Thanks to The Independant for this article.
Canine crusaders: Meet the dog-handlers dedicated to saving the best of British breeds
This evening, Crufts crowns its Best in Show at an event now dominated by fancy foreign breeds. Meanwhile, all that stands between our endangered native dogs and extinction is this proud band of costumed canine eccentrics…
By Hermione Eyre
Sunday, 9 March 2008
Today, in the main arena at Crufts, 21 dogs will take a musical lap of the ring to “Land of Hope and Glory”. They will be accompanied by handlers dressed as British historical characters associated with the breeds: “The Duke of Newcastle” with a clumber spaniel; “Beatrix Potter” with a Lakeland terrier; and “Bill Sikes” from Oliver Twist (“historical” is interpreted loosely here) with his miniature bull terrier, Bullseye. Some dogs will lope, some bound, and some for there is marked discrepancy in the leg-lengths of the breeds will run at turbo-trot. At least one owner will wave a little Union Jack. The whole bonkers parade would be a masterwork of patriotic kitsch were it not for the fact that there is a serious point: these dogs are running for their lives.
Last year there were 45,000 Labrador puppies born and registered with The Kennel Club. By contrast, the Glen of Imaal terrier (escorted here by, oh goodness, a lady dressed as a leprechaun) registered only 36. If a native breed consistently registers fewer than 300 puppies every year, The Kennel Club assigns it “vulnerable” status, recognising that its pure-bred gene pool is worryingly small, which may in turn lead to future inbreeding and litter depression. (No, they don’t need pet psychotherapy, you hopeless urbanite! “Litter depression” means three or four pups instead of 12.) The noble otter hound has a worldwide community of less than 1,000 and is therefore, according to the British & Irish Dog Breeds Preservation Trust, “twice as rare as the giant panda”. The harsh truth is that these dogs are losing popularity. Genetically, they are living on the edge.
But look at them! The teeth, the hair, the dignity! The insouciant flip-flop of the back paws! To see them is to love them, or so their owners believe, which is why they have organised this historical pageant. They reason that if ‘ people knew about these British breeds, they would choose them over the influx of foreign exotica: Affenpinschers, Weimaraners, lhasa apsos and the like. Ever since the pet passport scheme was introduced and quarantine laws were overhauled in 2001, these travellers from distant lands have become increasingly popular here, putting native breeds in the shade. Lindsay Lohan modelling her Maltese andMischa Barton showing off her Pomeranian haven’t helped. Those fashionable fluffballs make our sturdier British breeds look, well, square. The clumber spaniel is a fine dog, but he is never going to get into Bungalow 8 in a handbag.
To many native breeders, chihuahuas are the enemy. (And don’t even mention that modish crossbreed, the Labradoodle.) But have you noticed what is happening? This is starting to sound like sublimated nationalist rhetoric: these foreign hounds, they come over here and take our bones… There is sometimes a dash of xenophobia discernible in ‘ the way native dogs are discussed. “The Great British Dandie Dinmont terrier related to the Dachshund? Harrumph.”
However, consciously at least, the owners I spoke to are simply concerned with the preservation of their breeds; many have a small export market, so if they decline here, they risk total extinction. To add insult to injury, Crufts is becoming increasingly international. Of the 23,000 dogs competing this year, 1,165 are foreign-owned; four years ago it was just 370. And show dogs from abroad are beginning to clinch the top prizes. A Norwegian-owned poodle took the Best in Show title overseas for the first time in 2002, and the majority of winners since have been foreign. All this has led to accusations that The Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, is neglecting native breeds. Not so, say its representatives, citing today’s parade as proof the issue is a priority.
“We’re trying to raise these dogs’ profiles, with events at Crufts and Discover Dogs,” says Jeff Sampson, The Kennel ‘ Club’s genetics consultant. “And there’s a lot of ongoing research into why they are less popular than other breeds.”
Why indeed? “I cannot understand it,” says Peter Eva, of his beloved Manchester terriers. “Logic dictates every home should have at least one.” The breed is favoured in every way: “It has a single coat for ease of maintenance, amazing teeth, the agility and speed of a first-class athlete…” And last but not least: “Owners agree that the digestive system is like a stainless-steel tube that makes it fuss-free.”
But breeds have always come in and out of fashion. “Before the Second World War, the Wire Fox terrier was all the rage,” says Simon Parsons, of Dog World newspaper. “Then we had the peak of poodle popularity, the Afghan boom in the swinging 1960s and 1970s and the worrying proliferation of ‘macho’ breeds, which seemed to go with the national mood of the 1980s.” And all booms bust. ‘
Some of the dogs in this pageant had their heyday a long time ago: otter hounds were very thick with Henry VIII. To keep these breeds alive, says Sampson, we need to “broaden the parental base”. This can mean parachuting in help from abroad: some dogs in this parade were sired by expats (native breeds resident abroad for several generations), and Sampson also advises that domestic owners of vulnerable breeds should consider mating their dogs once or twice a lifetime, rather than having them customarily spayed.
So here they are, 10 dogs from six of the rarest British breeds. The studio session was just like a Vanity Fair photo-shoot, with slightly more slobber though the dogs treated one another remarkably amicably; 10 starlets would have done much more growling. The only time a yowl was heard was when the master of the otter hounds went to get changed, and his two hounds made a little bereft exclamation. Let us hope it is not we who, ultimately, are left bereft of them.