Show Dogs Can't Hunt?

Faith Cuthrell Sisk

    I still hear it. A show dog is no good for hunting, no matter what the origin of the breed.
    Or - a dog that can hunt will be no good for the show ring.
    There are many good reasons for breeding dual purpose dogs, and few reasons not to.
    When you consider the average length of time spent showing a dog, it leaves a lot of years with nothing to do-except produce puppies.
    When you consider the number of puppies who will end up as companion dogs (not as show dogs) the traits that make a good hunter - which can also mean a good obedience, tracking, or agility prospect, increases the odds of placing puppies in homes where they will give a lifetime of love, and be competing in one of the many areas now available for purebred dogs.
    There are several points of controversy, mostly having to do with the fine points of conformation as interpreted in the different arenas - conformation and hunting.
    Reading from The English Cocker Spaniel standard, approved by the American Kennel Club October 11, 1988…

“The English Cocker Spaniel is an active, merry hunting dog, standing well up at the withers and compactly built. He is alive with energy; his gait powerful and frictionless, capable of both covering ground effortlessly and penetrating dense cover to flush and retrieve game….He is, above all, a dog of balance, both standing and moving, without exaggeration in any part, the whole worth more than the sum of the parts."

    That seems pretty clear. This is a hunting dog. Faddish exaggerations are not to be rewarded in the conformation ring. It covers both small dogs and large, solid and roan, male and female.
    But how is this interpreted in what breeders are producing for the ring?
    We have a number of dogs who have good balance, good shoulders and fronts, moderate angles, and good heads with nice expressions. These same dogs often also prance or mince around the ring, having no drive to the movement at all. I am often told “they aren’t supposed to run fast” and no, they are not! They are supposed to have the muscle and stamina to be able to plow through really dense cover. Could these small cobby cockers compete well in hunting tests?
    We have a number of dogs who look very pretty from the side. They have long rears, but also often have long backs and long hocks. They often have a look that is very “well up at the withers” because the shoulder blades come up almost straight instead of laying back. It is a compensation for the longer rear - and many of these dogs do move quite well. The fronts and ribs are often quite narrow, and the front legs often look as if they are bracing - sawhorse position - because of short upper arms that do not allow the dog to have his feet truly under him. The topline is a straight shot from withers to tail. Could these dogs hunt all day long?
    We don’t see the long, low lumbering kind of cocker very much in this country. We more often have small, light boned, tiny footed and very heavily coated animals - almost toy breed like. How would this affect their ability to hunt?
    When a dog hunts, his head is down, ears to the ground, and moving - usually fast. They run, hop, skip, double back, and usually do not trot around like circus ponies. Their rear legs must be under them - it’s the engine. The front must be wide enough and the neck long enough so they can get the heads down. They need enough lung room and muscle strength to keep going - and once they find the bird, they must have the muzzle and neck strength to pick up a chukar or pheasant. Eyes need to be tight, skin fairly loose, and coat flat or they can get very torn up in the briars. It also helps with swimming - the flat coats dry off in a snap. Feet need to be deep, well padded and able to carry the dog’s weight.
    A very small or light dog obviously will not have as much bulk to move. But without enough drive, it will be harder to get to the birds to flush them. A dog that has to work hard tires more quickly - and then still has to pick up the bird and bring it back. Thin feet get sore.
    A tall, extremely angulated dog will have trouble getting that head down between the narrow front. He will also not have as much power in the rear if he can’t get it underneath the body to push. The longer stride might be an advantage in open areas - but a disadvantage when crawling under the thickets.
    We would expect to see a moderately angled, well ribbed, well boned, properly sized dog - with a willing disposition and having the chance to learn to use his nose, to be able to compete well in hunting events. But can such a dog complete his conformation title?
    I would suggest that the number of Best in Show and group placing English Cockers who have gotten their WD’s (Working Dog, a club award) or Junior Hunter certificates (AKC program) should be proof enough.
    Let’s look at the flip side. A dog that hunts well - what happens when you put him in a controlled trot in the show ring?
    He should show good drive, decent front movement, and be fairly obedient. He may not have that table top flat top line - he might have a slight curve to the croup, which is indeed correct according to the standard. (The standard actually says “…Croup gently rounded, without any tendency to fall off sharply.”) He may appear “bigger” to the judge because of muscle, and while the flat coat may be beautiful in the jacket area, it may appear sparse in the leg and belly area.  Breeders have to decide whether this kind of animal is good enough for them to show…but if you don’t show judges these dogs, they can’t judge them, can they? If we leave the ring to “conformation only” buffs, and then complain our dogs can’t do both, we have only ourselves to blame.
    One program that works and is espoused by some of our top dual breeders is to introduce the dogs to birdwork before six months. Gentle lessons, and any birdwork helps to establish the dog’s knowledge and memory. Even getting wings and throwing them for dogs to retrieve can help. Swimming is fun, even paddling in a baby pool. This does not have to be tough.
    Depending on the dog, he can then be started in shows, to go back to hunting when the conformation title is complete. If he is the kind of pup who needs to grow up before being shown, he can go straight into more fieldwork lessons. A WD or JH, and then maybe an obedience title, can’t hurt when showing. A dog that listens is certainly easier to show. And a dog kept up and conditioned should have enough coat for the show ring. Oiling the coat before field work helps. One thing about flat coats - they get better with age. The dog with little coat at one year may have plenty of length at age 3 or 4. By then you can also have had the testing (hips eyes etc) done to know whether this is a dog you really want to breed. It can be an advantage to not be in such a hurry to produce champions.
    I do agree with training for one discipline at a time. Less confusing for the dog.
    And a dog that can possibly produce healthy, intelligent, attractive puppies isn’t going to hurt anyone’s breeding program. The lovely expression on a proper head, the flat coats (which by the way also don’t fall out or get curly or too thick as some of those heavy soft coats do) and the willingness to please will delight any owner who is privileged to have one of these dogs.
    If we breed with the standard in mind, there is no conflict between the conformation ring and athletic events. We have the same dog in mind.