Thursday, April 15, 2010

Terriers at the Tar Pit

Dogs from the early 1980s were decidedly smaller than the Plummers seen today.

Like all working terriers, a Plummer Terrier is a composite animal. The Plummer is made mostly out of Jack Russell, with a strong dash of beagle (added for nose, voice and coat color), and bull terrier (added for toughness and head size). A fell terrier was mixed in to improve the overall appearance.

This strain of terriers, first created by Brian Plummer in the late 1970s and 80s, started out -- by Plummer's own admission -- as genetic wrecks with shot jaws, an ugly appearance, foul tempers, and a tendency to be mute.

For anyone with a lick of sense, a caution flag should now pop up: Who in their right mind begins to breed from such a canine mess?

Brian Plummer did.

After a long period of outbreeding and culling, obvious genetic problems were worked out of the breed, but a new problem worked its way in -- today's dogs are often too big for truly tight underground work. Perhaps that is not a problem if you are developing a dog just for ratting, but was a new ratting dog actually needed?

In fact, is any new terrier breed needed? Is it too much to ask people to simply preserve and work the terrier breeds we already have?

It is not a question Plummer asked, and now the point is moot. The dog that has been created is attractive, and they certainly have their fans. The question now is whether the breed will make it as a worker among workers, will remain a generalized ratting terrier, or will be pulled into the Kennel Club to be little more than another show-ring trotter.

If salvation is to be had, it is in the hands of those few genuine diggers and dedicated ratters that are trying to size down the breed and keep it working (to one thing or another) on a regular basis. A proper nod to such people -- they certainly exist even if there are not too many of them.

If doom is to rear its head, it is in the form of internecine rivalries between breed clubs, hump-and-dump breeders, and rosette chasers that do not work their own dogs.

In fact, this is a threat to all working dogs of all breeds, and the Plummer terrier is no different.

As for Brian Plummer himself, he is dead, and presumably not too concerned with critics of his dogs, his books, or himself.

His books live on, and continue to be very fun reads, and deserve their spot in the lexicon of terrier literature.

They are certainly no worse than any others, and quite a bit better than most.

There seems to be universal agreement that Brian Plummer himself was a little odd. He liked to bait others into intemperance, and he was known to lift stories from others and present them as his own. He wrote an entire book, under a pseudonym, in which he variously quoted and criticized his own books -- a decidedly odd thing to do.

Plummer suffered from both depression (a true illness) and very marginal finances, and cranked out Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for cash even as he dabbled in recreating "lost" breeds like the Lucas Terrier and the Alaunt -- breeds that had slid into extinction in generations past because they no longer had a rational reason for existence or preservation. Today Plummer's "Lucas Terrier" is a scruffy show ring dog, while his "Alaunt" appears to be little more than a variation of the pig-working pitbull so common in the American South.

While he was alive, Plummer was drowning in dogs -- Bearded Collies, Alaunts, Lurchers, Plummer Terriers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, fell terriers, and White German Shepherds, to name just a few. He could not possibly have had time to work so many dogs, and those who visited his kennels reported they were often in a disgraceful state of upkeep.

That said, Plummer's books and dogs remain. Plummer terriers continue to rat and even work fox to ground if placed in the right hands.

The fact that some dogs do indeed work to ground seems to cause some distress to people that despised the man for his pretensions and slights. The fact that relatively few dogs work to ground, is similarly distressing to the other side. No matter. The dogs are what they are, same as the books.

The trouble ahead for the Plummer terrier appears to be a rush, by a foolish few, to usher the Plummer terrier into the tar pit of the Kennel Club, from which no other working breed has ever emerged intact and still working.

Tar pits look benign -- cool water tends to pool on top -- but nothing has ever come out of them but bones.

In the case of the Kennel Club, what has emerged, time and time again, are exaggerated dogs devoid of working instinct, nose, and common sense, with coats inappropriate for the job, and skeletal structures that are often inadequate for a day in the field.

No one who courses dogs looks to a Kennel Club dog to do the job, and the same is true for working sled dogs, herding dogs, cart dogs, pointers, setters, and retrievers.

Terriers are not an exception to the rule.

The key and recurring problem with working terriers drawn into the Kennel Club-- from Fox terriers to Sealyhams, Borders, Jack ("Parson") Russells to Fell ("Welsh") Terriers -- is size.

Why do working terrier breeds always seem to get too big in the chest after being listed on Kennel Club roles?

The answer is to be found in an inherent defect of the show ring, and a basic understanding of canine anatomy.

The essential elements of a working terrier are small chest size, strong prey-drive, a loud voice, a sensitive nose, and a clever kind of problem-solving intelligence.

Aside from size, none of these attributes can be judged at ringside.

In a judging field of 20 or 30 dogs, a selection filter of size alone does not provide the gradients required to articulate a reason for choosing a single dog or bitch as a winner.

The breed club solution has been to generate pages of cosmetic criteria which effectively devalue the only important attribute of a working terrier that can be judged in the ring — a small chest.

And it is no small matter that chest size is defined rather vaguely -- the span of a man's hand. Whose hand? Wilt Chamberlain's? In a world of micrometers, surely there is solid research on the true size of fox chests all over the world? Yet it is not used, because Kennel Club pretenders with hulking dogs find it easier to breed good-looking large dogs than small well-proportioned working dogs.

In the Kennel Club, head size and shape are deemed to be very important by theorists who assign a great number of points to this feature (see the Border Terrier for an example). It is head shape, after all, that gives each breed its distinctive look. It is the head that faces the quarry in the hole.

Surely the shape and size of a terrier's head is important?

In fact, when it comes to working terriers, head shape is only important to the extent that it leaves space for brains, produces a strong enough jaw to grip, and allows for unobstructed breathing.

Most crossbred mongrel terriers have heads shaped well enough to do the job.

As for size, in the world of working terriers, a bigger head is not necessarily better -- a point that is often overlooked by theorists who have spent far more time listening to show ring judges than they have their own dogs working their way through a tight den pipe.

Larger heads tend to be attached to larger chests — the latter being necessary to support the former. When terriers are bred for the "bully heads" that Kennel Club judges favor, the resulting dog is often large-chested as well.

It does not take too much gain in the chest for a dog to have quickly diminishing use in the field -- a point easily overlooked if you spend more hours at shows than you do with a shovel in the field.

Paths to destruction are often well-worn. The Plummer terrier is apparently sliding straight down the Kennel Club chute that so many other terrier breeds have gone down before.

The current rage is now to "out cross" Plummer terriers with bull terriers in order to "improve" and "strengthen" the head, which a few show ring breeders claim has grown "snipey."


It is their dog to breed and do with as they see fit. Each to his or her own, etc.

The fact that terrier breed after terrier breed has fallen into the Kennel Club trap of exaggerated heads and overlarge chests will not stop others from following on, any more than the predicament of a trapped Mastodon at the La Brea tar pits served as a warning to the Dire Wolf and Saber Tooth that followed.

Will the entire breed disappear into the tar pit? Time will tell. The tar is cunning, powerful and above all patient. It waits. Time will tell if it is fed.

A dire wolf and a saber tooth at the tar pit. "It looked like a good idea at the time."
This post is recycled from April 2006.

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