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Early Days in America’s Dogs

Most versions of America’s first purebred dogs are after-the-fact but...

 

 

by Fred Lanting, International All-Breed Judge, SAAB Member

 

This account is by a dog show judge old enough to share accurate first-hand history.

 

Versions of this first-hand history of America’s most important ‘purebred dogs’ of the mid-1900 was first published by Dog World magazine in February 1991. The most valid histories are those recorded by the people who lived and observed them. Such a record is called a “living history,” whether in a spoken or written form.

 

For this piece (the original version of which I wrote in the late `80s) I tried to choose interviewees with varied backgrounds and geographical location. Somewhat surprisingly, their recollections of what the dogs were like in the early 1900s were quite similar. Perhaps it is because the game of dog showing didn’t take off with the middle class until the mid-1950s.

 

Let’s hear first from a real “dogman,” veterinarian and dog show judge, John Martin of Indiana, who remembered that there were not many shows in the country when he was a lad. State fairs had some, with Hoosier Kennel Club being one of the earliest participants in that activity. Sometimes different groups (bird dogs, terriers, hounds, etc.) would be exhibited on different days. The events were held much like those for sheep and cattle. Show dogs were not “popular” even in the limited-to-the-wealthy sense until the 1920s, when Martin saw many Bedlingtons and other breeds that have waxed and waned in popularity.

 

The Rockefellers were into Bedlingtons, and given their family control of AKC and Westminster KC through the years, it was natural for the breed to be favored by other moneyed people and judges. John Rockefeller had dogs enroute to a show one time, Martin remembered, when the railroad put dogs off the train to make room for fresh oysters. The tycoon sent one engine and one rail car just so the dogs could make it to the show on time.

 

Willie, General Patton's Bull TerrierIn 1904 Martin’s father got his first Bull Terrier, a breed with cropped ears and a different appearance than today. Percy Bunker, an Indiana scrap-metal dealer, had eight or nine white Bull Terrier bitches and he liked young John, whose favorite breed was the Staffordshire Bull Terrier (some of these were white in those days, too). Some colored Staffordshire Bull Terriers were used to combat deafness in white Bull Terriers, an indication that so-called breed purity was regarded a little differently back then. In those days and into the 1920s, $75 was an astounding price for a pup.

 

Most dogs John saw were identifiable breeds but many were without “papers” (registrations) because very few people could afford that luxury. There was as high a quality of Smooth Fox Terriers on Midwestern farms as could be found in any of England’s best showdogs, and they seldom went for more than $10 for a bitch or $15 for a dog.

 

Wealthier land-owners and city businessmen paid farmers to raise Airedales for them; the dogs were good hunters and sold for $40 with registrations. As a result of this cottage industry, many farmers kept Airedales themselves.

 

Hundreds of miles to the south, near the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, a similar description was given by my neighbor Lee Barnard, born in 1908, and in the late 1980s still farming and keeping a few dogs. He said some people trained dogs “for the rich people” such as doctors. The farmers or caretakers kept them, and when the wealthier people’s friends visited, they’d all go out to the farm to get the dogs and go hunting.

 

Lee said they worked closer to the hunter than today’s gun dogs do. About half were Pointers, half Setters, but all were loosely called “shooting dogs.” The Pointers were shorthaired and white with brown spots. Setters had longer speckled coats. Not much different from now, right? They would run in big semicircles till they found birds.

 

The ordinary people on the farms liked the close-working style of these dogs because they also hunted for food or fur and could not afford to miss any shots; shells (like everything else store-bought) were expensive.

 

In those days, if the average person couldn’t make, catch, grow, or trade for something, he did without. There was a much larger and poorer lower class then, in a cycle that is returning today.

 

Lee remembered lots of coonhounds— some the black and tan type, others marked like foxhounds and a few ticked varieties. These dogs helped put food on the table, or they wouldn’t have been kept. They also hunted rabbits which ran in a big circle back to where the farmer/hunter would be waiting.

 

While a trained bird dog would sell for a sheik’s ransom of $150 to $250, a trained coonhound could fetch $50 to $75 which was a big price for a farmer. The poor people not hired by the rich had their own “possum dogs” or any cur or “feist dog” that would tree a squirrel or other food for the table. Most feists were of a general terrier type.

 

Annie, Lee’s wife, was born in 1903 and raised in a small central Alabama town. She remembered Redbones and other coonhounds, and says dogs lived on cornbread and meat scraps with any other leftovers. No dog food was commercially available.

 

Her daddy would take dogs out and stay gone for a week at a time, fishing and hunting fox, raccoons, wild boars and other game. He sold the hides but hunted mainly for food and the enjoyment of being with the dogs. In cities in the old days there seemed not to be as many loose or stray dogs. When city folks did have dogs, they typically would be rich ladies with dogs on leashes.

 

George Burke grew up in the Pacific Northwest and remembered that people there had mostly mixed-breeds, about 25 to 30 pounds in weight, used as watchdogs. Some had cow dogs for herding cattle, they resembled a Collie-Shepherd combination.

 

Most of these American blends had longish coats and were not quite as large as today’s German Shepherd Dog. George says he’s seen a “terrible change” in German Shepherds since the early days, because people are breeding for the show ring more than for any useful function. Back then, he says, very few people (the rich) had show dogs, and George did not run in those circles.

 

The “pure” GSDs of those days were known as “police dogs,” indicating that even in America the breed was known for more than herding sheep, though the German club was less than two decades old. There were no dog shows in Washington State before the 1920s, George says. Most hunting dogs were purebred, with English Setters and Pointers most popular. Labrador Retrievers were fairly common because of all the ducks there; again, dogs generally didn’t exist unless they could work.

 

Back in Ohio, a young boy named George Rood, later to become a professional handler and then an all-breed show judge, encountered many Beagles and coonhounds such as the Redbone. The rest he remembers seeing were mixed breeds.

 

In West Virginia, close to the Virginia line, World War I veteran Bill Cook (my father-in-law) recalled that there was no exposure to dog shows and very little emphasis on registration among the common man. Dogs were not of any “pure” nature unless individuals purposely kept their own “bloodlines.” Most people who didn’t use dogs for hunting food simply didn’t have a dog.

 

Bill’s wife, Patty, grew up in north-central West Virginia, about five miles from Clarksburg, birthplace of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson. Patty says the old “shepherd dogs” looked a little like today’s Collies, and that most dogs in town were mixed: some Fox Terrier types, some “Eskimo spitz” types. She knew about coonhounds, but the general population didn’t pay much attention to them because the hunters went out at night and put the dogs up during the day.

 

Lest anyone think all Americans 75 years ago were farmers or lived in rural areas, I’ll close with a reminiscence closer to my former home, the Northeast. Living in town for pre-teen Tessie Bangma, the oldest of six children born to an immigrant Dutch couple, was a fairly typical American experience. Also typical was the large family and because every bedroom was filled with beds, there was little or no room for dogs in the average household.

 

There were no driveways to speak of and because there were few automobiles, the few dogs were in little danger of traffic. They ran loose and came home to eat. All Tess remembers are small mutts of no particular lineage. Tessie’s mother loved dogs (a trait she passed on to at least one grandson, me) and got the family’s first dog, a mixed-breed, as the war began. A few years later they obtained their first purebred, an Airedale named Bessie, and the die was cast. My mother said the love of dogs seems to skip every other generation, and I guess she might be right.

 

Related Article Information by Fred Lanting:  The Dog That Could Not Swim

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