I want my dogs to carry themselves
with arrogance, to cover ground effortlessly and stand
over it with authority, to look at you with a sharp,
dark expression, to carry their ears on top of a clean,
flat skull, to wear a jacket with the trademark texture
and color banding. I want a forechest and a 12 o'clock
tail, powerful thighs and short hocks. I want ribspring.
I want a dog to stay on a table
when I tell him to, and to come when he's called, and
shut up when he's told. I want him to stand his ground
in the center of the ring when he faces an equal. I want
confidence, but I don't want teeth. I want him to wake
me when he needs to go out in the middle of the night.
And I want his children to do the
want to look into their faces and see their great
grandfather and remember what made those shivers go up
my spine the first time I saw him.
On an email list I belong to that is
devoted to canine genetics, I was involved in a discussion that
revolved around the condemnation of all things show ring. "The
show ring is responsible for exaggeration. The show ring is a
false and artificial place that is sucking in our breeds and
ruining them for all eternity. It's just a beauty contest."
Just a beauty contest.
I had never been a strong advocate of the
show ring, though I did compete with enthusiasm. I was familiar
with the extremes that can result from the all mighty ribbon
chase, the sad fact that breed standards can become secondary to
fashion and sires promoted to serve egos at the expense of breed
health. I knew of the abuses. I knew all of that.
But now things were different. I rose to
defend the show ring, and to challenge the statement, for now I
have an appreciation that I did not before.
"When," I found myself asking, "did
beauty become a perjorative term?
For 20 years my small breeding program had
met with some success. I worked within a fairly tight family
line, introducing new blood carefully, and discarding dogs who
failed to meet both my competitive standards and threshold for
health problems. There was steady progress while I set a few
distinctive traits into the family. Not only were the dogs
becoming known for their type and movement, but we were
carefully pulling together and preserving the genes of an
important family of the past that had fallen into disfavour when
PRA* was discovered in the line. Only a few pockets of direct
descendants remained in the breed and our dogs represented one
of those - and the dogs here defied the odds and remained (as
they have to this day) free of PRA.
In the mid 1990's my veterinarian's wife
asked to breed a bitch she had of my breeding. She was bred to a
dog from an entirely different background that had been given to
me by a friend in California. I had great fun showing him, but
had never used him myself. The breeding resulted in a male puppy
who became mine in lieu of stud fee. He was to give my dogs the
turbo charge of style they needed.
He finished his US title with an
unprecedented sweep of the majors at AMSC Great Western. He won
a specialty his first day as a special in the US as well as
several groups in Canada. He was crossed back into my original
bitch line with immediate success, creating one of those rare
nicks in which the virtues of two lines combine and then remain
intact in successive generations. His first son completed his
title at Montgomery County, and began to rack up the Best In
Shows. He drew the interest of color breeders, as he also
happened to be a black, and rarest of all, a black who had never
seen the dye bottle. Sons went to Australia, to Brazil, bitches
were bred in the US and Canada and offspring went to Europe. His
grandchildren began to spread across the globe, winning groups
and Bests In Show both here and abroad.
Then, in routine puppy eye exams, a litter
out of one of his daughters was diagnosed with retinal dysplasia.
As I had crossed him back into my line he
was quietly creating carriers across the spectrum of the family
and seeding them into others. As the weeks and months passed,
breeding after breeding proved dog after bitch after dog to be
carriers. The dog who had helped make my dreams come true was
poised to bring them crashing down.
So many breeders in the past, when faced
with genetic disease, have fallen on their swords. They have
packed up their breeding programs, spayed and neutered, started
over or taken up golf. When the 20-20 hindsight of breed history
has examined the consequences, the cure has often been worse
than the disease. Dogs were lost to the breed for defects that
could be tested for just a few years later. Dogs were condemned
for disease less serious than their surviving competitors were
found later to be spreading. I decided to take a page from
history and learn from it. The breeding program would continue
with the same goals, the same dogs as before, but with an
additional task - to remove the gene, taking as many generations
as necessary to do so without compromising type and other health
To halt the further spread of the gene, I
did what I could to get the word out - released the information
for publication so that others would know where the risks were.
Known carrier dogs were pulled from public stud, possible
carriers available only to breeders whom we could trust to
manage the risk. We have the luxury of early diagnosis - the
defect is easily spotted in a puppy eye exam. No buyer will ever
purchase an affected puppy. Test breeding using affected dogs is
currently underway to detect carriers and supporting DNA
research that, if successful, may provide powerful new tools for
our breed and others in the fight against eye disorders. While
these are the darkest of days, there are several lights at the
end of this tunnel.
Meanwhile, life here and at related kennels
goes on. We are still breeding the dogs we love, still loving
the dogs we breed. Show puppies are being trained and prepared,
litters are being planned, champions finishing. Interest in the
line has increased, bouyed by the confidence others have in us
to be honest and forthright about our problems. Last year we won
our first US National. A grandson took the breed at the AKC/Eukanuba
Invitational in December. There were best in show wins in
Australia and here in Canada. The quality that the line is
producing provides perspective and balance to the
disappointments that are inevitable when battling a genetic
defect. Those wins have become more important than I could have
ever imagined in less troubled times.
And so this is how I have learned the
importance of beauty.
To those of you out there who feel that it is
right and proper to sacrifice beauty to restore health - I am here
to tell you that you must not. Health is good, health is important,
but it is not enough. It is enough to sustain a dog, but not enough
to sustain a breed or a breeder. We need something more - something
for ourselves. We need beauty, just as we need air and water and
sun. Beauty is the visual representation of good, of value, of
virtue. Beauty inspires, it gives us courage.
Get out your old ribbons and dust them off.
Spend an afternoon cleaning the tarnish off the trophies. They
are meaningful. Those dogs of generations past linger in old
show photos to remind us that they once filled the eye as purely
as they filled our hearts. They remind us that the dogs we fight
for today are here because their ancestors inspired someone to
believe in them. They convinced others that their genes were
worthy of preservation and continuation, because one day, long
ago, they were standing in line when beauty was contested and
Progressive Retinal Atrophy – in the Miniature Schnauzer