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SHELTIE TYPE: is there a middle ground?
SIMON PARSONS reports from the conference
MANY YEARS ago I watched a Shetland. Sheepdog win BIS at a show in the US. It was a handsome, well coated animal, and I wondered, if this was what mature male American Shelties looked like, why there was such a fuss about the, enormous differences in type between the breed in Britain and America.
Only then did I check in the catalogue to find that this impressive Sheltie was in fact only a puppy bitch! Far removed in style and substance from any Sheltie bitches of similar age I had seen over here.
Since then I have often admired the glamour, presence and showmanship of the breed in the US, but had to agree with those who regard them as verging upon a different breed from the refined elegant Shelties we are used to.
Anyway, when invited to attend the English Shetland Sheepdog Club's conference, held at the Marriott Hotel, Huntingdon, I saw that one of the items on the agenda was `reports on the current situation with regard to type' in various countries, amongthem the US, and was intrigued to see how Sheltie people internationally would attempt to resolve the differences.
This is a largely theoretical question where the UK is concerned, but for Australia and a few European countries, where a few US dogs have recently arrived, it has more practical implications.
The conference took place the day after the club's ch show, which was followed by a dinner with Mason Minns as guest speaker. Dare I say it - one could tell the next morning that quite a number of people had, shall we say, thoroughly enjoyed the evening!
Certainly the club had succeeded in its aim of bringing together Sheltie people from around the world, with a large number of visitors from many nations.
I think this shows a remarkable depth of interest and I hope all the visitors not only enjoyed seeing the cream of British Shelties but found the conference worthwhile too.
President Mary Davis introduced the proceedings and Dick Thornley welcomed each speaker - I think all Sheltie people owe a debt of gratitude to him, his wife Barbara and everyone else who put on such a worthwhile weekend.
First speaker was Malcolm Hart who, like the others, used an overhead projector to illustrate his subject, the history and origins of the breed. "The history of the Shetland Sheepdog is wropt in mystery", so Beryl Thynne wrote in 1914 - "and so is its development," added Mr Hart. How true - we all know about the `official' Collie crosses of the early days, but reading between the lines one suspects there were various other `additions' (indeed one of the most interesting sections of Charlotte Clem McGowan's recent beautiful book on the Sheltie in America deals with this very question).
Mr Hart took us from the days of the Celts and Romans, to the mediaeval times when dogs were made to go 'through the hoop' to prove they were small enough to be no threat to the royal deer. He then turned to the islands from which the breed gets its name, up to the turn of the century when cute fluffy puppies began to be sold to sightseers. Gradually out of chaos (no doubt added to by dubious dealers' kennels on the Scottish mainland) order began to reign; Kennel Club recognition was attained and clubs formed in the early years of the century.
The great kennels became established (and it was good that one of those who started prewar, Olwyn Gwynne-Jones of the Callarts, was at the conference), and Mr Hart ended with pictures of Ch Helensdale Ace, Ch Riverhill Rare Gold and Miss Davis' R Rolling Home, from the postwar years into the '60s when type had become more uniform and the big kennels were providing a benchmark of consistency.
To bring us up to date of the British situation, Jan Moody took over and expressed her gratitude to the breeders such as Helensdale, Riverhill, Shelert and Exford who had provided such a solid foundation. She illustrated some of the great show and stud dogs of subsequent years, and their relationship through the male line. Generally she was optimistic about the state of the breed in Britain -"in the past a few stood out, now there is more overall quality." Shape and construction have vastly improved from the days 40 years ago when the head was all-important; movement too. She also pointed out areas where there is variation or room for improvement, and said that each era has its own problems: "What goes around, comes around." "Don't use inferior stud dogs - it doesn't work," she said.
Breeders today have many more opportunities to learn, she
said - when she started there was just the ESSC's Faultfinder
booklet - apart from that "we learned the hard way".
Today there is so much more, including of course the ESSC's pioneering
judges training scheme which Jan has long been involved with.
She did wonder whether there
The Australian report was delivered by Barbara Phillips and I was impressed by the way she managed, in a relatively concise talk, to put over so much information in such a clear manner. She outlined the difficulties with which the early breeders, 40 years ago, had had to contend - the vast distances, the difficulty in obtaining quality stock and the fact that even if good dogs did arrive they were often wasted. But Ch Riverhill Rampion seems to have set breeders on the track to success and judging by the pictures Mrs Phillips showed, of winners of the Nationals (held every three years) and other top dogs, the Australian breeders have done a great job.
But it still isn't easy - like so many serious Australian dog people, Mrs Phillips believes they have far too many shows, many with no or very few Shelties; in fact it is possible to make up a champion with no competition. Conversely the recent Grand Champion title has encouraged some breeders to show their champions ad nauseam, with the result that entries have declined. Then there is the lack of specialist judges (only 25, about five per cent). There are judges training schemes, of course, but the breed clubs have little input and almost all who take them study for a whole group, upon which they are then let loose.
The preponderance of non-breed judges means that showmanship, `faster the better' movement, 'aggres-sive' grooming and advertising can all have an effect. Still, it is good to know that dogs like the famous Ch Hillacre Wee Macgregor can manage to win at both all breeds and specialty level.
Mrs Phillips ended by mentioning various health problems but warned that, although one should always be aware of them, one should never become too narrowly focused on any one defect. She praised the British video and Sheltie calendar (though we could do better with our car stickers!) and suggested that if more British specialists were also passed for Rough Collies, it would be easier cost-wise, to invite them Down Under.
On to the American report and if ever there was a case of Daniel in the lion's den, this I felt was it. But I have to say that speaker Tom Coen entered the den with great confidence and aplomb, and even when the audience audibly gasped as he said of one of his slides: "Now this is considered to be the ideal head and expression", he scarcely faltered and simply added: "... in the USA ! "
And so Mr Coen continued with an almost bewildering number of slides of the American greats. British imports since the war have been few indeed and gradually one could see the heavier (by no means always taller) US type emerge (in some cases with an unmistakeable Collie influence). Also bewildering for those unfamiliar with the US scene must have been the statements about the great producers, this one sire of 30 champions, that one sire of 50 - even, in the case of Mr Coen's own dog, all-time top sire Ch Halstor's Peter Pumpkin, sire of a phenomenal (even by US standards) 160 champions. Then he showed us members of the `century club', winners of 100 or more BOBs - all just emphasising the difference from Britain where a dog siring 13 champions is a fantastic record, and it is only very recently that two Shelties have scored in the 30s of CCs.
Even the breed shows are different - there are 70 regional clubs, most holding two specialties a year, and the National lasts five days with 1,000 dogs competing. Mr Coen asked how many in the audience had been to the US National - I only saw two hands raised, which saddened me - in my own breed, Pem Corgis, large num-bers of Britons regularly visit the US National, British judges are often asked, and British dogs are still incorporated in US breeders' plans. The result is that by and large we have avoided the dramatic type differences seen in Shelties, to the extent that US lines are now sought after here. Sadly it seems that it is too late for the same to happen in Shelties. I wished Mr Coen had tried to explain why the divisions had been allowed to get beyond the point of no return - the different emphases in the respective Standards cannot have helped, and Mrs McGowan's book gives some clues as to the background to this.
He ended by expressing some thoughts with which all must have agreed - the problems of overpopulation ("far too much breeding, too little thought"), the end to the large kennels of the past on whom you could count as a source of specific qualities, and he echoed Mrs Moody's remarks about an improvement of overall quality, but where are the inspiring dogs? Modern grooming (sculpturing?) does not help - people believe what they see in the ring and breed to it - to the icing rather than to the cake. Many judges, lacking real dog knowledge, tend to fault-judge, putting up stuffy, common animals with perhaps few faults but little to offer the breed - these produce more of the same and the dog with real virtues looks so different it is overlooked.
Following all this, we had a change of tone when Helge Lie, Sheltie breeder from Norway and until recently chairman of the Norwegian Kennel Club, took a different approach, listing the various European countries and telling us how many Shelties were registered each year, which Standard was followed (UK, of course, in every case), and what type the breeders and clubs favoured - again the British in almost every case, though there was a slight US influence in Germany and Holland.
Mr Lie illustrated his talk with slides of unnamed Shelties from each of the countries, all of which appeared to be of the type we are used to in Britain.
A buffet lunch gave us chance to draw breath before senior ophthalmologist Dr Keith Barnett talked on Collie Eye Anomaly - and doesn't he have an enviable ability to discuss scientific topics with both clarity and humour. Apparently CEA, which causes breeders so much concern, is not actually the commonest eye problem in the breed - distichiasis (an extra row of eyelashes) is more prevalent (and, said Dr Barnett, ' I rarely see an American Cocker without it!).
How important is CEA? Not as important as temperament, applause, but "a heck of a sight more important than the length of the tail!" Dogs have to be examined as puppies (with the complication of those who apparently 'go-normal'), and thanks to breeders' efforts the incidence is less than 20 years ago. "Do I breed from an affected dog?", Dr Barnett is often asked. His answer: "You are not breeding from a CONDITION but from a DOG" and you have to keep everything in proportion. CEA isn't the be all and end all, and isn't painful but can cause blindness, whereas ditichiasis is painful, and PRA (thankfully now non-existent in UK Shelties, though we heard Iater it had reappeared in Scandinavia) does ultimately lead to blindness.
Dr Barnett went on to explain, with slides, what the disease involved, and ended by saying that though it had long been thought to be the result of simple recessive inheritance, recent Swedish research would suggest this is not the case.
Question time, ably managed by Mr Thornley, tended to be lively, asone might expect, but I was pleased to see that, although the feeling of many of those present was inevitably rather against what the American breeders had done to the Sheltie, some people expressed opinions of moderation and tolerance. Particularly interesting was to hear from those Germans who had introduced American lines with the specific aim of reducing of CEA (in which they had been successful) that after crossing them with UK lines the next generation were very much of UK type. A Dutch delegate pointed out that Sheltie of US lines have won under UK judges - all that mattered was that they fitted the Standard: "We have a narrow genetic base - if you separate the breed because of type, you risk losing some of your genetic fabric, a dangerous thing to do".
One of Britain's best know breeders, Derek Rigby, eloquently, indeed aggressively, put the case for the UK type and particularly size: "We need a racehorse, not a carthorse". "Stick to the Standard of the country of origin" was his message. Even if Mr Coen had remained remarkably calm in the face of obvious hostility to the US type, his wife Nioma at one stage was provoked to say quite firmly: "We're happy with our Standard and our dogs, you are happy with yours", which said it all, somehow.
Finally Mr Thornley summed up what had clearly been a thought-provoking
day by emphasising the importance of integrity in breeding: "The
clubs can do as much as they can to educate but it's down to
the individual. Those with the interests of the breed at heart
will make the right decisions:"
(OCR-scanned from DogWorld
- by AJ Lie)