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Digging at the AKC Library

Digging at the AKC Library: The Art and Science of Dog Loving

Michael Brandow / Dogs Today, May 2018

Read full text with endnotes below.

Click image below for article as it appeared in Dogs Today's post-Crufts issue May 2018:

Writing a history of pedigree dogs, I spent many months buried with dusty old books, paintings and assorted artifacts in the American Kennel Club’s opulent library and art collection on Madison Avenue. Privileged to be in the company of vintage classics handsomely bound and gilded, giant porcelain Great Danes, and J.P. Morgan’s silver cups from pageants past, after long stretches of reading and note-taking from rare editions that were sometimes more valuable as objects than as source material, I paused to contemplate one of the most recherché relics of all.

Truly one-of-a-kind was the intact skeleton of a famous Fox Terrier, encased in a transparent glass sarcophagus at the end of the oblong table where I sat studying for hours on end. A morbid artifact typical of Victorian England, the mortal frame of “Belgrave Joe” stood testament to his line’s path to show-ring perfection—the ultimate reason for the AKC having this treasure trove in the first place.[i]

Oddly enough, before Joe was put on permanent display in a cabinet of curiosities, apart from one brief public appearance while still kicking, he was not a show dog at all. Well-born to another English tradition of the highest caliber—the illustrious Belvoir Hunt attended by generations of aristocracy and hangers-on—Joe was extracted from his pack, retired from the lowly purpose of going to ground and ferreting foxes from their dens. Chaperoned by a fashionable breeder of standardized types for winners’ circles and socialites’ front parlors, he was set upon the nobler pursuit of breeding for an idealized nose length. A closer look at Joe’s profile reveals this mutation just beginning to emerge, a trait superfluous and unneeded for earth work, or anything else a dog might do, other than give the judges something more to measure, the AKC another random standard to uphold, and at-home collectors another reason to think they owned something special.

One day deep in digging, I released a page that crumbled in my hand, raised my eyes from a musty tome, and turned to Joe for inspiration. An important-looking gentleman entered the library with two guests who were apparently receiving the royal tour of the corporate collection. Some master connoisseur of canine artifacts, he directed his visitors’ attention, first to Joe forever begging for attention, then to the opposite wall and a painting of another momentous Fox Terrier, “CH. Nornay Saddler.”[ii]

Standing there, in two dimensions, was the fruit of Joe’s heroic humping and all the good breeding that ensued. Fifty-two years and x generations after progenitor Dog Adam had bitten the dust, Saddler posed proudly at the end of a path to perfection initiated the day ancestral Joe was relieved of active field work. A striking profile displayed a beak that had grown remarkably long, a whim pursued to its fullest expression, the pinnacle of surplus snout snootiness—never a functional anatomy, lest we forget, or needed for anything other than being “essential,” as the judges say. Saddler the two-time prize winner stood against an illustrated English country landscape of lush grass where foxes might be chased, a milieu that Saddler, being a fully refined and “improved” show version, certainly never frequented. Nor did this fancy fellow ever dirty his dogs digging the partially exposed foxhole seen in the distance.

Ch. Nornay Saddler / Edwin Megargee / 1940

The tour ended, the important-looking people dispersed, and I went on to learn Belgrave Joe and Nornay Saddler weren’t the only dogs preserved for posterity. The earliest New York dog shows actually featured stuffed canine carcasses, even pickled pups in jars, to edify the public on “correct” conformation.[iii]

Back in England where this hairsplitting fussbudgetry began, and many of the modern commercial breeds to which we’ve grown attached were first packaged, Charles Cruft added to his competitions separate categories for taxidermy dogs. Animals could be entered as mere husks of their former selves and win prizes, like the live versions in the ring, just by standing and looking as they should. It didn’t matter if entries were breathing or not, so long as they lived up to formal expectations.[iv]

Straining to keep my thoughts outside the box, or the frame, I had another revelation. Not only were dogs sometimes valued more as objects than companions—or sentient creatures with basic needs and, yes, rights—Nornay Saddler’s cartoon schnoz wasn’t the first, or last, feature to be imposed with no benefit to the dogs themselves. The codex of “allowable” traits, guarded by the AKC and England’s Kennel Club as though handed down from heaven, has grown to include a mind-boggling list of cosmetic concerns against which entries are weighed each year at Westminster and Crufts.

Standardized breeds, no longer bred to perform useful tasks, have arbitrary coat styles; matching eye shades and nose coloration; ear, tail and foot specifications—enough to frustrate all but the most patient scholar. Ears have been abridged or extended to bizarre extremes. Faces are flattened before our eyes. Heads swell like balloons and eyes pop out. Backs are stretched like rubber bands. Hips are crushed to new lows. Legs are dwarfed and twisted like bonsai branches. All of this to keep pushing the envelope, give contestants more ways to win, and sell people more styles for sidewalk display.

Nearly a century and a half since this business of showing and showing off began, the catalog selection of breeds as we’ve come to know them—as they must be to hold places in our hearts, homes and show rings—has grown to such voluminous length that anyone hoping to buy a dog is easily confused. Consumers ready to walk that fine line between standing out on the pavement and blending in with the crowd are advised to do “research” to find the brand that best suits their “personality” and “lifestyle” (assuming theirs are as unique and special as breeds are uniformly supposed to be). An “essential” or “predictable” trait often translates into something as simple as coat color, or some odd behavioral tic fans have come to identify with their brand of choice. Making the right selection in dogs, the experts say, is not that simple.

So we’re offered another selection, not of breeds, but of how-to-find-the-perfect-breed-to-match-your-personality-and-lifestyle books. Part hobby guides for people in need of an activity, part Victorian etiquette manuals for the socially insecure, these range from lists of fashion tips on the latest dogs du jour, to more “scientific” texts claiming to eliminate guesswork by matching an entire breed of dogs to an exacting customer, the way dating services claim to match people for compatibility.