Thoughts upon meeting a canine champion

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So, as anybody who reads WINOW for more than a day or two knows, I'm a dog person. In my case, "dog person" means someone who loves dogs, has dogs, volunteers for dog rescue, and has done quite a bit of dog training work. It means someone who has all sorts of opinions on dog politics and health care. It doesn't mean someone who knows a damn thing about grooming or really much at all about breeds or showing or dog pedagogy. For that stuff, by all means let me refer you to Joanna's amazing blog. Joanna knows her dogs.

I've never been to a dog show. I watch them on TV, but I've never attended one. I have been exposed to show dogs only in the form of the relatively low-ranking show Akitas and Boston Terriers raised by my family. Due, I guess, to this lack of information, I haven't ever really considered that there is a world of difference between a champion dog and a "regular" dog.

unoAnd then, on Saturday, I met Uno.

Remember Uno? The beagle who won the Westminster Dog Show last year? First beagle ever? His owner was kind enough to bring him to an event we held for Hound Rescue this weekend. He was a big draw and we got a ton of donations, but beyond that, I think seeing him was really eye opening for some of our rescuers. I know it was for me.

Over the past couple of years, I've either fostered or evaluated lots of beagles. At least a couple of dozen. Some of them have clearly been mixes, some poorly bred, a couple AKC-registered. I have never seen a beagle that looks anything like Uno.

yogi close upThis is a picture of Yogi, who we fostered last year. Yogi was pretty typical of the dogs we see in rescue--likely full beagle, but not "perfect." The "flaws" in his body were pretty obvious--heavy set, short legs, smoother and longer than breed standard tail, etc. These are areas in which I'd expect our average foster dog to differ from Uno. What is really interesting and surprising to me, though, is the face. Yogi's face, as you can see, has a very definite point, with pointed ears and a narrower forhead.

unofaceThis is Uno's face. The jaw is much more square, the ears are set differently, they eyes are farther apart. This, apparently, is what a beagle is supposed to look like.

So what happened? Why have I never seen a beagle that looks like Uno before, if Uno is the standard for beagles?

Dogs bred indescriminately is what happened. The beagles I know and love don't look like Uno because Uno is a purposeful creation. Before Uno was ever conceived of, people were thinking about the genetics that would make him up--his perfect head, his perfect stack, his perfect little beagle yodel. Uno is, frankly, eugenics. My beagles are, by and large, accidents.

None of this is to say that Uno is "better" than any beagle I've ever fostered. He seemed like a very nice little dog, but I'll keep Huey, who is, frankly, funny looking, but has one of the best canine personalities I've ever encountered. But Uno is markedly different than our dogs. It seems almost wrong to call Uno and Huey (or Yogi, or any of our beagles) the same breed. I hadn't realized it before, but even if you are comparing two "full bred" dogs, the difference between one that is intentionally and carefully bred and one that isn't is almost as big as the difference between one breed and another.

All of which is to say that I think, finally, I kind of understand what good breeders are trying to do in protecting the integrity of breeds. Had I never met Uno, I honestly would not have known that our beagles, varied and wonderful as they are, do not very well represent the beagle breed standard. I love every one of our muttly beagle crew, but even those among them who are likely "pure" beagle are steps away from, rather than towards, what beagles are "supposed" to be.

Whether or not maintaining the greatest possible variety of differnet breeds is imporant is, of course, a matter of debate. If you think it is, however, this illustration proves, at least to me, that intentional and careful breeding is the only way to succesfully do that.

7 Comments

Great post Grace!

Joanna mentioned going to a dog show one time where a pug rescue also had some of their dogs and a champion show pug for comparison. The difference between "accident" pugs and show pugs is HUGE. And they're a breed where the closer to the standard, the healthier they are.

Our pug Aggie, while the cutest thing on four legs, is far from the show standard and this puts her at greater risk of several health issues. Mainly issues with her breathing and her eyes (they protrude to much, which makes them more likely to pop out!).

I also think it's great that his breeder is helping out hound rescue! Do you know if he's made appearances at other rescues?

When we got Ranger (shelter dog, probably "purebred" rough collie, picked up as stray) I looked up collies to see how close he was to standard. While beautiful, he is nowhere near standard (which is what I expected) -- his ears point up, instead of having a small fold at the point, and he is built kind of oddly, possibly from malnutrition in his early months.

The most interesting thing, though, is how important character and expression are for a collie, and how a shy, timid expression is as bad a fault as something physical. Ranger has a sweet face, but he is a timid, submissive dog, and it shows in his expression. No medals for him.

I am a big fan of the mutt, as you may know from my millions of photos of my dear Goldie dog (greyhound/lab/maybe something else).

But I thought that Uno was so cute that I had his photo as my screen saver for a long time. He is one pretty dog!

Wow, when you meet your first show beagle you don't fool around, do you?

Uno is absolutely astounding; he is as close to flawless as I've ever seen a dog be. In most show dogs, even ranked champions, you can pick one one or more minor flaws. It might be useful for you to look at Westminster's videos for 2008 to see the class that Uno was in and look at the differences between dogs - even among all those gorgeous Beagles, you can't take your eyes off him.

Which is a long way of saying that most show breeders never get an Uno, and those who do almost never get more than one in a lifetime. But trying to get there, not just to the perfect head but the balanced body and free-flowing movement with perfect economy (no movement of the body anything but forward - no jiggle in the topline or paddling of the legs or structural faults on the move), is what drives most of us.

What you're talking about, where the vast majority of the dogs out there don't come even close to breed standard, is why I think "counterfeit" comes closer than "carelessly bred" to describing what happens to the dogs. You think you're buying everything that you've read about and seen on TV, but in fact very little has been preserved in the dog except the breed name. So please, PLEASE do ADOPT those dogs, because they deserve every bit of the amazing life that Uno has lived, but don't pay for them any more than you'd pay for Monopoly money.

I am horribly envious that you got to meet him - I've been in the same building as him but never saw him up close. He is by all accounts a good boy, which is even more important than his looks.

Isn't it amazing the difference after you see a well bred version of the same breed? Any time I have come across one I then find myself noticing the "faults" in all others I see of that breed. I use "" since sometimes those are the things that endear them to us. I do think that purposeful breeding is important, since wouldn't it be sad if they stopped trying, letting it all be accidental and there was never again a Beagle like Uno? I am looking into getting a purebred of the breed of dog I have wanted for about 6 years, and while I don't require a show quality pet, I am trying to make sure I get my puppy from a breeder who is purposefully breeding to better the breed.

I completely agree with everything in this post. If only all dog owners thought this way!

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