Mixed messages and strange priorities by Andrew Brace

Created: 02/05/2012

Mixed messages and  strange priorities by Andrew Brace

The Old English Sheepdog is a breed I have watched closely for many years; I have several good friends in the breed and over the years have judged several outstanding specimens. The breed as I see it is a very natural looking one, and its breed Standard is quite specific on coat when it says, "Of good harsh texture, not straight, but shaggy and free from curl. Undercoat of waterproof pile. Head and skull well covered with hair, ears moderately coated, neck well coated, forelegs well coated all round, hindquarters more heavily coated than rest of body. Quality, texture, and profusion to be considered above length and profusion ... the natural outline should not be artificially changed by scissoring or clipping.”
It is not surprising that the Old English people are less than happy with the inclusion that appeared on March 23 this year on the Kennel Club’s ‘Breed Watch’ which states: "Points of concern for special attention by judges – excessively long and profuse coat.”
My first memories of the breed go back to my teeth-cutting days around the South Wales open shows when quality Old English were regularly shown by the likes of Nana Woodford, her daughter Gwen Mogford, Betty Tidley and Joan Real, all resplendent in their white overalls as in those days you could chalk happily and sensibly without any fear of recrimination.
Old English that have the correct density and texture of coat should make a pleasing picture that would satisfy any knowledgeable judge of the breed without being scissored, clipped, sculpted or lacquered. I have seen many Old English in Europe and the US whose presentation is so hideously overdone that it simply jars my eye when I see grotesque caricatures that look rather like giant Bichons (another breed that "may be presented untrimmed or have muzzle and feet slightly tidied up” but whose presentation in the vast majority of cases goes well beyond the KC Standard’s recommendation ... but that’s another story altogether!).
Our Dogs’ newly discovered columnist Alan Hedges recently wrote a piece that was entitled ‘Confused’ and I could very easily have used the same header for this particular Going Around. To begin with, what genius in Clarges Street decided that profusion of coat was a major health threat to the Old English? (I understand that the points listed in its Breed Watch are there with a view to improving health and welfare.) I’ll wager it was no one who had any connection with the breed!
Given that judges start penalising profusion of coats (and personally I doubt that many will, other than some over-zealous PC-mad wannabe all-rounder) are they not in danger of putting up dogs that are clearly in breach of the breed Standard in that they will have been "artificially changed by scissoring or clipping”?
We have already seen some European Old English winning at our major shows that one would assume have been subjected to considerably more than a thorough grooming with a good old fashioned brush and comb. Let’s hope that this new Breed Watch directive does not open the floodgates and encourage a new and completely incorrect look of a long established breed that can be so beautiful when presented naturally.
The main doggy activity of the week has been a lengthy meeting of the steering group of the Canine Alliance which began at 11am and finished at 7.45 in the evening. I was rather saddened to see one posting on the CA Facebook page that asked if the members of the group were receiving expenses! How sad some people are. Is it impossible for them to believe that 14 people who have extremely busy lives with many commitments outside of the Alliance are happy to give up a day, travel miles, eat and drink at their own expense simply because they believe in what they are doing?
  The rest of the week was spent planning a milestone birthday party. I am finding it hard to believe that I have been on this earth for six decades and wonder where the time has gone. At the party will be 60 friends and every one of them is or has been involved with the world of dog shows. They are the friends who have stuck the course. I value each and every one of them and I am grateful for a sport that brought them into my life.
Even now, almost 50 years after I saw my first litter of puppies, I get a rush of adrenalin every time I visit breeder friends and look at a bitch with her whelps, almost sub-consciously trying to work out which of the clutch has the most virtues that could carry it to the top in the show ring while acknowledging some appealing factor in every puppy.
When I was actively exhibiting and breeding, my dogs were first and foremost companions. They lived in the house rather than in kennels and numbers never got into double figures. My dogs were as well trained and sociable as my sister’s children. They were brought up to be well-mannered members of society and they were looked after; they were cherished.
In the interests of safety they lived in a home with a large garden that was fenced so they could not roam at will and risk damage to themselves or others. When we travelled by road they would rest comfortably in a purpose-built crate into which they would rush with gusto whenever they saw it. When we walked around town they did so on a collar and lead, happy to walk alongside me, a human animal with whom they had developed a special bond.
One of the dangers with some people who describe themselves as animal lovers is that they tend to anthropomorphise all forms of life and to them dogs just become little four-legged people. Dogs are not people, and much as we feel great affection for our dogs, we are capable of differentiating between them and the human beings in our life – even though the dogs may often be capable of triggering off much deeper waves of emotion one way or another.
If our dogs were little people however, I somehow doubt that they would view the kind of lifestyle to which most of our companion show dogs are subject as imprisonment. I imagine they would see their lives as being based on routine with ample opportunity to, a) interact with their four-legged friends and, b) enjoy quality time with their chosen bonded humans. They would appreciate the comfort in which they are kept, the fact that they are regularly fed and watered, groomed and educated.
I don’t imagine they would have too much a problem with being taken to a dog show every few weeks where they can strut their stuff and be admired by many who have spent a lifetime studying their species.
There are individuals who see the very concept of breeding and showing purebred dogs as unacceptable because of principles that we find hard to understand. They have a message and a goal, and long term their idea of Utopia is seeing every domestic animal struggling to exist in the wild with no human intervention. For ‘Utopia’ read ‘Chaos’. These are the people who threaten the sport we love so much and the individual breeds we cherish.


Spotty Muldoon, 03/05/2012

My dogs are as well behaved as my sister's children too. It ain't good! But we do our best, me and my sis. In the last week I have come across 2 dogs. One, a terrier, kept in show kennels. Lovely in the ring and a wreck outside it. The other, a gundog, bought for good looks and clean lines, when even the most cursory internet research would throw up some temperament traits that should scare off the inexperienced. Both dogs in new homes. We don't all seem to be good at determining how dogs will fit into our lifestyles. We simply expect them to, and then despair when they don't.