Pedigree chums

Patrick Galbraith salutes the perfection of “imperfect” dogs

Country Notes

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Having a child, I suspect, is much like having a dog. Not just because they both pee all over your house when they’re small, but because you can’t help thinking yours is utterly perfect, while everyone else sees things differently.

As a boy, I strongly felt there was no finer animal than my Jack Russell. It wasn’t just that she had a pretty face and was bold as a tiger, but she was also kind and open minded in a way that terriers tend not to be. When she was 13 months old, the best- looking girl in the year above painted her portrait. Charlotte Marlow, these days, is a successful artist but Hattie, I think, remains her greatest work.

Then, at two, a pal pointed out that something was wrong. “Always has been”, he reckoned. For some time, I remained in denial about “the dog’s wonky right leg” but in truth I could never really unsee it after that and even today, in her dotage, I feel it more dignified that she is photographed from the left.

It is not totally true to say that Hattie is a Jack Russell. Actually, it is doing her something of a disservice. She is in fact a Parson Russell Terrier and has the Kennel Club papers (pinned to the wall above her bed) to prove it. The less worldly among you probably won’t be aware but it was only in 1990 that the Parson Russell was officially designated.

Prior to that, a Jack Russell was whatever you wanted it be and for a long time all anyone cared about was that they could flush foxes and kill rats. “Trump”, the first of the line, was bought from a milkman by the eponymous John Russell in 1815, and was simply a small white dog with a game disposition. But with their recognition from the Kennel Club, came a rigid “breed type”.

A bitch, it is decreed, ought to be 13 inches tall, should have “a chest of moderate depth but not extending below point of elbow”, should stand on “muscular, well-developed thighs”, and must possess “strong slightly arched loins”. Any departure from this, it warns, “should be considered a fault”.

Hattie’s lineage is impressive; there are a number of serious show winners, whose perfect little physiques will have been achieved by very careful breeding. There are also a number of closely related dogs that appear again and again. No doubt they all had the perfect gait and those cute arched loins that turn heads at Crufts, but I can’t help but wonder if my treasured dog’s “wonky leg” is a bit like the Hapsburgs and those jaws.

There are few people who could claim to have upset more dog fanciers over the years than David Tomlinson. To those who simply want to work healthy animals, David’s tireless criticism of breeders obsessing over form rather than function is to be applauded, but his columns in the likes of The Field and Country Life, mean that he has long been less than welcome at the Kennel Club’s Clarges Street HQ.

David’s gripe is that he believes the show world has very warped ideas of what certain breeds should look like and will stop at nothing to get there. The sausage dog, he explained to me, is a classic example: “judges want these long backed, short legged things, rather than proper dogs”. Equally, David believes that what’s been done to the likes of the German Shepherd is nothing less than animal cruelty.

At Crufts, in 2016, a three year old German Shepherd bitch with a severely sloping back won Best in Show. David remembers “the poor thing hardly being able to walk”, and thinks we should be ashamed of judges applauding such a grotesquely accentuated example of a once-healthy breed.

He believes the show world has very warped ideas of what certain breeds should look like and will stop at nothing to get there

A fortnight ago, in Lincolnshire, while flighting ducks with a pal, I saw a display of gundog work that served as a reminder of just what incredible animals Labradors can be. A mallard had fallen some two hundred yards back into a potato field and by the time the flight was over, it was so dark I could hardly tell where the muddy bank ended and the pond began.

But Teasel, having marked it down, cast off into the breeze, on command, and cut through the blackness before reappearing at her master’s feet with the bird held softly in her mouth.

“A big tall dog,” I told David, “with a white fleck on her paw”. He shook his head and laughed, “she would never do in the show ring. The judges like them stumpy at the moment and carrying a lot of weight”.

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