The following article is a revision of an article I wrote while I was a columnist for The Elkhound Quarterly. It was written in 1995 and was centered around events that had happened about that time. Despite the editing, the message remains intact, and timely.
The following quotes were being heard in and around the elkhound breed ring:
"The elkhound breed has gone to hell in a handbasket!"
"I think I've had my last one!"
"You should hear what happened at the show last weekend!"
".....unprovoked attack on another dog in the breed ring!"
".....tried to nail the judge!"
"Handlers of other breeds are CARRYING their dogs past the elkhound ring!"
".....RIPPED ANOTHER DOG'S FACE OFF!!"
Jeez, fellow elkhounders! Have you HEARD this stuff?! I have literally been bombarded with detailed accounts of our breed's "vicious" behavior in the show ring lately. WHAT is going on?
I discussed some of these rumors with a friend of mine, and she suggested that I address the issue in my column.
Well, I had been away from the show ring for several months and had no first-hand knowledge of any of the incidents I had been hearing about. I didn't know if they were truth, heresay or some minor incident blown out of proportion.
However, I gave the subject some thought and called my friend back just a few short minutes later. I read her the following:
"It seems to me that the show ring has tended, of recent years, to encourage the Elkhound of undesirable temperament: the aggressive and silly ones are generally the best showers.
"The sensible, wise, well-behaved Elkhound knows that there is nothing to get excited about at a show and often doesn't make the best of himself. So the type of dog that learns good manners easily and is such a delightful....companion....is discouraged. Faults of character are very, very difficult to breed out, and if our dogs are left uneducated and wild from one generation to another they will in time become untrainable and we shall wake up to find that the breed has lost its good name and nobody wants Elkhounds. Perhaps I am too gloomy, but I love the breed so much and it has given me so many happy days that I feel impelled to urge the earnest consideration of these matters before it is too late."
"You just wrote that, didn't you?" my friend asked.
"Nope! Kitty C. Heffer wrote it....and it was published in 1969!
I had remembered reading this passage from her book, The Elkhound, and had plucked my copy off the shelf, and read to my friend directly from Kitty's text.
So, what does this mean?
It means that problems with Elkhounds acting aggressive in and around the show ring are not exactly new. Ms. Heffer was concerned with this same issue 25 years earlier.
At the time this conversation occurred I had been in the breed for 27 years and there had always been a few bad apples...elkhounds that needed a serious attitude adjustment and some manners.
But why are some elkhounds like that? Are these ill-tempered few genetically aggressive and explosive? Perhaps some of them are, but could it be more likely that they have been allowed or even encouraged to misbehave because their owners and/or handlers are afraid that correcting any aggressive behavior will dampen the dog's spirits? Are some breeder/exhibitors afraid that future or present champions might not be on constant alert in the show ring and will not attract the judge's attention if they are trained to behave with decorum?
What about this possibility? Do we tend to choose the pushy, fearless bully-pup in the first place, ignoring the calm, sensible puppy with the sweet disposition?
Breeders were doing all these things a quarter century ago.... and for the same reason....that blue ribbon. I can't see where anything has changed that much.
If we continue to breed and keep the animal that is a "showing fool", regardless of his or her temperament, generation after generation, it stands to reason that eventually we could lose the great disposition our breed is supposed to have. Then who would we have to blame?
Let me go back to Kitty Heffer's words. In her next paragraph she says:
"May I suggest that before we select any animal for breeding we ask ourselves two questions" 'Is it handsome?' and 'Is it sensible?' Handsome and sensible--do not these two adjectives sum up the ideal Elkhound? Then let them be our watchwords.
"And lastly, dear modern breeders, do realize what a responsibility lies in your hands; the making or marring of this charming and ancient breed. Do not think only of selfish, fleeting triumphs in the show ring but of the beauty and character of the breed as a whole, and the joy it may bring to future generations."
She's right, you know. I think at times, we are all guilty of overlooking the puppy with the correct temperament for the littermate with the "pizzazz". ( the hyper, pushy, baiting fool!)
It's bad enough to choose showmanship over correct structure and soundness! But to choose showmanship over temperament???...just how bad DO we want those wins?!
We ALL want to win, I want it, you want it, he wants it, they want it. If we didn't want to win we wouldn't be showing in the first place. But is winning the ONLY thing? If it is, then what is going to happen to the loving companions? Where will the pet buyer go to find the temperament that will make a trusted family member? Where will the intelligence go, the willingness and desire to please? What is the future of our breed's integrity and good name? In our quest to WIN.....just how much are we prepared to LOSE?
There is yet another aspect I would like to explore. Please understand that what I am about to say is not intended to let any guilty parties off the hook. Those that deliberately breed dogs with poor temperment are guilty of a great injustice to our breed...but are the dogs really as "vicious" as they appear?
Let's take a good look at the Elkhound's natural demeanor....his over-all body type. We have a breed, like all Spitz-type breeds, which by it's very nature LOOKS aggressive. If we try to see an Elkhound through another dogs' eyes...what do you think we would see?
Unless the dog is a total wimp, an Elkhound stands with his neck arched and his ears forward. The tail is held tightly over the back. This is an aggressive posture in all breeds...but in the Spitz breeds...it is a natural occurance.
So! Right up front...we have a breed of dog whose normal carriage might look "pushy" to a dog of another breed.
Now....let's say a fight erupts at a show....between an Elkhound and....oh...how about a....Coonhound. The likelihood of a Coonhound coming out victorious in a scuffle with an Elkhound is a little remote. Possible...but a stretch. The Coonhounds' coat is hardly "bite-proof", and those long ears and loose lips are easy targets. And who would ever accuse a sad-faced, slobbery Coonhound of being an aggressive breed?
So....most people witnessing an altercation between these two particular breeds are probably going to ass-u-me that the Elkhound started it! Right?
But, what were all those bystanders doing when the fight broke out? Lolly-gagging around? watching a breed in another ring? brushing dog hair off their clothes? talking to their friends? trying to get the judge's attention? What were the handlers of the two dogs doing? Were they watching out for.... and in complete control of...their dogs?
Did ANYone see what started this (ficticious) fight? Who made the first move? If anyone DID see anything, would they have recognized the signals? Could the Coonhound have pressed his droopy, innocent looking face, nose to nose with the Elkhound, and in a language that only canines understand, made some silent challenge? With eye contact, invasion of personal space, and body English, could the Coonhound have slandard the Elkhound's pedigree, demanded he move out of his way, or called his mother a bitch!? Could the Elkhound then have answered in the same manner, silently, with a cold, evil-eyed stare that said, "Watch your mouth, Droopy-Lips, or I'll eat your face!"
And could all this have happened under the "watchful" eyes of two handlers and not a few spectators?
You bet it could! By the time we see a fight....the preliminaries are already over. The challenge was made, the line was drawn and the battle is in full swing. The signs were there, and they were there in plenty of time to avoid a problem, but many times those signs go un-noticed.
What we usually see is the Elkhound beating the crap out of the other dog.
So, in this hypothetical fight, the spectators see the Elkhound getting the better of the Coonhound, and because they know nothing about what went on in doggy-speak, they immediately think the Elkhound started everything, and is an aggressive and vicious dog. Word spreads rapidly about that terrible Norwegian breed...what a nasty temperament!
Who was most at fault in this "made up" dog fight? The handlers of course! They should BOTH have been watching their dogs more closely. But damage is still quickly done to the reputation of the Elkhound and the story of the fight is off and running...gaining momentum at at alarming rate....until we hear stories like the rumor of the Elkhound who "attacked another breed in the group ring."
This story was first reported to me as having happened in December at an inside show in Illinois. (Of course a show in December in Illinois would be inside...that's not the point...the point is that you remember where and how this tale begins.) The Elkhound in question supposedly instigated an unprovoked attack on the dog behind it in the group ring and....quote....
"RIPPED IT'S FACE OFF!!"...unquote.
I was given the name of the alledged "attacker" and decided to investigate further. After the story made several twists and turns the final word was that it happened in Ohio, in August, outside. It was a normal, sweltering day....a late afternoon group. The handler of the other breed was allowing her dog to wander at will to the end of it's lead. In fact, I was assured that this particular handler was notorious for not keeping her dog under control. When this dog repeatedly invaded the Elkhounds'
air-space the Elkhound finally said "enough!" and nipped the other dog on the lip. The AKC rep witnessed the "attack" and took no action. The injured party was back in the ring the next week. The rumor, as is often the case, had grown like the chickweed in my flower beds.
This tells me that not all cases of Elkhound aggression are reported accurately. But this doesn't mean that it isn't happening. It is not the Elkhound's usual M. O. to make the first move, but there can be, and most likely are, exceptions.
At any rate, have we decided who is at fault yet? At fault for the aggression in (or out of) the rings? The breeders and handlers...right? After all, we are supposed to control our dogs. Are we missing the signals? The signals that come BEFORE we see the fight? Because I've been assured that those signals are there....long before the dog acts out aggressively. Do we just not care?...as long as the dog is "showy"?
Have I left anything out?
Yep. There is another factor. The judges. (Poor judges, they get blamed for everything, don't they?)
Well, they do contribute to the problem in their own way. Maybe they don't realize it but here's the deal. Many judges will not give a second look to a Spitz type breed that doesn't have it's ears and tail at full alert position at all times while in the ring. The calm, friendly dog who is not promoting himself 110% is usually overlooked for the hyper, flashy Elkhound that looks like, (and sometimes IS), ready to take on the world.
We all like to see, and better, to OWN, the consumate SHOW dog. (That IS, after all, the name of the game...SHOW!) But hopefully, that showy dog would also be a trustworthy companion animal. The judges probably aren't going to change the way they do things....so who does that leave in the driver's seat?
Back to us again...the breeders...the exhibitors. If we want to win in the show ring we will have to breed dogs that will perform and promote themselves. Dogs that will catch the judge's eye and say "Look at me...I AM the best dog here, you MUST give me that ribbon!" We need that showy personality in order to bring home the blue, but we also need to keep in mind that if we sacrifice good temperament for the flashy dog...we have NOTHING but strips of taffeta and paper certificates. Our personal dogs' reputation is tarnished, elkhounds as a whole get a bad rap, and we have contributed to the destruction of a fine breed.
Why do some breeders continue to breed, select and show aggressive dogs?
Is it because it is EASIER? Is it easier to get the militant or the hyper, or the goofy dog to show better? Is it easier than trying to find ways to better present his good-natured kennel mate? It's definately easier than trying to convince the judges that the less showy dog who greets him with the waggy tail and the flattened ears is a far better example of the true temperament of the breed than the one who bristles up at any other dog that comes close and is constantly at attention.
It's also not as easy to train a smart dog as it is a dumb one. It's not as easy to breed a dog with BOTH good sense AND a showy attitude. Consequently, it's too much trouble to figure out how to make a SMART, SENSIBLE Elkhound, (who's also handsome), appear overjoyed to be standing in the heat, or the pouring rain, watching some silly human tossing around some dried out piece of mystery meat.
And it's REALLY hard to get a judge to recognise the truly sound and correct Elkhound if the dog has a ho-hum attitude and has no desire to perform like a trick monkey.
This all sounds like an unsolvable problem, doesn't it? We want to show. We want to win. But, some of us are a wee bit lazy.
Well, I'm not so sure it's "unsolvable"...difficult maybe...but not impossible. We have to remember, first of all, that we are the "keepers" of our breed. WE are the only ones who can keep the good name of the elkhound unsullied. But we need to care about the right things first. And the blue ribbon needs to be "frosting", not the whole darn cake!
I, for one, can't think of a more important thing TO care about, in this sport of dogs, than protecting the integrity and reputation of our breed. In thinking this situation over, I have realized something about myself, as a breeder, that I had never really put into words before....hadn't even admitted to myself before.
Yes, I enjoy showing my dogs. And yes, I would love to get the best of the best into the hands of exhibitors who will show them to their championships in the conformation ring.
But, given a choice, I would prefer to sell to the best possible PET homes, where the dog is expected to become the best and most reliable friend and companion that new owner ever had. Rather than see my dogs only performing in the show ring, winning at all costs, I would wish them careers in obedience, agility, search and rescue, therapy and as service dogs. These are all things that some of my "best of the best" have accomplished, and believe me...they couldn't perform in these venues if they were unstable buzz-brains.
Pet buyers have needs that must be satisfied first. They are counting on us, as keepers of the breed, to provide them with a stable, affectionate, intelligent companion whose disposition they can trust. They want a best friend. These people are the first people I hope to satisfy, (after myself), and in order to do that I feel I must keep temperament as my number one priority. After all, without the pet buyer, who will take care of the puppies that don't measure up physically for the show ring? And even the best breeders get some of those, whether they ever admit it or not.
I think the overly aggressive elkhound is in the minority, and I think that the majority of the bad apples were made that way or allowed to get mixed signals and become that way. At any rate, temperament simply MUST return to the top of ALL our lists, as promoters of a breed noted for GOOD temperament.
Proper training, socialization and an ever watchful eye all go into assuring that our dogs are what not only WE, as exhibitors would want to live with, but what the average pet owner would want to have in their home.
And when we add sound bodies to those precious sound minds we come up with what Kitty Heffer thought elkhounders should be aiming for...all those years ago...
Handsome and Sensible.
"....is it HANDSOME? ....is it SENSIBLE?"
What more could we want? What more SHOULD we want?