The demands of the show ring have had a detrimental impact on many of our sporting breeds but there are exceptions, as David Tomlinson explains
It’s a curious thing, but there’s clearly something addictive about dog showing. For the majority of dog owners, showing is of little or no interest, but there’s a considerable number of people who get a great deal of enjoyment from entering their dogs into shows. I have perfectly sane friends who think nothing of driving halfway across the country to compete with their dogs, for there’s something compulsive as well as competitive about the past-time.
The first modern dog show was held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1859. It was an addition to the annual cattle show but was only open to pointers and setters. The first show to include non-sporting breeds was held in Birmingham later in the same year. It proved remarkably popular, so much so that a year later, the Birmingham Dog Show Society ran the first National Dog Show: it featured 267 entries, with no fewer than 30 breeds competing.
Dog showing was here to stay, helped by the fact that leading members of society delighted in exhibiting their dogs, making it a fashionable thing to do. After just a decade, the National Dog Show was attracting more than 700 dogs and as many as 20,000 paying visitors. The enthusiasm for shows soon spread overseas. In the US, the first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was held in 1877. The biggest dog show in America, it has been held continuously ever since, though Covid forced it outdoors in 2021.
In contrast, Crufts was a later starter, with Charles Cruft organising the first event in 1891. Unlike its American counterpart, it hasn’t been held continuously, as both world wars, an electricians’ strike (in 1954) and Covid all led to cancellations. This year’s event, the first for two years, attracted more than 20,000 dogs and around 150,000 spectators, re-establishing itself as the world’s largest dog show.
Until the advent of the first dog shows, sporting dogs had been bred principally for their working ability, not their looks. This soon changed, with many breeders more concerned with how their dogs looked rather than their performance. Today we may lament the increasing divide between the show and working strains of our favourite breeds, but it has been a matter of concern for well over a century. As long ago as 1908, the pages of The Field were filled with heated correspondence about the detrimental impact of showing on working dogs.
One correspondent argued “that shows can ruin dogs is not sound argument; it is the appointment of unqualified men as judges which has done so much to spoil the working characters of some of our best sporting varieties”. Another noted that “if one wishes to win prizes at shows, one must find out the taste of the judge and supply them with their particular fancies”, concluding that “the principal difficulty consists in the fact that show judges generally prefer a type that is neither active in mind nor body”.
I’ve no doubt similar comments can be made today. I’ve certainly seen labradors declared best of breed at Crufts which, one suspects, would have had difficulty walking across a ploughed field, let alone galloping across that same plough carrying a cock pheasant. I also know that my dog-showing friends invariably check the name of the judge before competing in a show. Some feel that if the judge doesn’t like your dogs, then there’s no point in entering.
Of course, not all our sporting dogs have been changed or spoilt by the demands of the show ring. The Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show has been held since 1878, and it remains the pinnacle of the hound show world today, though it now forms part of the Festival of Hunting. It can be fairly argued that Peterborough is responsible for the fact that foxhounds have changed little in appearance or conformation in 150 years. The secret of success seems to be the judges, invariably Masters of foxhounds, and men and women with an eye for a hound that is not only pleasing to look at, but can do the job it was originally bred for.
I’ve long believed in the maxim that life’s too short to hunt with an ugly dog, and with the litters of springer spaniels that I have bred I have tried my best to keep, or even enhance, what I regard as their good looks. My last litter was the result of a cross between my working bitch and a show-bred dog. There may not have been any trial winners or Crufts champions among the 10 puppies, but they were a good-looking lot.
Showing isn’t something that excites me, so my dogs’ successes in the show ring have been few. However, my most notable triumph was when one of my bitches won a rosette for being the dog that the judge would have liked to have taken home with her. This was the village dog show’s equivalent of Best in Show, and her many friends – she was a friendly spaniel – were thrilled with her success. I’m hoping for a similar triumph this year, for my village is holding a dog show as one of the many celebrations for HM The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I have my fingers crossed that there aren’t any corgis in the classes we enter.