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The Great Divide – Multiple Breed Types and the Attempt at Unification Before AKC

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216 – The Annual, 2014-15

By Amy Fernandez

Arnold Burges, the father of the American studbook, often cited 1876 as the pivotal year when breeders switched their allegiance from undocumented Gundogs to registered purebreds. It’s traditionally considered the point when the concept of one ideal type became generally accepted. But it also signaled another profound change in dog breeding philosophy, the irrevocable rift that forever stranded Gundogs on opposite shores of bench or field type.

Today, there is a renewed focus on perfecting a unified type. However, purebred ideology consistently advanced that belief for a century while multiple types took root and flourished. The subsequent evolution of countless breeds illustrates how deeply these contradictory agendas became ingrained in purebred culture. English Setter history graphically illustrates its progression. As America’s most popular breed, it became the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

American Setter breeding predated the Revolutionary War, but had only one purpose before the introduction of shows and field trials. The studbook that Arnold Burges published in 1876 documented the cream of this 200-year-old crop and Watson’s 1905 assessment of them in The Dog Book reflected a new ideology. “Owing to the indefinite nature of some pedigrees, it was impossible to decide to what breed they belonged…therefore they were listed under the heading ‘Other Setters’ to avoid discarding them altogether… these were not dogs owned by a lot of nobodies, but of men of recognized position in the sporting world…it would be impossible to imagine any of these gentlemen owning anything but the purest breeding nowadays.” His comments reveal how quickly these perceptions took hold despite the fact defined Setter breeds existed more in theory than fact, as illustrated by the colorful array of classes at early shows.

Diversity, not uniformity, characterized the English Setter imports that arrived from Lavarack and Llewellin in 1874. Both were prestigious kennels but their dogs represented vastly different visions of the breed. By then, Lavarack had devoted half a century to perfecting the breed as a shooting dog. Opinions about his bloodline varied, but everyone acknowledged it as uncharacteristically stable and uniform. In his 1904 book The Sporting Dog Joseph Graham conceded this was the exception, not the rule. “Most breeding was kept within setter lines, but at best, all setter pedigrees except those of the Lavaracks, had not much authenticity up to 40 years ago.”

Form follows function, which explains their consequent success when fanciers first ventured into bench and field sports with Lavaracks. “Other importations followed and for ten years the Lavaracks had their full share of success on the show benches.” Watson emphasized this by noting that, “pure Lavaracks were given a separate show classification.” The Lavarack’s deliberate hunting style was already going out of style in Britain when field trials commenced. Their success in that arena varied, but it’s doubtful that any of this concerned Lavarack who died in 1877.

In contrast, his protégé/successor Llewellin promoted his dogs as a field trial strain soon after the sport emerged in Britain. As Gundogs, the curtain had come down on their 15 minutes of fame, and like many breeders, he considered field trials their new niche. Unlike Lavarack, his breeding program was characterized by liberal experimentation with many types and bloodlines.

The English Setter was coalescing as a shooting dog when it began diverging. Most accounts portray breeders as asleep at the wheel from the 1880s to the 1950s while type slowly drifted. And suddenly, after more than half a century of collective inattention, breeders suddenly awoke to discover the English Setter firmly anchored to two different, equally subjective standards of quality evaluation. That explanation is questionable for many reasons, primarily because breeders are typically clear-sighted, goal-oriented, and competitive.

In reality, the groundwork was firmly in place when fate hit the reset button. That divergence wasn’t accidental or subtle. The English Setter was purposefully dismantled and remade and it happened fast. A conservative estimate for selective breeding progress calculates one generation per four years. It may have happened even faster because “breed early and breed often” was the rule at that time. Countless uncontrollable factors carried off crucial breeding stock with alarming regularity. Breed histories abound with regrets about missed opportunities, illustrating how powerfully it impacted the selective process. It wasn’t unusual for valuable imports to sire litters as soon as they got off the boat.

Watson’s comments confirm that field trial type was consistent by 1904. “That this field trial strain of setter did good, we do not for a moment question. Greater interest was developing in the breeding and running dogs at trials, which also increased rapidly in number and importance; but any claim that our excellent class of field trial dogs is due entirely to being able to trace back through several generations to two or three dogs is not tenable.” He firmly believed that American breeders would have accomplished the same by selectively breeding their own stock. He might have been right but that was not an option.

When English Setter imports started arriving in America, pedigree records became a defining feature of their popularity. Unfortunately, there was no logic to much of that information because most of them sprang from a recent, diverse ancestry. Llewellin’s stock derived from the famous Duke/Rhobe/Lavarack combination, but their steps away from that foundation often ranged from one to none. Inevitably, their natural ability as field trial dogs varied. Some shined, others fizzled, and some did better at bench shows.

Despite that, The National American Kennel Club soon designated the Llewellin Setter as a separate breed based on parameters which defined them as descendants of specific British imports. That triggered plenty of feedback from critics like Graham who called the idea well meant, but confusing and unjust. “There has never been a fixed strain descended from Mr. Llewellin’s kennel.” It didn’t matter; NAKC controlled the studbook. As more breeders got involved that definition expanded and eventually included almost everything with a dash of the Duke/Rhobe/Lavarack in its pedigree. “Efforts to construct a straight-bred Llewellin family sometimes run into manifest absurdity.” Absurd or not, the influence of NAKC was tremendous. Maybe a Llewellin Setter didn’t exist when they bestowed the honor, but that audacious move officially sanctioned its creation. As soon as they had the raw materials, breeders got to work.

Today, the English Setter is considered a vulnerable breed in Britain. Croxton Smith’s book Dogs Since 1900 noted that it was becoming an anachronism when field trials debuted. “Although Pointers and Setters have largely gone out of fashion except on a few moors that are more suitable for doggoing than for driving. I am glad to say that the admirers of these beautiful dogs have kept trials going for them.” Formal competition introduced English Setters to a new audience. In that respect, it was a lifeline. But tinkering with the elements of type raised ethical issues that no one anticipated when they wandered onto this slippery slope.

In fairness, American breeders traditionally customized imported stock. Climate, terrain, and game required Gundogs with more speed, endurance, ruggedness, and independence. Moreover, these conditions varied tremendously throughout the country. Britain was not only smaller and less diverse; Gundog breeding was controlled by a small clique. Over here, democracy ruled as Graham noted. “To the Englishman, sport goes with the land and breeding with the sport. In England the landowner has most of the sporting dogs. In America nine out of ten pedigreed shooting dogs are bred and owned by lawyers, merchants and other townsmen”. American breeding not only reflected more viewpoints, our version of field trials immediately took shape as a much faster paced, less controlled game.

Overblown expectations about Llewellin’s stock certainly played a role in subsequent events. Some historians portray it as deceptive marketing coupled with official complicity. At that early stage in America’s dog scene, the NAKC clique ranked among the few individuals with the clout and motivation to promote a specific vision of type.

Eventually the Lavarack became identified as the bench show type and the Llewellins were classified as the field type. In reality, this divergence wasn’t directed by ingrained traits. American breeders took what they needed from both sources and thoroughly homogenized them into successful bench and field lines. In both cases, they reinterpreted type in response to the influences that have revised and derailed it for the past century – focusing on traits that win.

The third generation is typically the decisive point when crucial traits stabilize and purposeful refinement of type commences. Breeders were well into that when AKC appeared on the horizon. By then, the grassroots popularity of purebred dogs paralleled NAKC’s narrowing focus on field trials The growing void accentuated the need for an all breed national kennel club. AKC was bound to happen but its inherent direction was up for grabs because two founding meetings took place that fateful September day in 1884.

James Watson’s invitation drew over 75 participants. The second one, promoted by American Field and sponsored by AKC’s founders, received far less support, indicating the field trial world’s growing indifference to this issue. They won the war because they had a lawyer on their team. Elliot Smith had strong ties to NAKC and Westminster and became AKC’s second president. He nailed down the legalities of an official meeting. In contrast, Watson, a journalist, focused on stories and viewpoints which made for a very long, ineffective gathering.

Smith and company ascended to the throne but effective leadership didn’t materialize since AKC existed in form more than fact. In reality, AKC and NAKC shared authority to police this constantly expanding ball of confusion. For instance, an early AKC Executive Committee meeting on May 28, 1886 defined grounds for disqualification as “misconduct, in connection with dogs, dog shows or field trials.”

Otherwise, AKC made little headway. Meetings often focused on personal agendas and vendettas – when they had a quorum. No one knocked down the door to join. As its credibility waned, the need for a national registry became inescapable. But it wasn’t easy to come by. The Kennel Club’s studbook had required gargantuan effort. Moreover, two then existed in America. James Watson had no intention of sharing the all breed studbook he had compiled since 1881. The floundering AKC received the NAKC records thanks to its founder’s increasingly precariously health, competing work demands – and a longstanding allegiance to his field trial allies at the helm of AKC.

That was the watershed moment that set purebred dogs on this long, strange trip. For a decade NAKC had supported the status quo, permitting bench and field types to diverge. Theoretically, that drift should have been obliterated when AKC took the wheel. Its ostensible mission was to foster a unified ideal type in every recognized breed, which didn’t include Llewellin Setters. Rowe got AKC over a major hurdle although no records provide details of that transaction. However, Smith resigned as president Sept 22, 1887, three months after the deal was completed. AKC had $11 in the bank at that point.

Rowe’s transfer of the studbook could have been in the works from the start. Shortly after AKC was founded, he changed the name of NAKC and in 1886 he issued the third volume of his records as The American Kennel Studbook. But Rowe’s studbook wasn’t enough to turn the tide by then. AKC desperately needed that influential group who had staked their futures on the success of the field trial Setter. They made concessions. Watson, who had a personal interest in this interesting situation, characterized it as, “indeed dark days for the English Setter for about five years beginning about 1887”. Maybe the NAKC studbook changed hands that year, but its mission continued.

AKC’s infrastructure as a “club of clubs” was designed to limit participation and ensure that field trial interests dominated. The National Field Trial Club was an early, dedicated member and AKC’s secretary conveniently acted as its delegate. Needless to say, English Setters topped their list of projects to consolidate field trial and bench show agendas. On April 8, 1885, AKC’s first president, Major Taylor, was appointed to chair the English Setter standard committee. Soon after their second failed attempt to revise the standard to accommodate field trial type Graham said, “American modifications….were not accepted by the other side and the dispute remains where it stood.” The resulting impasse signified AKC’s competing loyalties. In the end, they had more to lose by alienating the Kennel Club. And messing with the English Setter standard amounted to high treason.

Reprising this stalemate two decades later Graham admitted, “There has been a conflict, sometimes bitter, between those who would adhere strictly to English ideals and standards and those who would press into recognition the American changes. …English Setter men conducted this factional contest most sharply. Soon after the introduction of bench shows in America, the school led by bench and field judges like Major Taylor and Mr. P. H. Bryson insisted on awarding bench prizes to the lighter type.”

Many clubs conceded to this break between bench and field type by methodically alternating judges to please everyone some of the time. Instead, it highlighted the competing agendas. Breeding and judging reflected the resulting chaos. Even a jaded critic like Watson was stunned by the consequences. “One would imagine that with all this education as to what an English Setter should look like it would have been impossible for any person qualified to judge the breed to go wrong, but that was not the case.” Admitting that, “sound judges were not by any means plentiful at that time,” he primarily blamed, “the incompetence of breeders …who could find warrant in breeding to almost any kind of dog, and most of them bred to dogs that had won in field trials no matter what they looked like.” From his perspective, “type was cast to the wind”. That was a logical assumption, but Watson was an outsider.

AKC’s first and second presidents, Taylor and Smith, had a vested interest in promoting a field trial agenda. William Child took over after Smith’s resignation. His admirable attendance as the Philadelphia Kennel Club’s delegate put him in line for that dubious honor. Although he skipped that meeting, he was nominated nonetheless, but resigned six months later. AKC’s fourth year heralded its fourth president and first effective leader. In February, 1888 the Fox Terrier club abruptly got a new delegate. August Belmont took over as president soon afterwards in another mystifying episode of AKC history. Belmont has been characterized as ruthless, volatile, and, by some accounts, crazy. But he realized that AKC needed credibility to survive. During his 28 year tenure he instituted many innovations to consolidate its power structure – and sensibly ignored the English Setter powder keg.

Watson is justly remembered as the dog world’s consummate cynic. But an idealist always lurks beneath that veneer, as revealed by his uncharacteristically hopeful overview of English Setter type in 1904. “Show committees are giving exhibitors better judges, and whatever fear there was about offending field trial men has been overcome. Even if we do occasionally have a judge who speaks of two types and thinks it right to put one of each in the prize list, he does not do it to any extent. If a man will not judge to the type he believes to be correct, he has no business in the ring.”

Graham’s concurrent overview provided a more accurate picture. “In the early days sporting dogs constituted the important part of the exhibits. Of late years the owners of sporting dogs have paid much more attention to trials and have neglected bench shows.” Setter type became more moderate at bench shows simply because a large proportion of fanciers stopped supporting them. For them, the 1896 introduction of the National Bird Dog Championship represented a much bigger prize than any comparable lure offered at bench shows.

Breeding is a constant tradeoff, and incentive to produce a moderate English Setter waned as the popularity of field trials snowballed and competition heated up. In reality, it was a vague objective from the start. Although some imports were promoted as dual champions, those titles must be examined in context. Requirements for both bench and field championships were pretty sketchy at that time. For example, American field trial clubs held their own version of bench shows until the 1920s. They were the source of dual championships for many field trial dogs. And allegiance to that goal dwindled as C.B. Whitford noted in his 1908 book Training the Bird Dog. “Defects which the bench show experts dwell upon frequently need not trouble the amateur sportsman unless he intends to exhibit.”

Whitford began his career training shooting dogs, but acknowledged the field trial dog as “his meal ticket.” He earned his reputation training and handling field trial legends of the 1870s like Gladstone, Bow, and Faust. The rise of this specialized professional niche mirrored the concurrent domination of professional handlers at bench shows. Field trials continued to be promoted as an amateur sport long after Whitford had mentored later generations of professionals and it was accepted practice to breed exclusively within field trial lines. A general consensus about ideal type had emerged. In 1908 he described the essential qualities of a good field trial dog as “speed, range, more speed, and more range to the verge of bolting.”

His candid observations also confirm that the next phase of the rift was well underway. “When field trials were inaugurated in this country, the theory prevailed that the dogs which were best adapted to the sportsman’s use in ordinary shooting were the ones which should receive the awards. The field trial ideal was the sportsman’s ideal. This was the rule for about ten years. After that we began to talk about good field trial dogs and good shooting dogs… Today we have good field trial dogs which are not good shooting dogs and we have good shooting dogs which cannot win at field trials.”

Deviation from type constantly challenges selective breeding.

Both bench shows and field trials were implemented to monitor this process and discourage extreme types before they could gain traction and impact a breed’s integrity. Those safeguards had been drastically undermined by competing agendas and ineffective leadership by 1884 when AKC entered the picture. That historic milestone had no real impact on this phenomenon. Perhaps it was a concession to democracy or politics, but the contradictory concepts of multiple correct types became embedded in the foundation of American purebred culture.

That seems to explain much of the unwise experimentation that constantly dilutes type and quality. From a dogmatic standpoint, maybe we should stop thinking outside the box. On the other hand, American creativity remains a dominant force in modern dog breeding. Scores of specialized breeds have been developed and perfected thanks to this ingrained renegade spirit.

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Posted by on Dec 30 2014. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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