North Fork Outdoors: Sometimes form follows function in the dog world

02/19/2012 3:00 AM |

It’s always interesting for dog owners to visit the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden. For all the pomp and circumstance, for all the brushes and powder, there are some real dogs in the rings, dogs that perform tasks other than striding on lead and posing with perfect posture. Indeed, for some breeds the Bauhaus creed “form follows function” is still important.

An article in The New York [the other] Times on Feb. 13 by Stephanie Clifford highlighted the dual nature of the Siberian husky, describing one current Siberian, Winnie, Grand Champion Huskavarna’s Destined to Win, and her appearance as a lead dog in a recent race. On Feb. 14 Winnie was awarded a Judges Award of Merit at the Garden in a breed entry of 20. Although the Times story centered on the Nome serum delivery marathon of 1925, the back story of Siberians and their development seemed just as interesting.

The Siberian husky has evolved in conformation over the decades just as most breeds do. If you look at the Times photos of sled dogs from the late 1920s, you see leaner, rangier dogs with different faces than the Sibes of today. Nevertheless, some owners of huskies still passionately compete in sled-dog competition with the same dogs that go into the show rings.

Innisfree Kennels in Ellenburg, N.Y., run by the Kanzler family, has bred and trained generations of Siberians for this dual role; we’ve mixed our Brittanys with their teams and had some terrific times, too. Success has come, not only in sled-dog competition, but also, and impressively so, in shows all over the United States and Canada. Back in 1980 their Siberian Husky actually “won it all” at the Garden and was awarded Best In Show. Moreover, Champion (Ch.) Innisfree’s Sierra Cinnar, owned by Kathleen Kanzler, was handled by Patricia Kanzler, not by a typical professional handler. Suffice it to say, “Cinnar” was no stranger to a dog sled!

Sporting breeds have undergone a substantial transformation, so much so that competitors sometimes despair of bringing form and function back together for dual (show and field) competition. The first sporting dogs to have won Best In Show at the Garden, the Cocker Spaniel, Ch. Midkiff Seductive, in 1921 and the Pointer, Ch. Governor Moscow, in 1925, probably looked like the field dogs of the era, according to photos we’ve seen at the English Setter Club in Medford, N.J., and stories we’ve heard from one of the last cocker field trial competitors.

Today, show cockers, now short-muzzled and long-eared, are all but gone from spaniel field trials, and show pointers (and English setters) tend to be so gawky and narrow-chested, they can hardly compete with the snappy, muscular field dogs which run on the trial circuit. The tendency to accentuate certain characteristics has led to wide splits between “show” dogs and “field” dogs, even if not as extreme as in other, more popular, breeds. For example, compare the slant-backed German shepherd winners of the big shows today with working shepherds used for security duties or with movie star Rin Tin Tin.

To its credit, however, the American Kennel Club has been promoting hunt tests for the sporting breeds in recent years, and these tests give folks who might not otherwise stray from the show rings opportunities for their dogs to perform essential functions in the field. The tests differ from highly competitive field trials where first-place dogs (sometimes in big trials some other highly placed dogs get points, too) in the many braces of the stake get points toward their championships. In hunt tests, scores are awarded to individual competitors, which must “pass” several tests to get certified as Junior, Senior or Master Hunter.

A few AKC breeds still continue to have the gold standard of the Dual Championship, for which the dog has to be both a show and trial winner. We’re lucky enough to compete in one such breed with our Brittanys, but we’ve seen other owners who have braved the odds (in Brittanys there are less than a dozen “duals” a year in a breed with many thousands of annual registrations) to finish dual-champion German shorthaired pointers, Vizslas and Gordon setters.

Two years ago we wanted to breed our Annie, Field Champion Kildee’s Anticipation, and have the possibility of a dual pup. We chose as stud a dual champion, Nitro, Amateur National Gun Dog Champion Triumphant’s To Hot To Handle, who had also been among the top five show Brits in the country at one time. Now our little bitch, Missy, Ch. Windswept’s Ain’t Misbehaving, who finished her show title at 10 months, is getting ready for adult field trials after placing second in a prestigious National Futurity for juvenile dogs, run on horseback.

Responsible breeders try to produce ideal, healthy pups that show well and do the job for which the breed was intended.