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The Future of Dogs

In 1931, the famed Terrier expert, Sir Jocelyn Lucas, noted that “the show bench is ruining Sealyhams as a worker” and lamented the “post-[First World] war craze for enormous heads.” Cairn and West Highland Terriers bred for show, Lucas reported, had become too “nervy to be a success underground.” The “show bench” he also said, has “ruined” Dandie Dinmonts and they, along with Cairn, West Highland and Scottish Terriers, are “chiefly known for show or as companions, for which latter purpose they are well suited, since they are very nice dogs, take up little room and require little exercise.”

To be sure, many nonsporting dogs were nice. In fact, they often made better pets. Sporting dogs were not for everyone—not even for most people. Bred to find, chase or kill game or varmints, they were too aggressive. They had more energy than their owners could tolerate, requiring virtual marathon runs to give them sufficient exercise to prevent their tearing the family sofa to shreds.

Jack Russells had all these faults. What concerned people like Lucas was not that show dogs were undesirable but that they threatened the future of sporting dogs. As more dogs were bred for pets and show, sporting-dog numbers declined. Would, they wondered, sporting dogs—and most important, their qualities of courage, strength, stamina, hunting ability and genetic diversity—eventually disappear altogether?

Driven by Demand
Whatever its ultimate effect, nothing could contain the exploding demand for show and pet breeds. And paradoxically, the more these dogs became unlike their sporting ancestors, the more they would be touted as replicas of the “original” dogs.

Each breed club began to promote theirs as “ancient”—a living relic of an earlier time. Making these claims required maintaining the myth of direct descendancy from the “original” dogs. Yet such “original” dogs never existed. The very concept of a breed—dogs whose reproduction was carefully restricted via a closed stud book to dogs descended from the same foundation stock—was an invention of the breeder associations.

However mythical, these claims of old lineage tapped the wellspring of show dogs’ appeal. For while we may love our dogs whether they’re deemed “ancient” or not, imagining them as relics of an early, pastoral way of life resonates within us. No matter where we live or what we do, love of the land is in our blood. For millennia, dogs and people lived on the land, working, herding, hunting, defending, rescuing. And when people began moving to cities, they yearned for the pastoral way of life all the more. They still do. Dogs preserve for us an emotional connection to our bucolic past that remains in memory and imagination. And when they demand that we take them for walks, they reawaken this connection. They become guides in a journey to rediscover our own genetic roots.

By the 1950s, the working- and show-dog cultures were following entirely separate paths, isolated from—and often hostile toward—each other. But demographics were on the side of the show dog. As the century wore on, show dogs waxed as working dogs of all kinds, from Shepherds to Terriers, waned.

Meanwhile, paradoxically, in England, JRs were becoming wildly popular. Even while they remained favorites of fox hunters, the feisty Terriers had been discovered by the working classes as well. Some took them as pets and others put them to work killing rats, stoats and rabbits. The new owners began breeding them for such a variety of jobs that “the mongrelly Jack Russell,” as Terrier historian D. Brian Plummer put it, “became even more mongrelly.”

“The first hunt Terrier shows I attended in the 1950s,” Plummer wrote, “were indeed extraordinary sights, with the most amazingly variable types of dog being proudly shown as genuine Jack Russells; some of them displayed hints of Collie, or, not infrequently, Dachshund, in their lineage. Many were quite hideous, but handsome is as handsome does, and some of those monstrosities proved to be incredibly good workers.”

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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