Remember, when you read this, the title of my column, is "On My Mind." I am ever grateful to LQ for allowing me to express my thoughts in this forum. I'm sure the other columnists feel the same way. That said; don't jump all over me if you don't agree with me. I am just satisfied to know a hearty discussion could be prompted by anything I or the other columnists have written.
As a card-carrying member of the NLRC, I know that Mary Wiest is ready to start the process in her quest to split the breed. In fact, by the time this article is printed, you will have already read her proposal. Although I have never met Mary, I have great respect for her as well as for many others who have been devoted to this breed for a number of years. I applaud her steadfast dedication to the protection and promotion of our breed.
When the standard revision took place, I was new enough to this whole game that I did not really understand what the fuss was all about. I just knew what "type" of Labrador I liked to see and live with so choosing sides was a no-brainer. I also knew at the time that a split was inevitable but, like many others, really didn't, and still really don't want to see it happen. I don't see what it will accomplish and wonder if it will do more harm than good.
This topic has been discussed a lot lately, and I see I am not the only one opposed to a split. As I, and many others, see it, splitting the breed will only compound the problem. As we speak, the dogs that are winning at specialties almost everywhere are as far away from any Labrador standard, as the ones running in field trials. The breed is splitting itself, with many disgruntled breeders realizing they are better off spending their entry money on all breed shows than on specialties. Which type, as Mary sees them, is really in the majority, the long narrow ones, the fit moderate ones, or the obese?
I thought I had this article written. And then I went into my library and pulled out two books; Nancy Martin's Legends in Labradors and Dorothy Howe's The Labrador Retriever. I wanted to make sure I had not become kennel blind. I basically just looked at the photos of some of the great Labradors whose names invariably grace the majority of our pedigrees. In Dorothy Howe's book I found myself taken by a photo of Sam of Blaircourt, with nine Bests in Show and three specialty wins. Of course this was in the days when the National Specialty was IT. Could this dog be competitive at a specialty in 2002? Or would he be better off at all breed shows? I also read and reread the various standards including those from England and Australia and realized just why I was so taken by Sam of Blaircourt's photo. Of course he is the one used as an example in both the 17th and 19th editions of the AKC's Complete Dog Book. None of the standards I read describe the dog we see today at field trials or winning at specialties. I think most are in agreement that the flaws of the current standard include just that, too many flaws! It is far too wordy, with numerous faults for which dogs should supposedly be penalized and disqualifications that should not exist. It is far too confusing to many judges, as witnessed by anyone attending all breed shows. What intrigues me at all breed shows is the number of judges who know nothing about movement and balance, two extremely important qualities in our breed. There was really nothing wrong with the previous standard, it all surrounds the height issue, and the thought of splitting the breed will only satisfy the egos of those who breed on either end of the spectrum.
You can't put a little weight on a field trial dog and consider it competitive in the show ring because there are too many other factors missing from the equation. On the other hand, if you took ten pounds off most of the dogs at specialties and stopped blow-drying and back brushing, you would come a lot closer to the images in both of the books I just mentioned. Don't take me completely the wrong way, there are a number of outstanding dogs winning at specialties and all breed shows alike with proper structure and movement. There are just too many of them covered by fat and fluff and they are too low to the ground! We need to see some air under these dogs, how else are they able to run in the field all day? They are not Sussex or Clumber Spaniels, who have a totally different purpose in the field.
The breeders of hunting dogs have no more desire to walk into the conformation ring than the breeders of conformation dogs have to attend a field trial. So what happens to those who are truly trying to breed to the current, or even the previous, U.S. standard? Shall we call these the moderate dogs? I prefer to think of them as the all-around dogs, capable of a day in the field as a hunting companion or competing in hunt tests and then showing up in the Breed ring the next day. They should be able to compete in agility, obedience trials, and tracking tests and go on to win the Breed the next day. Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves playing the weight game in order to achieve all of this, or running a dog in performance events while trying to stay competitive in the Breed ring, with the dog unable to perform or breaking down because of excess weight. I feel like a broken record, hashing out this issue over and over again, but there are many novices getting involved in this breed who are thoroughly confused and asking themselves and their mentors just what the Labrador Retriever was bred for in the first place.
I encourage everyone to take some time to go back and look at these books and then look at your own dogs. Read all the standards, not one of them calls for the dog to "roll" around the ring, nor should it have the head of a Rottweiler or the coat of a Newfoundland. Let us not forget the true purpose of our dogs. Typically, the American trend is to do everything to excess whether we are talking about weight, heads or coat. Faith Hyndman hit the nail on the head in an article she wrote on excessive grooming. This article was reprinted in many club newsletters as well as the Letters section of the Fall 2001 LQ This is also a must read. I applaud her for writing it, these are wash-and-wear or should I swim-and-wear dogs. All standards call for a short, dense, fairly hard to the touch coat, not a soft fluffy one. Notice how many grooming tables are popping up with Labradors on them, getting moussed and blown dry. Who started this fad and why are so many following it like lemmings?! I suppose we have professional handlers to blame for this, in order to be competitive in the Group with the flashy Goldens, Springers, Cockers, etc. Professional handlers are not new to the handling of Labs, this whole grooming issue has only come about in recent years, but since when do they set the precedent on how a Lab should be presented? Do we really want to head down the same path as the show Goldens, Springers and Cockers? Labradors are not "flashy," but a good quality dog should catch the eye of an intelligent Group judge.
We all need to think about these issues long and hard, we are headed down a very precarious path here, and one wrong turn could permanently ruin this breed. I remember years ago, when the Labrador first showed up at the top of the AKC registration statistics. I was attending the National Specialty in Denver, my first National, in 1991 and was seated with Ginger and Don Campbell, Pluis Davern and others from the California contingent, at the banquet when the announcement was made. Our table remained silent as the rest of the room hooted and hollered. Don Campbell's comment was, "This is the kiss of death." We still have time to correct our mistakes, I hope.
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