It's often been said that Kennel Club breeders are trying to "breed to a picture."
Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed cobbled up in the 1920s and 30s to "recreate" the type of lap dog seen in the oil paintings of aristocrats painted by Titian, van Dyck, Stubbs, and Gainsborough.
While owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels like to wrap themselves up in the pretension of having an ancient breed related to British royalty, this particular dog was in fact created in the late 1920s and 30s at the Crufts Dog Show.
This is not to say that small spaniels did not exist back in Tudor times and even before. They certainly did.
In fact, lap dogs are among the oldest canine breeds, and the crossing of small terriers and spaniels to make lap dogs has probably been going on right from the beginning.
What is incontestable is that by the early 20th century, the so-called "King Charles Spaniel" (now known as the English Toy Spaniel in both the U.S. and Canada) no longer resembled the dogs seen in 16th and 17th Century paintings.
The modern dogs had a shorter face and domed heads.
Where did these domed heads and flat faces come from? The flat face, it is conjectured, came from mating King Charles Spaniels' with Pugs and Japanese Chins. The domed head, no doubt, is caused by simply breeding the dogs too small, forcing the brain of the dog to push up the skull -- a common feature found in many toy breeds.
Though most Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed histories claim an old uncorrupted line of the original dog never died out and "was kept at Blenheim Palace, home to the Dukes of Marlborough," this is nonsense. By the turn of the 20th Century, the original-looking dog was so extinct that not a single example of a proper-looking long-faced and flat-skulled "old type" King Charles Spaniel could be found!
In the 1920s, an American by the name of Roswell Eldridge decided to recreate the dog he saw in the old paintings, and he went so far as to print up a flyer and offer a cash award at Crufts for any King Charles Spaniel "of the old-fashioned type" which had a longer muzzle, a flatter skull, and a spot in the middle of the crown of its head.
No dog was forthcoming, and the award remained unclaimed for five years before either a "throwback" or an incorrect King Charles Spaniel (depending on who is telling the story) was presented in 1928 to claim the prize.
This dog was "Ann's Son," a dog owned by Miss Mostyn Walker. Unfortunately Roswell Eldridge had died three months earlier, and so he never saw the object of his desire.
Nonetheless, energized by the prize and the romance of a dog that "looked like those in the van Dyck paintings," a breed name, standard and a club were formed on the spot.
The goal was to "preserve" the breed. Of course, the "breed" consisted of just one dog!
No matter. A course was set, and Ann's Son was soon cross-bred with King Charles Spaniels which, while not perfect examples of the hope-for breed, had faces too long and heads that were too flat to do well in the ring.
By simply breeding "rejects with the right features" to each other, a back breeding program was created and the gene pool of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was expanded from one to some.
Slowly, things moved forward, and over several decades the dog's general form was stabilized.
In 1945 the Kennel Club (UK) granted separate registration for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (the "cavalier" monicker was added to differentiate the dogs from the shorter-faced King Charles Spaniel), and in 1952 the first dogs came to the U.S.
In 1954, Mrs. W. L. (Sally) Lyons Brown of Kentucky formed the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA with the idea of keeping a stud book and eventually getting the dog into the American Kennel Club.
The AKC admitted the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel into its "Miscellaneous" class in 1962, and accepted the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA as the official breed club and registering body at that time.
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA applied several times for full Kennel Club recognition, but was rejected each time, and after a number of years the CKCSC-USA simply decided to move forward without the AKC, creating its own stud book, establishing its own show system, and adopting its own code of ethics. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel remained in the "miscellaneous" class of the AKC, but this was mostly done to allow those interested in obedience trials to compete in that venue.
Members of the the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA developed their own culture outside of that of the American Kennel Club, and that culture put a significant premium on their own lengthy code of ethics, which members had to agree to in order to join the club and register their dogs.
This code of ethics stated that "the welfare of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed is of paramount importance. It supersedes any other commitment to Cavaliers, whether that be personal, competitive, or financial."
The code of ethics went on to say that members of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA agreed to not sell dogs to pet shops, agreed to NOT breed bitches before 12 months of age or after age eight, and agreed to never allow a bitch to carry to term and rear more than six litters in her lifetime.
Finally, the breed club's code of ethics noted that "These exists a constant danger that ignorant or disreputable breeders may, by improper practices, produce physically, mentally or temperamentally unsound specimen to the detriment of the breed" and requested that members of the Club consult with other breeders in the club before a mating and to never breed "from or to any Cavalier known to me to have a disqualifying, or disabling health defect."
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA prospered as an independent registry, with slow but steady growth in it membership. In 1992, however, the American Kennel Club decided that it wanted to clear out breeds that had been in the "miscellaneous" class for many years, and they asked the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA to become the breed club.
There was one caveat, however: The Cavalier King Charles Club Spaniel Club of the USA could NOT make acceptance of a ban on selling dogs to pet stores a prerequisite for dog registration. Nor could they require that breeders avoid knowingly crossing dogs with inheritable disqualifying or disabling defects. If the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA wanted to be the AKC's breed club, they would have to jettison their code of ethics and conform to the AKC's rules which said any dog could and would be registered provided it paid a fee to the AKC and could claim descent from a previously registered AKC dog and dam.
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club USA declined to join the AKC as the parent club of their breed, and so the AKC reached out to a small set of breeders who were a little less ethical and a little more rosette- and cash-hungry. These breeders formed the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, and this club was waved into the AKC in 1995.
What happened next?
The short story is that Cavalier King Charles Spaniel registrations shot through the roof.
As the AKC's own web site notes, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were "among the biggest movers" in the last 10 years with a 406% increase in registrations. In fact, Cavalier King Charles spaniel registrations are up 800 percent from what they were 14 years ago, and the Cavalier is now the 25th most popular breed in the AKC (up from 70th 1997) out of a list of 157 breeds in all.
And what has happened to the quality of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel?
As could be predicted, it has fallen through the floor.
A breed with an already bottle-necked gene pool due to its peculiar history and recent origin, was further choked down in 1995 when the AKC recruited a small subset of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel owners to serve as the foundation stock of their new breed club.
The small number of dogs owned by these breeders is as wide as the gene pool of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is ever going to get in the AKC.
And because so many small AKC dogs come from puppy mill situations where sires may be used hundreds of time, and dams may be pregnant nearly all their lives, the gene pool of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (never strong to begin with) has contracted very rapidly.
In fact, a close reading of the excellent web site www.cavalierhealth.org leaves one concluding that the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels has been reduced to a genetic basket case, with every Cavalier bloodline infected with at least one of the following genetic defects:
- Heart mitral valve disease (MVD) is a terminal illness which afflicts over half of all Cavalier King Charles spaniels by the age of 5 years and nearly all Cavaliers by age 10 years. It is CKCSs' leading cause of death, killing over 50% of all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. >> To read more
- Syringomyelia (SM) is reported to be "very widespread" in the Cavalier King Charles spaniel breed. Syringomyelia is a disorder of the brain and spinal cord, which may cause severe head and neck pain and possible paralysis. >> To read more
- Hip dysplasia is reported in a significant percentage of Cavalier King Charles spaniels. It is a genetic disease which can cause the dog pain and debilitation, and be expensive to remedy. >> To read more
- Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome (BAOS) -- Because the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has a short muzzle and a small head, it often has serious breathing problems. Elongated soft palates, stenotic nares, everted laryngeal saccules, and laryngeal collapse are other inherited developmental defects in the breed. >> To read more
- Luxating Patellas (slipping knees) are are a genetic condition believed to affect 20% to 30% of Cavalier King Charles spaniels. If the condition is not corrected, it can degenerate, with the dog becoming progressively more lame. >> To read more
- Hereditary eye disease has become widespread in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. A study of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels conducted by the Canine Eye Registration Foundation in 1989 showed that an average of 30% of all Cavaliers evaluated had eye problems. >> To read more