Photography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand from the book Good Breeding
The breeding of dogs for the conformation show ring is rooted in the traditions practiced by livestock breeders. However, unlike their farm animal counterparts, today’s show dogs are largely produced with no greater expectation than to look the part of their ancestors while running around a ring in hopes of garnering a ribbon. Though many modern-day purebreds remain capable of performing their time-honored roles to some degree, the emphasis on their propagation and performance has increasingly strayed from their historic functions. As dogs become increasingly viewed by society as “people” instead of “pets” (or property), their very essence is being diminished. Some dogs can even appear so spoiled as to put their owners — and breeders — to shame. This is hardly the case for animals bred for the butcher, even those entered at livestock shows. After all, a cow’s conformation depends less on reach and drive and more on flank and sirloin. When it comes to producing animals intended for the dinner table, breeders must remain true to their animals’ heritage. They cannot afford to put undue emphasis on the ‘trimmings.” In this regard, dedicated dog breeders might do well to adopt a “herd” mentality and find inspiration from cattle, sheep and alpaca breeders.
The ability to assess the quality of domestic animals is as old as domestication itself. Over millennia, shepherds and cattle drovers improved their stock by sparing those animals capable of reproducing the quality of their wool or meat. For countless generations, only the finest rams and fittest of bulls were permitted to pass along their desirable characteristics. This was true for ewes and cows as well that were also expected to be good mothers. Success in breeding wasn’t truly measured until those animals intended for slaughter reached maturity, thus providing a return on the investment of fodder, labor and time. Likewise, sheep and cattle dogs did not pass along their strength and agility simply becaused they were pretty or came when called. They too had to prove themselves by keeping their herds safe from predation.
Although livestock shows came to the fore in the 19th century, they’ve actually been taking place for thousands of years. (Camels have been assessed on the sands of the Arabian Peninsula since Biblical times.) However, the business of breeding and showing stock switched into overdrive by the 1950s. During this period, breeders of Appaloosas and Appenzeller Sennenhundes — not to Abyssinian cats and Abbyssinian guinea pigs — gathered in large numbers at state fairs and town halls throughout much of Europe and America. State-sponsored events and private clubs hosted competitions that drew exhibitors from far and wide. Always at stake was the honor of taking home awards bestowed by expert adjudicators. Best in Show eventually became the ultimate prize, coveted by breeders of rabbits, canaries and pedigreed dogs alike. Unfortunately, the desire to be considered “the best of the best” has resulted in competitions less focused on breeding stock and more focused on winning with anybody’s stock. And despite the fanfare that has become associated with many animal exhibitions held throughout the world, the desire to win at all costs has brought about a despair for some. Only the most passionate of breeders can stay the course. This is why it is so important to find inspiration from breeders of every ilk.
Livestock shows can be a great source of inspiration for the dog breeder. Discovering “new” varieties of rabbit and poultry can do wonders for someone no longer impressed with the sight of a Bracco Italiano or Bergamasco. And talking with breeders of goats or donkeys can remind any dog breeder that every domestic animals deserves to be protected. Dog breeders may not supply food for the table or fibre to be spun into yarn, but we do provide the world with the hardest-working and most devoted companion animals on the planet. What could possibly be more inspiring than that?
Caption: Landrace Gilt Pig, Anslet, presented by her owners, Arthur and Joan Uglow of Devon, England. (Royal Show, England)
Caption: Charolais Bull, Jupiter (son of Érudit and Colombe), four-year-old, with his owner, Jean-Guy Vannier, of Valette-La Chapelle in Le Mans, France. (Agriculture Show, Paris)
Caption: Alpine Goats, females, presented by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Georgelet. (Agriculturel Show, Paris)
Caption: Italian Heavy Draft Horse, Arco, six-year-old stallion, presented by Davide Spiniella, owned by Intermizoo S.P.Q. (Verona Agriculture Fair, Italy)
Caption: Australian Merino Rams presented by their owners, Emilio Jorge and his wife, Susana Ferro, of Cabaña “La Adela.” (Valdés Peninsula, Chubut Province, Argentina)