book was published. It listed the results of all dog shows and field trials since 1859 and included sets of rules for running them. A Kennel Club Stud Book has been published every year since and provides a record of results for all championship dog shows, field trials and other dog activities, such as obedience and agility. 

Another important task for the newly formed Kennel Club to undertake was to have a register of dogs so they could be identified properly. In 1880, the first monthly register of dog names was printed in the very first issue of the Kennel Gazette. These registration records ensured that each dog could be uniquely identified and, over the years, have provided the source of pedigree information for every dog on the Kennel Club's breed registers.

The early breeders were very much of the stockman mentality. Many of them kept not only dogs but also horses, cattle, sheep and other livestock. They had an instinctive “feel” for producing livestock and tended to select breeding stock based on what dog they felt complemented their bitch.

Dogs were fed very basically, usually with meat and some kind of biscuit meal, and oftentimes growing puppies were given supplements that contained calcium and other additives. The attitude toward the majority of dogs was equally basic. Bitches would often be left to whelp on straw in stables or outside kennels, not always attended, and the whelping process left to nature. If some puppies were born dead, it was accepted that there was a problem, and equally if puppies faded away they were allowed to do so, the belief being that only the fittest should survive.

To us today this might seem rather callous and heartless, but certainly there were no attempts made to ensure that struggling puppies survived at all costs, thus enabling a potentially defective adult to enter the gene pool at a later date. Today the thinking among breeders and the veterinary profession seems to be that life must be preserved regardless.

As the middle class prospered and the number of great landowners who kept large kennels diminished, so the hobby breeders increased, their dogs being kept primarily as companions and breeding occasional litters when they needed something to show. Sad to say, but in the case of some breeders a weakly puppy that clearly has problems is now seen as a potential sale for $2,000 and consequently is reared if at all possible. This may be seen as a caring attitude, but does it really benefit the breed?

I never bred dogs on a large scale when I was active; I had the occasional litter when I wanted something new to show and I hated selling puppies, always concerned that they were going to the best homes. Thankfully most did, and I only ever had one returned when the puppy did not meet his owners’ expectations at his first show!

Breeding dogs today has become something of a minefield. Many breeds have developed health issues that were previously unknown (is this a result of so many sickly puppies being raised and then bred from, rather than being allowed to fade away naturally? … who knows?), and there are now so many health tests that breeding stock need to be put through if their owners are responsible. Since 1949, the Kennel Club has been investing in veterinary and scientific research projects to ensure the improved health and welfare of dogs. Modern health testing began to be developed in conjunction with the British Veterinary Association in the 1960s, and now the Kennel Club manages testing schemes and publishes test results for a whole range of inherited conditions.

There are also restrictions on the level of close breeding that the Kennel Club will approve. Gone are the days when inbreeding could take place, and sires could be used on their daughters and so on. Some would say this is a good thing if you look at it logically, whereas the old school would say that inbreeding was the best way of fixing type in a kennel. Nonetheless we are still thankfully far away from some countries’ breeding rules in that we do not have a “breed warden” telling us which dogs we can or cannot use at stud on a particular bitch.

Selling puppies has now become quite a complex aspect of breeding. There are contracts to be signed and recent cases have proved that when there are disputes the law invariably comes down on the side of the buyer … in my opinion, sometimes unreasonably so.

When breeders had larger facilities and greater disposable incomes it was possible to run on a few promising puppies from a litter, watching them develop until they reached their first birthday, thus ensuring that what they kept was definitely the pick of the litter. Today not everyone can afford that luxury, and so the decision as to the “keeper” has to be made at a much earlier age. We all know that some puppies blossom with age whereas others go off never to fulfill their previous promise, so this in itself can be hazardous.

Interestingly, when I first became involved with dogs and dog shows, stud fees were generally considered to be the same price as a “pick of litter” puppy, and you often saw advertisements for stud dogs that clearly stated “18 guineas or POL” (that was 18 pounds and 18 shillings for those less ancient than me!), and amazingly breeders would often be happy for the stud-dog owner to take his or her pick of the litter in lieu of a stud fee, often handing over the puppy unregistered, too. Can you imagine any keen breeder agreeing to that these days? It would also be interesting to know how current stud fees relate to the cost of a “pick of litter” puppy; certainly in most breeds with which I have been involved the stud fee is considerably lower than the cost of an average puppy.

Then you have the whole question of breeders’ licenses issued by local authorities. Most dedicated breeders will pass any requirements with flying colors, but sometimes I have heard of rather extreme demands by local councils, which makes it even more unfathomable how some of the large-scale puppy farms manage to continue unhindered and with local authority approval.

The Kennel Club’s Assured Breeders Scheme was set up some years ago and has been met with mixed reactions. Certainly the ABS goes a long way to ensure that breeders meet exacting standards and must give some kind of reassurance to puppy buyers.

Nowadays the whole dog world has opened up, and we are living in a very cosmopolitan environment. With the advent of the internet, breeders have access to others worldwide and those who are keen to improve their stock can study, research and identify breeders at the other end of the world who are producing dogs they admire on a regular basis. It is possible to watch a litter of puppies thousands of miles away via a video link, and see them stacked and running around, which gives breeders a huge advantage if they are thinking of importing some new blood in the form of a young puppy.

Many smart breeders in the U.K. have developed long-standing relationships with breeders in other countries, which has enabled them to exchange dogs and increase the gene pool in their respective countries. Today it is not uncommon to see dogs being leased for a period of time, shown elsewhere, and being used sensibly at stud before returning to their homeland. In the case of the rarer breeds where numbers are not large, this has been a great boost.

Artificial insemination has become more and more common. In the U.S., where vast distances have to be covered to use a chosen stud dog, this has been popular for many years, but now British breeders can avail themselves of chilled or frozen semen, and thankfully our Kennel Club has adopted a more open-minded and realistic attitude toward a practice that was once frowned upon. British breeders are now able to import semen to use on their bitches and to export semen from their stud dogs to breeders overseas who admire what they are producing here in the U.K.

Another huge thorn in the side of the purebred dog breeder is the general public’s perception of the pedigree. When I began back in the ’60s, owning a pedigree dog was something to be proud of, and while this is still the case with many people, we have seen such negative publicity in the recent past that it has left many of the ill-informed puppy buyers believing that all pedigree puppies are riddled with hereditary problems, that mongrels are automatically far healthier, and that the ultimate is one of the ridiculous “designer dogs.” Thanks to the wealthy animal-rights groups such as PETA, the image of the purebred companion canine has been well and truly tarnished.

Since I moved to The Wirral I often – in pre-COVID times – took my mother for a leisurely stroll along the waterfront at New Brighton, a popular location for dog walkers. It has been interesting to identify the dogs spotted on our visits, and the vast majority I have seen have been French Bulldogs (most of them not very good specimens, I hasten to add, and many of colors not included in the breed standard), and what I imagine are referred to as “Labradoodles” or “Cockapoos” by their loving owners. So today dedicated purebred-dog breeders have a greater challenge than ever before to get their message across to the public. When you buy a purebred puppy from a respected and conscientious breeder you will get a puppy that will grow up to be a certain size and shape with a specific coat and a temperament that is typical of its breed. It will resemble its parents and should have an approximate lifespan.

Since the appearance of COVID-19, we have seen an incredible shift in puppy buying here in the U.K. Those responsible breeders who show their dogs as a hobby have continued to breed the occasional litter and sell puppies for similar prices. With an increase in demand for companion puppies when people find themselves spending more time at home, demand has exceeded supply. This has played into the hands of the commercial puppy farmer, and ironically this sector seems to have hiked its prices up to an alarming level. Sadly, the uninitiated general public seem to be believe that the higher the price, the better the puppy, and I personally have known of several bona-fide breeders who have had puppies booked, only to have buyers cancel because they went to a commercial breeder and paid a higher price, believing they would get a superior puppy. If only they knew! Even more puzzling is the fact that first-generation crossbreds given fancy names command far higher prices than a well-bred puppy in either of the parent breeds. We are living in a crazy world.

Today it is not easy being a breeder of purebred dogs, but thankfully we still have a band of dedicated breeders who are determined to maintain and improve the breeds in their care. Nowadays their challenge is greater than ever.




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