These are difficult times for those who favour the distinctive breeds of Terrier with Bulldog blood. The threat of action, under the now discredited Dangerous Dogs Act, is a constant worry. The implementation of this shabby Act by ill advised animal welfare officers, misguided police forces and a couple of strangely motivated vets, shames a nation once famous for its judicial system, sense of fair play and love of dogs.
That apart, the untypical anatomies inflicted on Bull Terriers, with their relatively new ‘downface’ or ‘ruggerball’ heads, and, Staffordshire Bull Terriers with their short whippety legs, is most surprising in two breeds whose fanciers were once archetypal traditionalists, level-headed and single-minded.
If you look at paintings of these two admirable breeds in the last century, the loss of true type soon becomes apparent. This may apply to other breeds too of course, but when it concerns these two particular breeds, it seems especially sad. I always think of those in these breeds as being resistant to the usual pressures: the pursuit of fad breed points in each decade, some temporary flight of fancy or one influential breeders partialities. You only have to look at the faces of some of the characters in old paintings of these breeds, to see why I say that.
No rational humane person wants to own a dog for use in dog-fighting, a cowardly distasteful activity mainly designed to release undesirable aggression in unpleasant humans. But I can see distinct merit and no harm in desiring to reproduce in a breed of dog the physique which permits it to carry out its original function. In such a way you can obtain sounder setters and scent-hounds, hounds and herding dogs. In Stonehenge’s ‘Dogs of the British Islands’ of 1878, he states “the Bull Terrier is still judged by the fighting standard – that is to say, he must have all the points, mental as well as bodily, which are necessary to the fighting dog”. In ‘Staffordshire Bull Terriers’ edited by Major Count V.C.Hollender, of 1952, H.N. Beilby writes “we can if we wish, produce dogs which in virtue of their build, toughness, courage and intelligence are most likely to inherit and perpetuate the sterling qualities of their ancestors. Are we doing this.? Only I fear to a limited extent.” Sadly, his words apply as much today as they did nearly half a century ago. Fighting dogs were superbly fit, hard muscled, fiercely determined (to the point of self-destruction), but eminently sound anatomically.
Nowadays thankfully, we do not seek unacceptable, sustained ferocity in our dogs, but soft-muscled, unfit, overweight dogs of this type stand out perhaps more than others. A podgy Bull Terrier looks quite dreadful; an overweight Staffie can look almost porcine. I have seen both at recent shows, including last year’s Crufts, and it saddens me, for these are justly famous British breeds on their way to being ruined. Or do I exaggerate.? What are the judges saying.?
Here are some recent critiques on these two breeds: Staffordshire Bull Terrier bitches at Crufts 1996: – “Fatness was a surprise and there were many in this category” Bull Terriers at Crufts 1994: – “I am really saddened to see how we are losing movement. I have never seen such bad movement….Oh for a few of the South African dogs”. Bull Terriers at the clubs 1994 championship show at Hemel Hempstead: – “I am fully aware that some of my higher placed animals are not good movers”. Staffordshire Bull Terrier championship show in 1994: – “…movement caused me great concern…a number of dogs lacked bone resulting in thin feet” The Bull Terrier club of Wales open show in 1994:- “My main concern at this show and others I have been to recently is the acceleration of the number of dogs with poor movement”. And Bull Terriers at a 1995 championship show:- “…many were in anything but a fit condition”.
For former canine gladiators to be fat or otherwise unfit, have poor movement and lack bone is appalling. Good movement comes mainly from a combination of sound construction and physical fitness. Movement is an excellent commentary on the whole dog and unfailingly reveals anatomical faults. For a judge to place dogs which were not good movers is depressing, poor movement is a serious fault and indicates other serious faults. In Tom horners book on the Bull Terrier he writes “It took a very long time to persuade people in the breed..that no dog can move correctly unless it is properly built, and that the movement of the dog inevitably betrays the faults in its conformation” A man like the late Tom Horner is worth heeding. In his book, he also writes “concentration on downfaces brought the conformation and movement of the breed to an appallingly low level…There are some clever breeders..the majority quite single-minded about breeding bigger and better downfaces”. Such comments on the breed and its breeders are not new. In his “Points of the Dog” of 1927, T.W. Hancock Mountjoy wrote on the Bull Terrier, “The majority of the judges seemed to make a fetish of the head, and nothing but the head. On going round the benches, it breaks ones heart to see the slab-sided, greyhound-bodied specimens, placed in the money. Some other faults are snipey faces, small round pig eyes, dudley noses, long backs, no spring of rib, throatiness”.
Bigger and better downfaces and pig eyes are with us today and how they spoil the appearance of this splendid breed. The breed standard sets the design of the dogs head with these words: “Viewed from front egg-shaped and completely filled…Profile curves gently downwards from top of skull to tip of nose..” But in Vero Shaws “The Illustrated Book of the Dog” of 1879, the ‘points of variety’ demanded a wedge-shaped head, with an oblong eye. Then sixty years ago this standard demanded a head which was ‘oval, almost egg-shaped’, with ‘the more downface the better’. The significance of Hinks, the father of the breed, never desiring a dog with an eggshaped head and bigger and better downface, is carefully overlooked in the pursuit of modern whim. It is a wholly undesirable feature, never found naturally in dogs, and one that will go on exaggerating itself until a proud breed looks like a caricature of itself.
Sixteen years ago when I wrote in “Our Dogs” on this concern for a breed I am fond of, I received a response from a leading Bull Terrier figure of that time. It answered none of the points that I had striven to make and patronisingly referred to my ‘ boyhood dreams’ of Bull Terriers and sneeringly advised me not to form a ‘sweeping judgement’ by a visit to a single show. In other words, leave the fate of this fine native breed to us breeders, we know best. If only that were true.! Look at the Bull Terriers depicted before this rugger-ball head was pursued as a fad breed point, not a traditional feature of the breed, and say which is more natural, more appealing, typical of the breed which Hinks passed down for our safekeeping. Are we really honouring his blueprint.?
Turning to the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, in his own book on the breed of 1943, H.N. Beilby wrote “are we paying enough attention to the activity and agility of our Staffordshire Bull Terriers?…The front legs must show no weakness at the pastern – the latter is a common fault and needs attention. There are too many Staffords with thin flat feet..”
Against that background, it is disturbing to find the same faults in the breed nearly half a century later. Writing in the breed notes some years ago, Mary Pringle makes my next point for me “Mercifully not all Stafford breeders are complacent. We realise the shortcomings, the good points and the bad. With such a short show history, from 1935, such mixed up backgrounds, variance of coat and colour too, we have much to contend with. There is work to be done in every breed and those with the shortest life as a registered breed need understanding.” Bull Terrier breeders have less of an excuse.
When type, soundness and movement need urgent priority in any breed, it is disappointing to see an obsession with size, colour and petty interpretive fine points taking precedence. Reading long and largely mistaken discussions about whether a dog bred to fight in a small ring has any need to move well in a larger show ring is both depressing and distressing. Depressing because there are so many much more important topics to be aired, and distressing because of the irrational comparison being made and the tendentious argument being attempted, probably mischieviously. Famous British breeds, renowned the world over, deserve a higher level of debate than this.
You only have to look at the annual registration figures produced by the Kennel Club to see the decline in numbers of many famous British breeds, part of our canine heritage, and the enormous increase in the breeds from abroad, especially Germany. The miniature Bull Terrier is now one of the ten rarest of our national breeds. The staffordshire Bull Terrier is numerically strong, but the Bull Terrier popularity is not so assured: over 3,000 registered in 1989, then 1,810 four years later. It is simply foolish for a group of misguided individuals to redesign a breed, away from its classic mould and into a disfigured replica. I would love to own a Bull Terrier, but I have no wish to own a dog with a rugger-ball for a head, piggy eyes and poor movement. I admire Staffies, but I don’t want a badly timbered dog, with poor feet and questionable movement.
At the last two World Dog Shows, the breed with the best movement for me was the American Staffordshire Terrier. As the old saying goes – “they moved right, because they were made right”. With the head of a 19th Century Bull Terrier, good bone, sound eyes and a powerful but athletic anatomy, they represent the classic Bull Terrier mould. Although of “Pit Bull Terrier Type” and therefore likely to fall foul of the infamous DDA, the genes of this fine modern breed, now establishing a huge following on the continent, would have some contribution to make in a much needed revision of our Bull Terrier. What a shocking thing to suggest in these days of closed gene pools.! But it could be of greater value than those clandestine matings between Bull Terriers, Borzois and Smooth Collies to get the extraordinary 20th Century head on the Bull terrier. We have inflicted enough physical handicaps on our Bulldog, do we have to spoil our splendid Bull Terriers too.?
Article written by Col. David Hancock.