The Challenge of
Why Breed for Ability?
I have often heard argument to the affect of "Just because our Spaniels
haven't done field work or obedience doesn't mean that the
breed is not able to DO the work it was originally bred for. We just choose
not to work them"
Would be nice if that were true. But if it were true, then show breds would
not have ever earned the reputation for weak ability. That is what happened
when show breeders claimed "the greatgrandsire was a hunter and the
dam chases yard birds so these pups will hunt" and they pass off their
non-show quality progeny to unknowing buyers seeking hunting companions.
Buying a hunting companion from show lines this way is,frankly, a crapshoot
(more so in some breeds than others). Breeders who prove their stock afield,
choose to improve on the necessary traits for hunting, and know how to select
hunting prospects from a litter are a better risk.
There is an old saying...."If you don't breed for it, you are breeding
Put another way, if you do not select to maintain/prove particular traits,
they will weaken/dilute.
If it helps to use the example of show breeding to see the point, what would
happen if you *didn't* breed for body type and structure? What if you bred
only to/for dogs that had nice heads and ignored the rest of the dog? What
if you never tested for health problems and just bred to whatever looked
What if you bred ONLY for ability and not for structure/type at all? ("just
because I don't breed for pretty heads and bodies doesn't mean my dogs can't
win in a dog show, just that I CHOOSE not to show them".....see how
ridiculous this sounds?)
Yes, it is true that there are a lot of show bred dogs that have retained
good hunting ability - indeed that we linebreed insures that some entire
lines will retain a bulk of ability assuming the stuff being repeated in
the pedigree is strong. But correspondingly, if the core of a linebreeding
lacks ability, so will the bulk of what the line produces.
I'll also add that inherent hunting ability amounts to much more than just
birdiness. It breaks down to many different inherited components, some of
- -Birdiness (obsessed with birds)
- -Desire to please/Biddability (wants to please)
- -Range (works fairly close but not underfoot nor takes off)
- -Nose (good scenting ability and knows how to use it)
- -Intelligence (ability to work out problems, includes memory)
- -Independence (will take initiative, does not need direction for every
- -Persistence/tenacity (aka "Heart")
- -Boldness to game (does not hesitate on the flush or blink birds)
- -Boldness to cover (enthusiastically enters into cover)
- -Boldness to water (enthusiastically enters into water)
- -Boldness to sound (does not cower/run from gunshots)
- -High pain threshold (allows for a dog that will not balk in thorny
cover or cold water)
- -Mouth (handles game gently but firmly)
- -Retrieve desire (likes to carry and bring to owner)
- -Marking ability (alert, good vision and depth perception)
- -Chase instinct
- -Focus (will maintain concentration on the task and not be drawn away
Also, proper structure for the job (balanced fore and aft and properly proportioned
for the required task, good chest and ribs, bone and muscling, strong, level
topline, tight, thick feet, tight facial skin, correct earset (not too low),
adequate muzzle, moderate coat)
Yes, quite a few of these abilities can be trained in. But if a dog inherits
only a few of these traits, is that a dog I really want to train, hunt with,
and breed under the description of "hunting dog"? I have a friend
who hunts with Border Collies - they are naturally "birdy", biddable,
outgoing, and intelligent. The rest she had to train for. She trained them
to do a flusher's job and they do a servicable job (albeit not at all comparable
to what my Spaniels can do). Does that mean they are "hunting dogs"
and should be bred and promoted as such?
The inherent hunting abilities is what gives us the Spaniel personality
that makes them such wonderful pets and is what buyers of Spaniels for hunting
*expect*. Otherwise, why not just pick up a mutt at the pound and train
the begeebers out of it?
If we take out either on purpose or by accident/neglect too many of these
traits, we could well lose the very character of our dogs.
We all know Spaniels that are indifferent to game, hardheaded, dominant,
give up a quest easily, skiddish to noise, hate water, scatterbrained, clingy,
or conversely, "take off for the next county", dumb, or lacking
in self-confidence. This the result of not selecting for the correct traits.
--and how can you select for these traits when you don't give your breeding
stock the chance to prove they have them?
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The Unexamined Breeding Program
The following was taken, with permission from the author, from a thread
on the Spanie-L List regarding breeding for competitive events vs. breeding
for a well-rounded representative of the breed:
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 14:54:39 -0500
From: Bob Sergeant
Subject: The unexamined breeding program
The variety of people on the list is extensive. Many are strictly owners
or trainers of Spaniels. And for these owners there is truly only one responsibility
and that is to love and care for their dogs no matter what they may choose
I have always felt breeders, including - and especially - myself, should
be held to a higher level of responsibility to their breed and those who
buy their puppies. My responsibility is to breed the best English Springer
Spaniel I can, and if in doing so they are considered worthy to win events
in the field or in the show ring, great. If they do not, but live up to
as many expectations that one might make of an English Springer Spaniel
as a physically and mentally sound companion, hunting dog and breed representative,
then I am succeeding as a breeder.
When a breeder of show dogs is not breeding actively to instill instincts
as a requisite part of their selection process, or when a breeder of field
trial dogs is breeding without consideration of soundness, conformation
and breed type as a requisite part of their selection process, they are
not breeding the best Spaniel, they are breeding "event dogs"
that compromise the true character of the breed.
By simply saying we should all be satisfied to end this debate by saying
"you do your thing and I do mine" is simply a way to avoid the
issues and not take responsibility -----sweeping the issue under the rug
to avoid controversy.
Simply put, if you take a position of "I am breeding the BEST as a
show dog" or "I am breeding the BEST as a field dog", the
end reward is personal satisfaction of winning the event. It has little
to do with putting forth the best effort to breed the best Spaniel.
(editor's note: There was comment that in some cases proving ability would
be impossible or impractical, example being the Rhodesian Ridgeback which
was developed and used for Lion Hunting)
With regards to Rhodesian Ridgebacks, that breed is their responsibility.
The fact that they have a breed that can not be easily trained for the task
originally intended does not alleviate me from my responsibilities to maintain
With regards to not being a hunter or being turned off by killing birds,
again, that does not remove the responsibility that one has as a breeder
to maintain the breed. While you may not test your own dogs, that does not
mean that you cannot breed to dogs that have been tested and proven. The
(AKC) Hunting Test program can make a difference even if it is used passively.
And indeed a WD (Working Dog) or a WDX (Working Dog Excellent) on a dog
3 or 4 generations back does not mean much relative to instinct.
Nature and the market place abhors a vaccuum. If show bred Spaniels were
consistantly good hunters and overdone coats were not a problem the field
bred Spaniel would not exist today. I spoke to a group of English Cocker
Spaniel show enthusiasts over 10 years ago and suggested that if they did
not soon get out and prove and promote their dogs that soon they too would
have a distinctively split breed with an emerging field bred bloodline.
(Editor's note: This has already been the case with English Cockers in the
UK for decades.)
To the credit of the Welsh Springer Spaniel, Clumber Spaniel and others,
they are preserving the integrity of their breed. I hope that more breeders
of English Springer Spaniels, English Cocker Spaniels,and American Cocker
Spaniels decide that they, too, want to preserve the identity of their breed
rather than evolve it to suit their personal competitive desires.
If these debates cause one to reflect on their responsibilities as a breeder
to their breed, than they are worth it each and every time they occur.
If I may quote an ancient Greek Beagle breeder, "the unexamined breeding
program is not worth feeding"
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On Dual Purpose Breeding
The following was taken, with permission from the author, from the Gundog-L
email List/Newgroup in 1996.
It regards the importance of breeding for dual purpose dogs.
Actually, breed splits occur from both show and field sides. When both are
not policed you will get a divergence of the breed. If show judges are not
properly educated about a breed, and the breed standard allows a lot of
lattitude, then the judge will pick what they feel best represents the breed.
If enough judges do this then the show breeder will breed for what will
win as that obviously is the "best" conformation. If a field person
finds a dog that is a super performer they will breed or breed to it. If
that animal is out of standard then the likelihood of out-of-standard pups
Whenever winning a competition, be it field or show, is paramont in a breeder's
mind, they will breed to win. Unless conformation and performance are considered
equally this is what you will get.
Some people will say that a dual champion is a mediocre dog. Not good enough
to win big in either the ring or the field. If my dogs never win a Group
1 or best in show or never win the national gun dog championship, but they
have won best of breed and several open gun dog stakes and have completed
their Dual Championships with a SH (Senior Hunter) and possibly MH (Master
Hunter) to boot, would I consider them mediocre? I don't think so! Especially
when big winning show champions seldom have more than a JH (Junior Hunter)
and big winning field champions seldom have a SH or MH much less any wins
in the ring.
I believe in putting the purity of the breed ahead of big time winning.
Right or wrong, that is what I want to maintain. Of course, to have a dog
that wins both the National Specialty Show and the National Championship
would be nice however, I believe that only one Brittany has ever done that.
Rainbow Ridge Brittanys
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