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Going for the Blue
Inside the World of Show Dogs and Dog Shows
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He gives a brief history of how, without knowledge of genetics, ancient people first selectively bred dogs from wolves. He goes on to explain which factors are utilitarian and which are purely aesthetic and how these figure in judging a dog today.
He then describes how dog shows evolved, how winners are selected, the immense amount of preparation that goes into grooming a showdog, what constitutes a champion, and the most important factor in a dog show — politics.
Peppered with photographs of champion dogs and dog shows from around the country, and filled with charming anecdotes about dogs who have made it to the top and those who have been left at the bottom of the doggy pile, “Going for the Blue” is a book that will appeal to dog lovers everywhere.
GOING FOR THE BLUE.Copyright © 2001 by Roger A. Caras.All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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A hardcover edition of this book was published in 2001 by Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: February 2001
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A great many people have contributed to this book simply by talking to me and letting me see and feel their enthusiasm. I am grateful to each of them, all of them, although the list is too long to spell out here. I have spent my life surrounded by such people. And their dogs! They have all been my teachers.
Our dogs here on Thistle Hill Farm are, in no particular order, the Greyhounds, Sirius (or Xyerius), Jon-Jon, Lilly, and Hyacinth; the Basset, Pearl; the Yorkie, Sam; the Whippet, Topi; the Jack Russell Terriers, Olivia and Maude; and the West Highland White Terriers, Angus and MacGregor. They are all different, each special, without exception, and they offer an incredible amount of love.
And very special thanks to Robert Taylor and Rhonda Kumm for reading the manuscript and saving me from myself.
What Is a
There are estimated to be more than twenty million purebred dogs in the United States today. Not 10 percent of these dogs are likely to see the inside of a show ring. And relatively few of those that are launched by novice and perhaps overexcited owners will stay there for very long. In most cases one of two things will happen. Either it will quickly become apparent that the dog (technically dog refers only to the male, but the term will be used generically hereafter, with a few exceptions) or bitch (female—and they don't call them that for nothing!) does not stand a chance against the really heavy hitters that are lying in wait for someone with the temerity to challenge them, or the time and cost of continuing or finishing will prove prohibitive. (Finishing means getting a championship. In an average year the AKC—American Kennel Club—records close to twenty-one thousand new champions, dogs that have earned enough points to finish.)
Stardom is a lovely concept and an intriguing goal, but it can be a costly state to achieve. It is possible—a little unusual but possible—to end up with a six-figure tab for just one year of showing, or campaigning, as the search for stardom is generally called. Add to that the time and the wear and tear of travel on your dog and yourself and you are into one heavy-duty hobby. This is industrial-weight "fun." The next steps up from there in the costly Fun department could be a private jet (crew or owner driven) or perhaps a sports franchise or, of course, a stable full of Thoroughbreds. Still, the dog thing can be done for less, indeed a lot less if that is the goal. Surprisingly, a great many thousands of people show their dogs to their own satisfaction for a fraction of that six-figure cost. However, campaigning is never really cheap, and eventually, if you have the right dog and you are stubborn enough, you may have to dig in and pay out a great deal of money to realize your goals for your dog—who may love the whole showing gig but does not have goals or ambitions himself.
What Is a Purebred Dog?
A purebred dog, very simply, is a member of a breed recognized by the AKC that has achieved a high degree of genetic stability. There are many dogs of this description that are recognized as breeds in other countries but not in the United States. When two dogs of one breed are given an opportunity to mate, the puppies that result will look reasonably like their parents and each other. That, certainly, is the plan. And that reasonable level of predictability is terribly important to some people, whether or not they are going to show their very good friend. There are standards for each breed (we will be getting to them soon enough), and those puppies between sixteen and roughly fifty-two weeks of age that appear to be up to the standard, or at least close to it, can be considered at least potential show dogs. It is a matter of opinion. Those who fall very far short are considered pet-quality purebred dogs. They can make wonderful pets, they can give and get love along with the best of them, and, in fact, they may still be very handsome animals. It is just that somehow they don't conform or aren't close enough to the way the standard says they have to look. The shortfall in majestic good looks or movement may not even be discernible to the layman. The glitch can be so arcane that only breeders, handlers, and judges can pick up on it.
Standards are unforgiving. A dog may be superb at aiding the physically impaired, or fantastic at rescue work or in detecting guns, bombs, and drugs in luggage, but if it misses meeting the standards by even just a little, it will have no hope in the ring. There are just too many dogs out there that don't miss the standards to offer the wanna-be much hope for time in the spotlight. If you are a dog lover, this really should not matter—loving, after all, is loving. Show-quality purebred dogs are no better for hugging and tennis-ball chasing than pet-quality purebreds—or random-breds, for that matter.
To indicate how unforgiving the standards can be, I'll give you some examples of the kinds of things that can go wrong, according to the official published AKC standards. These are only the briefest samples.
They say that no one is perfect, and so it is with dogs. Each breed has some potential flaws. They are designated as faults in the standard, and rarely is this beauty test very much easier for one breed with its potential faults than for another. The Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier (Terrier Group), for example, must have a nose that is uniformly black and large for the size of the dog. The eyes must be hazel or brown and have black rims. They had better be. The judges know all these things, and they will be looking. (When it comes to dog-show judges, by the way, "he" is just as likely to be "she." That is also true for handlers.)
The Bulldog (Nonsporting Group) is often erroneously, but without evil intent, referred to as the English Bulldog. There is no such breed. The Bulldog's standard says his coat must be straight, short, flat, close, of fine texture, smooth, and glossy with no fringe, feather, or curl. I love my kids and grandchildren and they are all beautiful and brilliant (of course), but they couldn't pass such a stringent test of consistency! The rest of the Bulldog standard reveals that its coat is the easiest of the hurdles it has to clear. I love Bulldogs, but God love them, a Bulldog is an ambulatory bundle of improbabilities.
The Akita (Working Group) must have lips that are black and not pendulous; the tongue is pink. The tail is large and full, set high and carried over the back or against the flank in a three-quarter, full, or double curl, always dipping to or below the level of the back. On a three-quarter curl the tip droops well down the flank. The root is large and strong, as is the dog itself. The tailbone reaches the hock when it is let down. The hair on the tail must be coarse, straight, and full, with no appearance of a plume.
The Afghan Hound (Hound Group), according to the standards, has eyes that are almond shaped (almost triangular) and never full or bulgy, and they must be dark in color. The ears are long and are set approximately on the level of the outer corners of the eyes. The leather (the meaty, flesh-and-cartilage part of the ear) reaches nearly to the end of the dog's nose and is covered with long silky hair. The stipulation that the ears reach nearly to the end of the dog's nose does give the judge a little wiggle room, room for interpretation. What, after all, does nearly mean? It is a judgment call, and that is what judges do: they pass judgment. One judge's "nearly" is another judge's clean miss. Any memorialized latitude like that could lay the groundwork for politics and favoritism. Could doesn't mean does, but the opportunity is there and so is the history.
…AND NOT SO PURE
In this book we talk a good deal about breeding and puppies, yet we live in this tragic throw-away society where every year dogs (and cats) by the millions are put to sleep because there aren't enough good homes for them. Why breed more?
First of all, no pet-quality dog (or cat), purebred or random-bred, should ever be allowed to reproduce. There is no rational argument for breeding dogs whose genes are not needed to improve the genetic package of its breed. On the other hand, bear in mind that a dog that has been spayed or neutered can't show in conformation, so neutering is a serious, permanent decision. There is no going back. The show-quality dogs we are talking about here don't end up on the surplus rolls. People are waiting in line for them. If those people want a show dog or just a pet dog of a specific breed, it is a personal choice accomplished with their own discretionary funds. In shelters across the country, the number of purebred dogs runs only 18 to 20 percent of the total shelter-dog population. The other dogs are random-bred and can make super pets—all dogs are potentially outstanding companions whether purebred or not.
The purebred dogs found in shelters rarely come from the kind of kennels we will be talking about. It's more likely they were purchased at an exorbitant price in a pet shop (which usually charges much more than a top kennel would), which in turn bought them from a middleman who got them from a puppy mill. The whole business is both sordid and profitable. This mass production of dogs is nevertheless licensed by the federal government, with a sanction from the AKC. All these puppies, however badly off they may be, still get AKC papers.
Puppy mills are an evil, ugly concept. It is mass breeding without regard for bloodlines and with the dogs usually terribly mistreated. It is difficult to imagine how bad they are until you have seen some. I have personally inspected scores of them and have never encountered one with so much as a single redeeming quality. They are concentration camps for ill, undersocialized puppies often set to be shipped weeks before it is even legal to do so. Typically the dogs from puppy mills and hence pet shops are sickly, and they must have thousands of dollars spent on them before they have even the slightest chance of being healthy. I can't say it has never happened, but a pet shop-puppy mill dog making it in any show or other form of competition is an extraordinarily rare event. They are the surplus purebred dogs we encounter in municipal control facilities or humane shelters and they deserve all the help and support we can give them. They are, however, not the show dogs we are contemplating here and should never be allowed to reproduce. The point can't be stressed often enough. However splendid a dog—any dog—may be, the idea is not to propagate genetic disasters. Dog shows have exactly the opposite goal.
Some further thoughts on a historical perspective. We should at least try to get these things in order.
If the dog was first developed and started on its way toward breed differentiation even as recently as fifteen thousand years ago, around thirteen thousand B.C., and Christopher Columbus didn't set sail for the New World until high tide on Friday afternoon, August 3, 1492, how is it that dogs were given ritual burials in areas that are now Idaho and Nantucket Island, eight thousand and four thousand years ago, respectively? How did dogs make incredible journeys millennia before Europeans? Almost certainly they didn't. It is a long walk (and a daunting swim) from Babylon to Boston. Consider some of the moves that would have to have been made if the "Middle East-little wolf only" scenario is accepted: from thence east to Tibet; then to somewhere in the South Pacific to link up with primitive navigators about to invade Australia, bringing their dogs (dingoes) with them (I have seen pariah-type dogs in the longhouses of mountainous areas of Borneo that matched the pariah dogs of Africa and mainland Asia). To North America eight thousand years ago, a site in Idaho called Jaguar Cave, where ritual burials took place, and then three or four thousand years later off the coast of what is now Massachusetts. To Peru, the high Andes, to live and evolve among the Inca; to central Mexico to live and evolve among the Aztec, Quantapec, and Toltec and their kin, and south of there to live and evolve among the Mayan peoples; with the Plains Indians in North America. In northern Japan; possibly in the New Guinea Highlands; and in areas of Africa not identified because they accompanied that vast continent's nomadic tribes and were probably used as trade goods.
One way or another, dogs got to those places, and in each and every one of them evolved according to the opportunities man provided. Our knowledge of all this is a patchwork of truths—we think—and not just a few maybes. In fact, we don't know much about this part of it at all. It is highly probable that dogs were on their way toward becoming hundreds of different breeds, perhaps thousands, in a great many parts of the world within the same time period, give or take a couple thousand years. No one kept a log or a studbook. There was no PKC—Paleolithic Kennel Club.
From time to time a venerable and distinguished scientist has come forth with the theory that the pretty little golden jackal (Canis aureus) of the African savanna was as ancestral to our dog as the wolf is or even more directly. No one seems to hold on to that theory for long. Typically, the distinguished and venerable scientist eventually apologizes and goes back to the wolf theory with something akin to his tail between his legs. I must say that the few times I have encountered the golden jackal in the wild and have been looked in the eye by them, there was the feeling of dog about them. Steady and intelligent, they pad off at a slow and deliberate trot into deeper grass. Wolves are somewhat like that, too, although they have the added dimension of their pack behavior, their social interactions.
By way of keeping our perspective and perhaps thoroughly confusing just about everybody: there are claims for true dog remains in North Africa 80,000 years ago (almost impossible to believe); in Europe, generally 17,000 years ago (that would be at least possible in the context of the Middle East claim of 15,000 years ago); in England, 7,500 years ago (that would be OK); in Zhoukoudian, China, 30,000 years ago (another tough one to imagine). Berber nomads are said to have had an active traffic in dogs 10,000 years ago, including Greyhound, Basenji, and small guard and herding dogs (again, OK); France, it has been suggested, 150,000 years ago (about ten times the conventional Middle East figure—well before there were Homo sapiens); Kent, England, 400,000 years ago! That last figure, for Kent, is almost certainly one of two things, fiction or fascinating error. When this symbiosis between man and dog really did get under way remains a matter of best guess. We do know that by four thousand years ago Greyhound-type and Mastiff-type dogs were established, as well as guard types other than Mastiffs, Sheepdogs, and, surprisingly, lap dogs.
Dogs, almost from the beginning, began splitting off into new breeds, of which we know none from the very early years. Just as with so many wild animal species, dog breeds have become extinct, being replaced by the natural forces of evolution. We think we know some basic breeds from seven to ten thousand years ago—the Ibizan Hound, the Saluki, and the Samoyed are possible examples—but nothing very much earlier than that can be spoken of with confidence.
WRIT IN BLACK AND WHITE
Many standards leave room for interpretation. For example, in the AKC standard for the Pointer we find: "The skull is of medium width approximately as wide as the length of the muzzle." Again, approximately leaves room for opinion rather than precision. There is no way of excising opinion and taste from dog-show judging any more than from an art competition or a chili cook-off. Nor would it necessarily be a good thing to do so, to stymie evolution by muffling the opinions of knowledgeable dog people.
Over the years, purebred dogs have changed, some breeds far more than others. In no small way those changes, constituting a form of evolution, have been the result of opinions and aesthetics. No dog standard is carved in stone. It is just a matter of taste, and although it can hang around for a long time, it is subject to evolution born of human judgment—or, or course, misjudgment. An outstanding show dog is a living, breathing wonder, and which dog is best and should be used to carry forward its breed's genes has to be decided, ultimately, by very doggy people: judges, breeders, and handlers. The dogs are usually willing and able. In real life, one dog doesn't look good to another in terms of a printed standard. But they sure can smell nice.
Many standards encourage judges to use their own judgment, the decision thereby gaining the value of their individual experience. In the AKC standard for the English Springer Spaniel we find this mandate: "The head is impressive without being heavy. Its beauty lies in the combination of strength and refinement. It is important that the size and proportion be in balance with the rest of the dog. Viewed in profile, the head should appear approximately the same length as the neck and should blend with the body and substance." This leaves a lot of room for opinion!
And even more room in the standard for the Great Dane. It is described by the AKC as "of great size, powerful, well-balanced, elegant, dignified, courageous, friendly." That is not just a standard, it is an ode. That big guy sounds like someone I would like to know and sculpt.
How Tall Can They Be?
The Standards Speak
- On Sale
- Feb 6, 2001
- Page Count
- 192 pages
- Grand Central Publishing