NORTH FORK OUTDOORS/Martin Garrell: An active dog keeps life interesting

Watching the Scottish deerhound, Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, float around the ring on the way to her Best In Show at Westminster two weeks ago, we were reminded once more about the passion that many of us have for dogs.

Although Westminster focuses attention on American Kennel Club breeds over two days in the rings at Madison Square Garden and all dogs in the show come from responsible breeders, not from so-called “puppy mills” or “pet stores,” Westminster and the AKC support other organizations specializing in rescue and adoption. Some years back, the show helped raise funds for adoptions of homeless pets following Hurricane Katrina. This year, the show promoted The Pedigree Foundation (, an organization that helps shelters and rescue groups by accepting donations and distributing over $800,000 in aid.

There’s plenty of room in the dog world for pure bred dogs as well as their adopted cousins who lack papers that would qualify them for certain specific AKC competitions. As outdoor persons, we have a keen interest in upland bird dogs, particularly pointing dogs, and we’ve worked with friends who had flushing dogs, retrievers and hounds, as well. But for many years we also had a wonderful “shepherd mix” as a companion after he came to us as a stray. Zachary could always be counted on to stay at our side on hikes or cross-country ski tours, unlike our Brits whose goal in life was hunting. He would have made a fine agility dog, we believe, as well as a good therapy dog for visits to hospitals or care facilities.

The recognized AKC dogs, however, are specialists and are always at their best doing the jobs for which they were bred, i.e. hunting dogs for hunting tests and field trials. Nevertheless, even the breeds that seem to be out there largely for appearance can get into the competitions. When we were doing agility training with our Brittanys, one of the best dogs in the exercises was a Papillion! So-called “crossover” is not unusual.

We’ve already related how much fun we’ve had over the last three winters using our Brittany team to haul a dog sled down the miles of snowmobile trails in the North Country. In fact, many of the Westminster contenders do quite well outside the show rings. In the world of pointing dogs, for example, it’s not unusual to see show champions with certificates won in hunting tests. For a few very good ones, you’ll even see the coveted DC appellation, which means that the dog has won enough blue ribbons in rigorous field trial competition to make it a true dual champion. The dual dog is still the goal for the pointing breeds, and the best breeders keep this in mind.

Choosing a dog is best done carefully, even though the “love at first sight” aspect is often in the background. Whether you rescue a dog from a shelter or select one from a responsible breeder, you have to realize that you are accepting a huge responsibility for the next decade or more. Every so often, when we have something special in our Brittany blood lines, we’ll breed a litter (we’ve done it only three times in 40 years) and try to find good homes for the pups. We know how difficult it is to find an owner who can keep an active pup exercised and train it to “fit” its environment. The first years of a pup’s growth are so difficult — the mischief level is considerable — that the new owner should seek help from a local kennel club or breed club to avoid being overwhelmed. We always recommend obedience classes or show classes for starters and try to get new owners in touch with old hands in the area. Often the most gratifying experience is going to a show or field trial and watching one of those “new” owners grinning from ear to ear with his or her first blue ribbon, even when they’ve just beaten one of your own dogs!

Often you run across folks who have lost a beloved pet and are hesitant to acquire a new one. One of the attendants at the Garden last week told us that he was afraid he could never replace the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that died a few years before. We gently reminded him there were plenty of dogs out there looking for an experienced owner like himself and that, although you never ever replace a pet with one possessing the exact same qualities, the new one often does many other things as well or better. Lately there’s been a debate whether pets in a home make a difference in longevity for owners. We’re not sure about longevity, but having an active dog in a household certainly makes a terrific quality of life difference. Both Janet and I feel this strongly after more than 50 years of dog ownership!