Monday, February 23, 2015

Who Messed Up the Labrador Retriever?

This is not hunting; this is theater.

Over at the Last Word on Nothing, they note that the Labrador Retriever on Downton Abbey is a dog out of time, and they wonder who messed up the British version of the dog,

You get one guess.

Sometime in the last couple of decades, the Labs in the show ring got fat. The Kalispell breeder’s friend, a woman whose chocolate Lab grew up too small to compete in the show ring, resented it. She’d read an article in Gun Dog magazine that described early Labs so light and compact they could ride in the bow of the boat. “These dogs here today would tip a boat over!” she said. Everyone laughed.

How this happened, and why, no one seems to know. The best answer I got at the Lab show was “judges like fat Labs.” But nobody else seems to — not my lunch companions, not the Midwestern duck hunters who prize their agile water dogs, not even the keepers of the breeding books. The Labrador Retriever Club, Inc., better guardians of the breed standard, apparently, than any kennel club in any country, wrote a stern letter to the American Kennel Club last April, imploring judges to remember that the Labrador retriever should possess an “athletic, well-balanced conformation that enables it to function as a retrieving gun dog.”

When a Breed Club writes a scorching letter to the AKC telling them that show ring judges are failing at their basic task and ruining the breed by putting up over-large fat dogs, you would think that would be a "heads up" to review how judges are selected.

But not at the AKC. As I noted some years back, breed clubs are essentially powerless in the AKC:

The Kennel Club is a huge money-making bureaucracy dependent upon selling people on the "exclusivity" of a closed registry and a scrap of paper that says a dog is a "pure breed". So long as people are willing to buy Kennel Club registered dogs that have predictably higher chances of serious physical impairments than cross-bred dogs, the Kennel Club (and Kennel Club breeders) have little motivation to change the way they do business.

Let me hasten to say that the Kennel Club is not filled with evil people intent on doing harm to dogs. It is, in fact, filled with regular people who are different from the rest of the world only in the degree, and the way, they seek ego-gratification and are status-seeking.

This last point is import: the Kennel Club is not primarily about dogs. Dogs do not care about ribbons, pedigrees, titles, and points. These are human obsessions. The reason a human will drive several hundred miles and stand around all day waiting for 10 minutes in the ring is not because of the dog, but because the human needs that ribbon, that title, and that little bit of extra status that comes from a win.

Each to his own, but let us be honest about what dog shows are about -- they are about ribbons for people. The dogs themselves could not give a damn.

It is unfair to fault individual breeders and breed clubs for the failures of the Kennel Club, as these smaller units are powerless to change the larger whole.

Breed clubs are small and largely impotent by design. Because the Kennel Club does not require breeders, pet owners, or even show ring ribbon-chasers to join a breed club as a condition of registration, these entities remain small, underfunded, and unrepresentative.

Breed clubs, like dog shows themselves, are also steeped in internecine politics and dominated by big breeders and people who over-value "conformation."

It is only by conforming to the AKC system for decades that anyone can hope to move up in the AKC hierarchy -- a situation that guarantees intellectual and bureaucratic inbreeding.
In the end, the AKC is a closed registry in every sense of that word. It continues to embrace the failed genetic theories of Victorian England because it is incapable of serious reform within the Club itself. 

So, what to do? As always use your eyes, use common sense, and if you are serious about a working retriever of any kind, go to people who own guns and put their dogs in the field over something more than tennis balls.


Gaddy Bergmann said...

There are widely considered to be two types of Labs: the English or "show" Lab, and the American or "field" Lab. Needless to say, the field Lab is much better off than the show Lab. It has a leaner build, more stamina, higher genetic diversity due to outcrossing, and therefore a much lower incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia. In a word, field Labs get to be dogs, while show Labs have become victims. One thing the show Lab does have going for it, is that they tend to be lower energy (understandably) and have a calmer temperament, so they are lower-maintenance and many people prefer them as family dogs, as opposed to hiking and hunting companions, etc. Nothing wrong with having a calm family dog that needs less exercise than a working one, but you don't have to cripple them to attain that.

Going beyond Labs, what saddens me is how their ancestor, the St. Johns water dog, got split up into a whole bunch of different breeds and went extinct. The St. Johns gave rise to the Lab, Newfoundland, Chesapeake Bay retriever, and flat-coated retriever. All of those cool genes the St. Johns had are now split up into several related populations that don't get to mix anymore. A lot of anatomical and physiological problems could be prevented if they could just mingle again and become more like the St. Johns once more. (Ditto for other breed families, like certain terriers and mountain dogs.)

jeffrey thurston said...

Do the people who use actual hunting retrievers and pointers buy AKC dogs or do breeders breed non-AKC functional healthy specimens for work? I know the JRTCA is non-AKC but are there others? Are people coming to their senses?

jeffrey thurston said...

I found this trolling the internet- they're not Labs but weirdly actual working Bassets!

M said...

A great way to screen lab breeders is to ask what brand shotgun they favor and what size shot they use when hunting. You will discover a great many breeders of bench labs have spent no time in the blind and even less time in the field. A fair number can't even identify waterfowl species from each other and have never so much as shot a gun in their life. They don't know that you use different shot sizes for different birds.
When I was researching waterfowl dogs I noted a great many dogs pictured in my state were showing their field prowess using chukars and other small quail. The photos were also fantastically clear - as if taken by professionals. The problem is there are not a great number of locations to hunt these quail and not one video or picture of someone with a gun and none of what I would assume people would hunt most being mallards, teals, widgeon, snow, or canada geese. Then it dawned on me. These are frozen quail and the reason the pictures are so clear is that the photos are about image and not about hunting.
Fakers just faking for the rubes and their friends.

Courtney Rhodes said...

I have complained about the ruin of the labrador retriever for years. they are a water dog and should be breed by their ability to retrieve and take direction foremost. conformation should be last.

Hunters mainly want pups from great hunting parents and whether or not they are AKC, ultimately doesn't matter. If a hunter has a friend or know locally of the prowess of another sportsman's dog, they will wait patiently for a pup of their lineage. Also, hunters will often buy "finished" Labradors from a trainer.

As for the overall size, hunting labs will vary in size depending on where the dogs hunt. a goose hunter may desire larger labs to carry lots of heavy geese out of a dry field. A marsh hunter may want a light longer legged lab with big feet to see over grass and not sink in the mud. A lake hunter may want a smaller lab with a deep chest for getting in and out of a boat all day and making many swimming retrieves.

Another problem today is breeding labs for field trials. these dogs are often too energetic for duck hunting and require a lot of work to keep happy.

it is just really hard today to find a good lab for hunting and family. which is sad because in my mind that is what a lab was and should be.