Thursday, 7 March 2013

Points win prizes - but wreck dogs

As Crufts Dog Show begins its annual four-day jamboree at the NEC in Birmingham today, a team at the University of Manchester University researching the history of pedigree dogs has pinpointed who I can blame for bigging up the idea that you can judge the worth of a dog by its appearance.

The guilty party? John Henry Walsh.

The team, researching the history of pedigree dogs, has unearthed an article by John Henry Walsh published in the Field Magazine in 1865 which, according to a press release from the University of Manchester,  details the first attempt to define a breed standard based on physical form - a description of a Pointer called Major.

This, says the release, is "one of the most important milestones in the six-thousand-year-old relationship between canines and man."

Well arguably. 

Detailed descriptions of individual breeds were in existence some years before 1865. John Henry Walsh, writing under the pseudonym Stonehenge, wrote "The Dog: In Health and In Disease" in 1859 and it contained a detailed description of the English Pointer and many other breeds. Before him, William Youatt described different breeds of dog in "The Dog" and of course distinct types of dogs have been been in existence and described or illustrated in various forms for thousands of years.

But it is certainly true that Walsh helped formalise the whole process. He was one of three judges at the first formal dog show in Newcastle in 1859, and he developing a points system as a means to judge various physical attributes (nicked from Plato, as it happens - and also pigeon-fancying where presumably a pigeon chest is not a fault).

Here's an example from Walsh's description of the Bloodhound (yep... that's what a bloodhound looked like 150 years ago...).

As you can see, Stonehenge marks a dog out of a 100 based entirely on physical points whereas the whole point of a bloodhound - and why it was developed -  is what it does, not what it looks like. Of course, 160 years on, too many breeders still labour under the conceit that function follows form, not the other way round. It is entirely possible for a bloodhound with no tracking/scenting ability to win Best of Breed at Crufts. It's a nonsense. Was then and it remains so today.

The Field is a rich source for the early criticism of dog shows. In an article called "Breeding up to Defects" published in 1862, "Old Towler" complains that bloodhounds now had ‘long pendulous ears and lips – the drooping eye, the shambling gait, and the slovenly way to dropping and eating its food – all defects which judges deem beauties’. And yet as you can see, the illustration above from just a few years earlier, shows a much more moderate animal than you'll see today. Old Tower also wrote that Bulldogs had been bred with ‘a ridiculously short nose, and a great projection of the under jaw’.  He urged breeders to ‘get rid of that absurd “stop” between the eyes; it is a very great defect, and injures the scent.  We might as well breed a dog with one eye as with no nose’.

‘Old Towler’ was also uncompromising about the short, flat faces in toy dogs, arguing that ‘Dogs of no sort should be subjected to such freaks, nor should judges countenance the abortions with mere fashion in breeding produces’.

Lessons from history. Mostly ignored.


  1. (Resent due to my e-mail sending me to the wrong page, with apologies)

    I'm an Art History PhD student, also researching the dog, and I own a copy of 'Dogs of the British Islands', which contain the images you've shown (I believe) in a sort of summary about how people were discussing dogs in The Field at the time.

    I can say it certainly makes for an interesting read, and there is defiantly a focus made on breed appearance and provenance over practicality. Judging how a dog 'should' look based on engravings is certainly an interesting notion.

  2. Agreed Jemima. The show ring is not the platform for assessing what really matters for the dog's welfare.

    Currently watching Crufts with my healthy adopted heinz57 mutt curled up on my lap after a lovely long walk. I enjoy the agility and Flyball- seeing dogs work with their handlers is wonderful.

    Already sent my first email in to Channel 4 asking why the word outcrossing has not been mentioned when discussing the High Profile breeds. The vet check is better than nothing but hardly vigorous testing? What if the vet is breed biased? Or am I just so cynical now that I really don't have any faith in the KC?!?


  3. While Stonehenge may have played a role in the development of the attitude that led to modern breed standards after the mid-19th Century, he was certainly not the first to establish that sort of meticulous description of breeds based on their outside appearance. For example, I suggest having a look at Toplin's "Sportsman's Cabinet" from 1803/04 for an earlier example of basically the same way of thinking.

  4. Why is it that the dog breeding and showing pastime seems dominated by females, has it always been this way?

    1. Largely because of cultural sexism - the encouragement of women to caring positions (including of animals), women being paid less (and so the Mr. must go to work outside of the home to support the endeavor), men being criticized as "not real men" for liking cute or curly puppies or taking care of infants of any species, etc. Plus, manipulating others (including dogs and their genetics) tends to be one of the few avenues to accrue status for women, as well as the glamour of the supposedly beautiful and noble creatures they are associated with and their creatorship.

  5. I would actually beg to differ that the engraving in the picture is what a bloodhound looked like 150 years ago. Merely an artists impression. maybe you should research a little more and find a picture of one of Edwin Broughs (who wrote the standard with Sydney Turner) who was mainly interested in the tracking ability of the bloodhound