Monday, February 06, 2017

What's the Matter With the Terriers?

In a piece entitled "Talking to the Terriers at the Westminster Dog Show," Oliver Roeder, over at the political and statistics blog 538 writes:

The American Kennel Club, which is the governing body for dog shows and whose membership includes Westminster, tallies the most popular breeds in the country each year, going back to 1935. This data is based on purebred dog registrations with the club, which says it registers nearly 1 million dogs each year. (There are something like 80 million dogs owned in the U.S.) [In the mid-20th century,] many of the all-star terrier breeds began to decline.

This fall from prominence has affected more than the multi-champion terrier breeds. The Dandie Dinmont, the Skye, the Kerry Blue, the Bedlington, the Welsh, the standard Manchester, the Australian and the Lakeland have all seen significant declines in popularity, as well.

For some terrier breeds, the situation is existential. In 2011, a campaign was launched to save the Sealyham terrier — winner of four Westminster Best in Shows and once the dog of choice of King George V, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor — from extinction. “If we can save the rhino or tiger, we can surely save this useful and charming breed of dog,” the British magazine Country Life wrote.

If this sounds like you might have heard it before, it's because you have: I reviewed the data for Westminster some years back, and explained how the Fox Terrier got ruined:

[A]lmost all the early [Westminster] winners were terriers, and most of them were Fox Terriers.

It was during this period of time that the face of the Fox Terrier was elongated and the chest enlarged by show ring breeders.

Prior to World War II, if you were really intent on wining the top award at a dog show, you got into Fox Terriers.

Probably no breed could have survived such intent attention without being wrecked by fad.

The Fox Terrier certainly did not.

Today, Fox Terriers are not found working in the field because, with few exceptions, their chests are too big to get to ground in a tight earth.

In 1990 the U.K. Kennel Club admitted on to its roles a dog they called the "Parson Jack Russell Terrier," a name just invented for the occassion.

The dog was, in fact, nothing more than a Jack Russell Terrier -- the unimproved Fox Terrier that had existed prior to the Kennel Club's creation.

In 1999 The Kennel Club changed the name of the dog to the "Parson Russell Terrier," (another name invented whole-cloth by Kennel Club theorists) to distinguish the Kennel Club dog from working Jack Russell Terriers still found in the field.

Today, Parson Russell Terriers, in both the U.K and the U.S. are rarely found at work in the field.

Why? Simple because once again their chests have grown too large.

I expanded on this post a few years later in a post entitled The Transvestite Terriers of Westminster.
Along with a requirement that breed registries be closed, the Kennel Club rejects the notion that there should be a morphological continuum within the world of dogs.

In fact, "speciation" of dogs based on looks alone is what the Kennel Club is all about.

Under Kennel Club rules and "standards," a cairn terrier cannot look too much like a Norwich terrier, which cannot look too much like a Norfolk terrier, which cannot look too much like a Border terrier, which cannot look too much like a Fell terrier, which cannot look too much like a Welsh terrier, which cannot look too much like a Lakeland terrier, which cannot look too much like a Fox terrier, which cannot look too much like a "Parson Russell" terrier (the non-hunting, show-ring version of the Jack Russell Terrier).

The show ring is all about "breeds," and all about differentiating one breed from another.

In the world of the working terrier, of course, the fox or raccoon or groundhog does not care too much what breed the dog is! In fact, the fox or raccoon cannot even see the dog it faces underground, as there is no light inside a den pipe.

What the fox cares about is whether the dog can actually reach it at the back of the sette.

The good news (at least as far as the fox is concerned!) is that a Kennel Club dog often cannot get very close to the quarry . The reason for this? A Kennel Club dog is likely to have too big a chest.

The overlarge chests you find on so many Kennel Club terriers are a byproduct of putting too much emphasis on head shape and size. By requiring all the terriers to be morphologically distinct from each other, the Kennel Club puts tremendous emphasis on heads.

People who do not dig much (if at all) imagine that a big head is important to work. In fact, it really is not; most small cross-bred working terriers have heads big enough to do the job, and are well-enough shaped to boot.

An over-emphasis on terrier head size almost invariably leads to a larger chest size on the dog -- a bigger chest size is needed to counterbalance the larger head, since one is attached to the other.

A large chest size, in turn, results in a dog that cannot easily get to ground in a tight naturally-dug earth.

The end result is what we see in the Kennel Club show ring today -- transvestite terriers. These dogs may LOOK like they can do the part (and they are so eager!), but when push comes to shove, most of them lack the essential equipment to do the job, whether that is chest size, nose, voice, brain, or a game and gritty character.

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