Commentary on the 2007 American Club Specialty

Jim Engel, December 2007

It’s a cult, that’s the only possible explanation.  Over the past couple of days I have taken in the American Bouvier des Flandres club national specialty, conveniently just down the road, and it is a frightening, surreal experience.  You walk around and can’t quite put your finger on it and then it snaps into focus.  Silence.  Dead silence.  A whole hall full of dogs, and not a bark, not a sound.  You look into their faces and there is nothing, a blank look of passive emptiness.  Six or eight or ten male dogs in a ring and they are totally passive, no visible recognition that another dog is there.  These are not dogs anymore, they are pathetic creatures bred for nothing but exhibition, like cows at the state fair, tropical fish or prize winning roses.

Thinking back to the Dutch specialties twenty five years ago, at the Expo hall in Hilversum, it was alive with dogs barking, dogs in the ring barking and posturing, handlers bringing them under a little control but not suppressing them to something less than a dog.  But the Expo hall is gone now, and so is the Bouvier of the founders.

The obvious comparison is the American German Shepherd lines, which for forty years have been grotesque caricatures of the original breed; long in body, extreme in angulation, sloping in the backline, spooky ghosts slinking around the show ring in what the shepherd cult sees as “side gait” like a scene from an never ending night mare.

The AKC way has come to the final stage in the renovation of the Bouvier; it is complete, there is no more need to envy the German Shepherd people.  There is type all right, all of the dogs look the same,  other than some peculiar coloration, like wind up toys that go pitty pat around the ring, always in immanent danger of overrunning themselves.

Structurally the search for the big, broad bold look with the short, compact back has played out, has come to fruition.

The German Shepherd, from  tending style sheep herding origins, was to be above all else a dog of endurance, able to effortlessly cover ground day after day.  The high speed of the sight hound was not needed, the sheep are not that fast.  Extreme agility was not required, very few dogs die kicked by a sheep.  The efficient trot was the hallmark of the German Shepherd progenitors, and quite properly this became the bases of the breed ideal.  But exhibition systems inevitably lead to extremes, take the characteristic features to grotesque extremes, create dogs caricatures of their origins.

The deep chest of the sight hound is a structural adaptation to the straight line, long distance pursuit, designed to deliver oxygen to the blood stream.  The structure compromises quickness, agility and power because that is not the function of the pursuit dog.  Neither the Shepherd’s dog nor the cattle man’s dog can afford the extreme endurance, each for their own reasons. 

The Bouvier by his nature and function is a quick dog, an agile dog, a powerful dog.  The Bouvier needs to be slightly shorter in the back, a little longer in leg, a little less angulated than the German Shepherd.

But the show system has taken fundamental characteristics to extremes.  Popularity went to the broad, powerful, short backed appearance, which was achieved through the deep chest.  But design is a compromise, and to accommodate the broader, deeper chest the dogs became straighter and more restricted in the front and more extreme, much more extreme, in the rear angulation, leading to a sloping top line.  Rather than a rough, all weather coat the show ring demanded the soft coat that could be elaborately sculpted for the show ring.

As a consequence, the dogs move with an increasingly slow, inefficient, laborious trot, the short back and extreme angulation making walking over themselves from the rear an ever present danger, the extended fore paw seeming to hang forever looking for the ground, waiting for the laboring body to catch up.  Justin Chastel would turn in his grave.

They have stripped the Bouvier of his body and his soul, and are marching into the future like the cult members at Jonestown, oblivious to the fact that they have been transported into another reality.

May god forgive them, for neither I nor the founders ever will.

Jim Engel, Marengo    © Copyright 2007