Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Darwin at the Westminster Dog Show

Charles Darwin was born 209 years ago today.

One hundred and fifty three years ago, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, one of the most important books in the history of the world. That same year, the first organized dog show was held, and the world of dogs has not been the same since.

Below is a short excerpt from Chapter One of American Working Terriers. The text that precedes this is about the origin of dogs and the rise of the Enclosure Movement, and the text that follows details the rise of animal rights rhetoric, early organized terrier work in the U.K., the RSPCA's new cause, the entry of young wanna-be tough guys into the world of terrierwork in the 1960s and 70s, and the destruction of hedgerows and the push to ban fox hunting in the U.K.

Of course, history never stands still, and the good news is that a push is now on to get the Kennel Club to drop the eugenics theories of Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin) and instead embrace a "Dog First" standard that puts canine health front and center. Let us hope that good things are yet to come!

From American Working Terriers:
.... One of the people who noticed the rapid transformation of British livestock was naturalist Erasmus Darwin who devoted an entire chapter in Zoonomia to the rapid changes he observed being made to British farm animals.

For his part, Erasmus’ son, Charles Darwin, was so besotted with country sport that his father despaired he would ever amount to much of anything.

"You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family," Erasmus wrote to Charles.

In fact Charles Darwin turned out all right.

After washing out of medical school and the seminary, and then letting a romantic relationship drift away (due to his being more infatuated with beetles than women), young Charles signed on as naturalist aboard the Beagle, a survey boat on a voyage around the world.

Darwin returned to Britain in 1836, but it was not until 1859 that he wrote The Origin of Species, and then only after reading Reverend Thomas Malthus’s work on the role of "natural" limits to population growth.

Darwin’s ruminations about evolution were greatly influenced by the amazing varieties of livestock being produced by farmers and fanciers in the U.K. at this time. He was especially fascinated by pigeon breeders who were able to rapidly express all kinds of peculiar variation from the common rock dove — rollers, pouters, fantails, barbs, tumblers, and carriers, to name a few.

It was not much of a leap to speculate that the forced selection being done by pigeon breeders might have a parallel in "natural selection" among finches on a remote volcanic island in the Pacific.

Thus was borne the Theory of Evolution.

Jack Russell and the First Working Terriers

It might seem that I have strayed rather far afield in the previous section. What, in God’s name, does the Enclosure Movement, Malthus and Darwin have to do with the rise of working terriers?

Actually, quite a lot.

Mounted fox hunting requires relatively large amounts of open land in the hands of a relatively few number of people.

Squatters and inholders made hunting on common land difficult prior to the Enclosure Movement. Once people had been moved off the land and replaced with sheep and cattle, however, the only real obstacle to the mounted hunts were the stone fences and hedgerows keeping the sheep and cattle in — obstacles that provided excellent sport for competent riders.

Britain’s sheep economy proved less stable than hoped, however. Several busts in the wool business (brought on by cheap imports of wool and cotton from the Continent, Australia, and the U.S.) forced marginal sheep ventures to look for other sources of income.

Rapid improvements in shotguns, combined with relatively easy escape from the city by train, created a new form of leisure sport — the driven bird shoot in which partridge and pheasants were raised in large mesh pens and released "into the wild" a few days prior to the arrival of "the guns".

After the birds acclimated themselves for a few days or weeks, beaters and dogs joined the guns in a long line, flushing birds out of cover. Hundreds of birds — at a set price per bird — were shot over the course of a few hours time.

Both the mounted fox hunts and the organized bird shoots required a certain number of working terriers, but for slightly different reasons.

The mounted hunts employed terriermen to find and "earthstop" fox and badger dens so that fox were forced to run long distances when raised by the hounds. If a fox did manage to go to ground, a terrierman was called to bolt the fox from the earth for another chase, or to dig down for dispatch. In some cases, an animal was bagged in order to replenish fox extirpated from other hunt lands.

Terriers were also used to protect pheasants and partridges being raised in netted enclosures for the shoots.

For gamekeepers, the primary tools for fox eradication were poison and leghold traps (gins), which were fast, efficient and cheap. Secondary tools were low-cost snares, long dogs (lurchers) and long guns used over bait at night. These last methods are still used today in the U.K.

Fox eradication with terrier and spade, while far and away the most humane form of fox control, is slow and inefficient. In addition, because fox rarely lay up in warm weather unless driven to ground by pursuing hounds, terrier work offers a frustratingly short season for a gamekeeper to eradicate fox over a large shooting estate. Gun, snare, traps and poison, however, can be used all year long.

In the early 1800s, the era of stocked bird shoots had not yet begun. Though mounted fox hunting had been spreading across Great Britain for nearly 200 years, the practice was not yet ubiquitous in the British countryside. Terriers used by farmers and mounted hunts alike remained a catch-as-catch can affair.

That was about to change.

At about the time Walter Scott was writing Guy Mannering, a young man by the name of John Russell was attending Exeter College, Oxford.

Looking out the window one day, he spied a bitch terrier tied to a passing milkman’s cart. Something about the dog struck Russell’s fancy, and he bought the dog based on looks alone. The year is variously given as 1815 or 1819.

When Russell bought the dog he could not have known whether the dog would work but, lucky for him, it did. Russell later claimed this bitch, named Trump, was the model for all the terriers that were to follow.

Russell’s story, and the story of Trump, are subject to more myth than fact (see the Appendix for a chronology of Russell’s life). For the moment, it is enough to say that Russell was one of the very first, and certainly one of the most dedicated and longest-riding, fox hunters of the 19th Century.

Though Russell seems to have bought and sold a great number of dogs, he apparently kept a vision of Trump in his mind’s eye — a small, white, wiry-coated terrier with a fierce voice and a strong desire to pursue fox to ground.

It should be remembered that this was an era of free-range poultry. Fox were seen as a threat to sustenance and treated accordingly by farmers. It did not take much effort — or expense — to lace rabbit entrails and chicken heads with strychnine, or set a few foothold traps around a chicken coop, rabbit hutch, or pheasant pen.

In the early 19th Century and through the Victorian Era, traps and poison were so brutally efficient and common that the Reverend Russell spent much of his early years trying to get people to stop killing fox so their populations would increase and he could find a little sport.

Russell was not alone in this endeavor.

In fact, fox protection was so deeply entrenched in the culture of the mounted hunts of the 19th Century that the concept made its way into the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "vulpicide" as "One that kills a fox other than by hunting it with hounds."

The crime of vulpicide was seen as a crime against the aristocracy. God forbid that individual farmers, for the sole purpose of putting food on the table, threaten the weekend pastime of hundreds of wealthy aristocrats!

Classy People and Their Classy Dogs

Beginning in the 1860s, two phenomenon began to take hold in the U.K., both of which were to have long-term ramifications for working terriers.

The first was the rise of dog shows.

In 1800, there were only 15 designated breeds of dogs, but by 1865 that number had grown to more than 50 and was due to expand a great deal more.

The growth in breeds was partly due to the desire, during the Victorian era, to sort out the natural world. The kind of taxonomic classification that young Darwin had been doing with beetles and birds, others were now doing with fish, mammals, and every manner of domestic stock, including dogs.

In addition, the animal husbandry theories of Robert Bakewell and others had taken hold. Record keeping and the careful selection of sires produced variety and improvement at startling speeds.

With the development of new breeds of sheep, cattle, and chickens came livestock shows to display these wondrous new animals and market their services. A particularly spectacular tup (male sheep) might rent for 1,000 guineas a season, a bull 25 guineas per covered cow.

It was not all about meat, however. Stock shows became great social occasions, and were frequently sponsored by the aristocracy which, quite conveniently, also had the money to buy the best breeding stock for their own programs.

A problem developed, however. While Bakewell’s goal had been to breed better sheep and cattle for greater production and profit, stock show prizes were often awarded on the basis of size alone, regardless of the animal’s value as a meat or milk producer.

Show breeders defended this practice, noting that size alone could be judged honestly and easily in the ring. Feed-to-weight ratios could not be proven, nor could the quality of the meat, the amount of milk produced, or the number of eggs laid.

The size of an animal does not speak to the end product of steaks, milk and eggs, of course — a defect that became readily apparent when production was tracked on the farm. After a brief flurry of interest in the show ring, utility-minded farmers returned to longitudinal "pounds-and-pence" evaluation of animals.

For dogs, the deficiencies of show ring evaluation were not so obvious. Most dogs produced little more than excrement and amusement. For nonworking dogs, the social and economic value of ribbons remained unencumbered by any requirement that the dog produce a product of value or perform a specialized task.

Dogs were occasionally displayed and sold at farm shows in the 1830s and 40s, but the first dedicated dog show was held in Newcastle in 1859, the year Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published.

In 1863 the first really big dog show — with more than 1,000 entries — was held in Chelsea, and that same year the first international dog show was held in London.

As noted earlier, this was a period of rapid "speciation" within the world of dogs. The rapid creation — or assertion — of new dog breeds created some confusion, especially when breeds were not yet distinct, or several breeds were lumped into one, or when true breeds were known by several different names.

In 1851, for example, the Yorkshire Terrier was also known as "the Broken-haired Scotch Terrier." It was not until 1870 that the Yorkshire Terrier was firmly designated as both a breed and a breed name. Before then littermates were often shown in different breed categories — a situation that also occurred with the first prize-winning Jack Russell, which had previously been shown as a prize-winning "white Lakeland."

In the manic days of early dog shows, such confusions were common. Some were intentional.

The "Old English Black and Tan Terrier," for example, was simply a ploy by English breeders attempting to appropriate Welsh Terriers (a show ring version of the Fell Terrier). The dog was "correctly" labeled after the Kennel Club intervened, but by then the "Black and Tan" had already been featured in a catalogue compiled by Vero Shaw.

A similar story can be told for the "English White Terrier," also featured by Shaw, which was nothing more that a smooth, white, foxing terrier crossbred with a lap dog.

The dog show world of the late Victorian era quickly outgrew and overwhelmed the much smaller, less flamboyant, world of the working terrier. Dog shows became social scenes, with middle class matrons insinuating themselves into Society by purchasing "purebred" puppies. As one Victorian periodical noted, "nobody now who is anybody can afford to be followed about by a mongrel dog."

It is hard to imagine what Reverend John Russell thought of all this.

When the first dog show was held in 1859, Russell was 64 years old. He was 78 when the Kennel Club was formed in 1873 — an old man who, due to poverty and age, had given up his beloved hounds for the last time two years earlier.

Though quite old, the Reverend was famous for his knowledge of hounds and terriers, and his ability, in former years, to ride 12 hours at a stretch. This was the Grand Old Man of Fox Hunting, and everyone knew he had been at it since the beginning.

With terriers front and center in the show ring world, it was a natural for the newly forming Kennel Club to ask Russell if he would be a founding member. He agreed, no doubt flattered by a position of status, but also because it offered an opportunity to keep up with the dogs.

Russell was a judge at the Crystal Palace dog show in 1874 — one of the first large Kennel Club shows. He admired the look of the dogs, but alarm bells were apparently clanging in his head, for he somewhat humorously described his own dogs as "true terriers ... but differing from the present show dogs as the wild eglantine differs from a garden rose."

Russell never did allow his own terriers to be registered, noting that the qualities selected for in the show ring were of little use in the field.

No matter. The show ring was not interested in working dogs except as a theory untested by experience. The raison d’etre of dog shows was not dogs but people — people who, it turned out, were ready, willing and able to spend significant sums of money chasing ribbons.

By 1883 a magazine entitled The Fox Terrier Chronicle was being produced which covered the terrier elite the way other periodicals covered High Society. By 1886, Charles Cruft — a dog food salesman who never owned a dog himself — had taken over the Allied Terrier Show as a money-making vehicle.

The rapid differentiation between show dogs and working dogs, which the Reverend John Russell had already observed, became more pronounced as time went by. Increasing numbers of people bought terriers, bred terriers, wrote standards, or changed them. Points were given for the set of a dog’s tail, colorful markings on coats, the color of the eye, and even a dog’s "expression." By 1893 Rawdon Lee was writing in his book, Modern Dogs, that:
"I have known a man act as a judge of fox terriers who had never bred one in his life, had never seen a fox in front of hounds, had never seen a terrier go to ground ... had not even seen a terrier chase a rabbit."

After almost half a century of formal shows, the author of a manual for dog owners noted that "the sportsman will as a rule have nothing to do with the fancier’s production."

The split between working terriers and show dogs was virtually complete.

If you want to read the text that precedes this or the text that follows, order your very own copy of American Working Terriers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


- Dan