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The Future of Dogs

The earliest visible sign of this change were dog shows, the first ever held in England in 1859 at Newcastle-on-Tyne. Three years later in Birmingham, England, Fox Terriers competed prominently for the first time. By the 1880s, dog shows were wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. And as they multiplied, so did breeder associations, which set conformation standards and kept pedigree registries. These groups joined to form national kennel clubs to coordinate their activities, promote their dogs and organize shows. England’s Kennel Club was formed in 1873 and the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1884. (The first U.S. show—New York’s Westminster—was held in 1877, sponsored by the Westminster Kennel Club.)

With the advent of dog shows and breed clubs came a whole new idea of what the perfect dog should be. Whereas sporting dogs were judged by their stamina, hunting ability and courage, show dogs were measured by their beauty, style and how closely they supposedly resembled their progenitors. Breeders sought to produce dogs with perfect form. They wanted uniformity in appearance, which could only be achieved by closing the stud book. A Sealyham or Scottish Terrier must have parents who are Sealyhams or Scotties, and so on back to their foundation stock, somewhere in the mists of time.

Unfortunately, closing the stud book inevitably leads to what biologist Raymond Coppinger would later call “an evolutionary dead-end”:

    Sexual isolation from the greater population of dogs leads almost inevitably to dire consequences for those dogs that get trapped in a pure breed .... Once the stud book is closed on a breed, it is unbelievable how fast they become inbred …They are caught in a genetic trap.

The purpose of such close breeding was to replicate dogs, ensuring that they resembled their parents as closely as possible by reducing genetic variability. But rather than preventing change, this hastened it. By reinforcing familial genes, close breeding not only increased chances the pups might share desired characteristics—the same head shape or coat color, for example—but also made it more probable that they’d share undesirable traits as well, such as the same allergy or propensity for kidney disease. And since no one knew what all the genes did, reducing their diversity put affected animals at risk in the same way that today, the lack of genetic diversity threatens cheetahs with extinction, or declining biological diversity imperils the health of natural ecosystems.

Useless Beauty
While no one anticipated all the ways show breeding might change dogs, nevertheless, many sporting Terrier people, including Reverend Russell, were unhappy with this development. By 1867, just eight years after the first dog show, the famed dog expert Thomas Pearce, writing under the pseudonym “Idstone,” complained to the editors of Field magazine that “dog shows do tend to the production of useless beauties. This applies to every description of dog, and it is an evil we cannot remedy.” Because dogs were judged on looks rather than ability, he noted, often prizes went to exactly the wrong dogs. “Every year,” he continued, “dogs … will be taking first prizes, champion prizes and medals. The drones will be decorated whilst the bees are left unnoticed … the test of the worth of the dog is wanting, especially as regards courage.”

Consequently, Pearce noted, many purebred Terriers had become “poor, craven, shivering, shy, nervous animals, destitute of any qualification for the active, hustling, neck-or-nothing life of a country gentleman’s companion.”

Pearce and his contemporaries had a right to worry. Show breeders were changing the character, conformation and abilities of dogs as they sought to follow the fluctuations of fashion. “The better bred [Fox and Sealyham Terriers] are, of less value they are for work,” wrote J.C. Bristow-Noble, author of Working Terriers in 1919. Few of his “well-bred” dogs were “of use for real work,” he wrote. “Their noses were far from true, all grew to too large a size, particularly the Sealyhams; all lacked stamina, courage, and intelligence … so at length I gave up the attempt of making workers out of pedigree Terriers and confined myself to building up a strain of workers from crossbred Terriers.”

Alston Chase is one of America's foremost nonfiction writers and a leading scholar specializing in intellectual and environmental history. In 1992, he received an Ark Trust Genesis Award Commendation. He, his wife Diana and their seven dogs live in Paradise Valley, Mont.

Photograph coutresy Alston Chase

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