Sunday, January 20, 2008

that's a good dog

In case anyone doesn't get my blog-voice, my comment about the AKC and vizslas should have been heard in a Norm McDonald SNL Weekend Update 'Germans love David Hasselhoff' voice. Shockingly, no-one has posted a YouTube clip of one of Norm's most famous one-liners.

The comments from my previous post prompted me to do some more research about what alternatives there are to the monolith that is the American Kennel Club. To back up slightly, I started this blog to document my travails as a new bird-dog owner, trainer, and hunter so that others can take what they can from my experiences and make their own decisions. Our breeder had already registered Momo's litter with the AKC when we picked him up -- and we took that as a certification that his breeders were legitimate, that they had an established history of breeding vizslas. And, as I mentioned before, their pups were only available on limited registrations -- which is to say that if we had faked out of our commitment to neuter Momo and had tried to breed him, neither he nor his offspring could have legitimately been recognized as 'vizslas'. As a strategy to deter backyard breeding, I have no problem with this.

And while we did register Momo (and Jozsi) with the AKC, we had no expectations that our connection to the AKC meant a whole lot more than that. It certainly said nothing about whether our dog was 'good' (in any dimension); certainly now, when I have questions and need a recommendation about anything concerning our dogs, my first source is our breeder. And if I have a single piece of advice for new dog owners, interview your breeder. If you can't communicate with them, if you don't like or respect them, then who cares how 'good' your puppy might be.

Nevertheless, when you have a single organization, with an established history, with a virtual monopoly on registering, testing, and certifying pure-bred dogs, there are bound to be issues. (The debate at/over the Wikipedia entry for the American Kennel Club is a good illustration.) Pat the Terrierman has more than a few comments (and God bless him for the fortitude to say what's on his mind and, as far as I can tell, for also putting his money where his mouth is). In his review of Donald McCaig's newest book, Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club, Pat discusses how the 'breed standard' for border collies was, from its outset, determined by how the dog looked rather than how it worked. And as that show standard became established and dogs bred to it, their working abilities suffered.

The only significant criticism I have is one I made in my comments on my previous post, that humans began determining what dogs should look like before entities like the AKC emerged. This is not to minimize the leverage that the AKC has put on breeders and breeds, but it is to say that the AKC was a catalyst that legitimized an existing streak of human manipulation over dogs. I think one of the difficulties navigating all of this, for me, is that the counter-argument to the AKC also implies that dogs that work well are somehow more genuine examples of their breed than dogs that merely show well. This, too, smacks of a kind of contrarian eugenics.

The other variant of this argument, that AKC pedigrees and titles mean little or nothing when one is looking for a 'good grouse dog,' for example, is that the only way a new prospective owner can get a dog of decent quality is by talking to an 'expert', someone who really knows what a good grouse dog looks like and can see through the smoke-and-mirrors of AKC-style fluff -- and who presumably has dogs for sale, himself. (And I am paraphrasing a conversation I myself had with such an 'expert'.) Again, while it might have some element of truth to it, and the fellow I was speaking to has chased more grouse with dogs than I may likely ever do, this is merely a different kind of monopoly -- and arguably a more insidious one.

After all my conversations with various folks about this dilemma, there is some consensus that if you are looking for a working dog, then the best predictor for how a pup may turn out is to watch both its prospective parents work. Pedigree and titles will merely reinforce how prominent their performance ability may be. If you don't have the luxury of this option (like us), then once more the prospective owner is obliged to interview breeders and try to decipher pedigree charts.

As ever, my favorite touchstone is Pat Burns. In a more recent review of an article in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Medicine asking for reforms in the AKC, Pat makes the following summation:

"The purpose of cynological associations is to give out ribbons. Dogs are simply a mechanism for the humans to get the ribbons.

Take away the ribbons and awards, and no one would go to a dog show at all. To do what? To pay money to stand around all day, to have your dog looked at for 5 seconds by someone who does not own or work the breed? Forget it.

In fact, it's entirely possible to be in the "sport" of dog showing without even showing up at a dog
show at all! Unbelievably, it's done all the time."

Now, while Pat is primarily railing against show dogs and their owners, he could easily have extended his argument to AKC-sponsored hunt tests and field trials. And I don't mind saying that I am proud of Momo's hunt test performance -- and know that the ribbons mean nothing to him. I hope he knows that I love him just as much when he points pheasants and woodcock and chukar and grouse and quail and birds..... birds, birds, birds. Sorry. Got a little excited.

I know several breeders who, for example, express concern that the AKC can pronounce a working dog a champion without the dog ever having to prove it can work OR that the Junior Hunter category exists largely for show dogs to get some kind of working certification. I think the first part of that makes a lot of sense to me, the second less so. If you have a standard and a dog meets it, it may not meet it well, but it meets it and so be it. Again, I have no illusions about what JH means after Momo's name and frankly got more satisfaction from what his judges said to me about his performance after the test was over than from his ribbons.

The question to me remains: if Pat is right (and I think he is) that the AKC is unlikely to engage in the reforms suggested in the CJVM, what are the alternatives? How does a relatively new owner determine which litter to get a pup from with some kind of level of assurance about its likely performance if that prospective owner can't actually see both parents work? What kinds of worth do all those letters surrounding a dog's registered name really have?

The largest alternative breed-registry for hunting dogs is The American Field Field Dog Stud Book. Their emphasis is clearly on performance, but performance through the field-trial format. My gut feeling is that I don't really care if my dogs are better than someone else's dogs, but whether or not they can find birds. But, if as Pat suggests, a lot of dog ownership is about projecting one's feelings and aspirations onto one's dogs, then maybe I will go check out one or two to dispel my own prejudices and insecurities and see if I still feel the same way.

The National Vizsla Association exists under The American Field umbrella. The pictures in this post are borrowed from Bill Gibbons's Magma Kennels site. Bill is well regarded as a dog trainer of a variety of breeds and was a founding member of the NVA. Now again, as all these pictures from Bill's site illustrate, the NVA has its own ways of recognizing a particular dog's achievement -- so the prospective owner still has to wade through their codebook. My own feeling is this: a dog with a bunch of letters before and after its name has at least done something -- and even if the owner's motivations were selfish or financially motivated, the dog has been kept active, engaged, and has proven itself in front of a critical audience. However, that still won't guarantee that your pup is worth a hoot, or at the very least, worth a hoot in your hands.

I chose this picture of Mason (Upwind Kismet Rapid Fire) because he's out of Lisa DeForest's Upwind Farms kennel in NH. (Sadly Lisa doesn't have a website.) Jozsi's mother, Gem, was co-owned by Lisa and Chris & Wendy at Widdershins. Because Lisa arranged the breeding for Jozsi's litter, he could have been just an Upwind dog, but we wanted to recognize Chris & Wendy's love and care as well: hence he is registered as Widdershins Upwind Jozsi. I love all three of these pictures: holy heck, that's three vizslas just jacked for birds!

At least from a superficial glance, one organization that appears to restore the balance of good-looking and well-working dogs by breeding "through performance to standard" is the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar. It's well worth checking out the US chapter of the VDD's website, as much as anything to help understand why a Drahthaar isn't a German Wirehaired Pointer.

So, in short, before you get your new bird-dog, be aware of the limitations of paper information, watch our for scheisters and experts, and be sure you want a 'Ferrari' before you get one. And go watch some dogs. If hunt tests do have a purpose, spending a day in the gallery will let you see how different dogs do their job.


Incidentally, while writing this I discovered that the word 'cynology' (the study of dogs) shares the same root as 'cynic'. It seems strangely appropriate that while we question various organizations' commitment to dogs that it might make us a little cynical.


halo said...

hey nice blog.

was wondering if you can recommend a breeder of vizslas in the nyc ny, nj area, even new england. I reside in nyc and am just starting to do my homework now. But would love to find contacts of a great breeder.

thanks for help in advance.

Andrew Campbell said...


Finding a good vizsla breeder will depend on what you're hoping to do with your dog, ie. conformation, agility, hunting, field trialing. I would be happy to recommend breeders to you -- but leave another comment with an e-mail address in it (which I will then delete so it's not public) and I will get back to you that way.

all best