Our deeper canine relationship

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
May 2023

Matt Limb OBE looks at the deeper relationship we have with our dogs and hounds, how we preserve breeds for future generations and how to ensure good breeding of functional working dogs.

Dogs are man’s best friend, I don’t think there is any question about that – from simply being good company when out for the day or even enjoying yourself sitting in the village pub with your dog. But I was chatting recently with a very good friend about the relationship we have and enjoy with our dogs and how it may be deeper than we at first fully appreciate. Not that we have forgotten anything, but we may have been so busy with our dogs that we overlooked something we so often take for granted.

Every year show dogs are championed at their annual pilgrimage to Crufts. Internationally recognised as a premier dog show, it was founded by Charles Cruft, a manager at a dog biscuit manufacturer, who travelled to dog shows across the country and Europe – he was a great fan of St Bernards. In 1891, Charles hosted his own first dog show named ‘Cruft’s Greatest Dog Show’ in the Agricultural Halls, Islington, after which the show continued growing every year. Sadly, Charles died in 1938, following which his widow ran the show for another four years, before selling it in 1942.

Whilst Cruft’s is in the main a festival of show dogs, my own particular interest in our canine friends is as our working companions and the bond and trust that develops with them, both through training and working together. It never fails to enthral me to watch a well-trained dog working, no matter what skill they deliver; from a working gundog to assistance dogs or the highly trained dogs used in the military, including the incredible explosives detection dogs.

Above all, I will always remember my late father with his working Border Collie sheepdogs, which have been widely acknowledged as the most intelligent of all dog breeds. On the farm alongside my father, they worked all day and every day. Then on a weekend Dad would travel, often considerable distances, to compete in sheepdog trials. In doing so he proudly presented not the skills of the dog or the talent of the shepherd, but the capability and the competencies of them working together.

Taking this a step further, nothing can be more natural than for a dog to chase and catch its quarry. In fact, not just dogs but any animal. It is the fundamental principle of nature itself, to catch or acquire food and feed yourself. Today on television some of the most popular programmes are series following packs of African Wild Dogs or the Cape Hunting Dogs, across the African bush. Here we watch in awe as the matriarchal leader of the pack works tirelessly to protect and feed her offspring, often against overwhelming odds and in some of the most adverse conditions. But with hard work, she ensures the continued existence of her pack, where only the strong and sturdy survive – in doing so leaving her legacy.

But do we have to travel to the African continent to witness such a development with the refinement of a dog, or pack of dogs, as it is perfected to as near excellence as possible? I would suggest he need not, as that is happening here in our own backyards; it has been for generations, but we may have simply not noticed. As I have said, we have been so busy with our dogs that we have missed it.

Many a working dog owner has an eye for a good dog; his dog, a dog to be his working companion, a dog he can have faith in and bond with – a work colleague where there is trust at both ends of the dog’s lead. The knowledgeable working dog owner or breeder would never consider bringing in new bloodlines that did not add to the already established strengths of his dogs. Time will be spent looking, thinking and deciding before the next litter of puppies is even planned. Again, he will be asked, what is the best dog you have ever bred? Again the answer will be: the next one.

Such tireless time and effort will ensure the future of the breed, no matter what the working discipline or function of the working dog; it helps create future generations that are strong and fit for purpose in addition to the eradication of disease, ailments and hereditary disabilities and defects.

This is so different from the modern-day chic trend of randomly crossing dogs to generate a ‘new designer breed’ that is regarded as trendy, fashionable and in vogue, where the motivation is puppies selling for a high price. This designer breeding may not be in the best interests of the dogs, their offspring, or any future litter of puppies. To me, they are simply mongrels, with a future that must be questionable.

Will such ill-considered crossbreeds still be fashionable and wanted in a decade? Will we then see that crossing unconvincingly, ill-matched breeds may have opened the floodgate to poor health, where the dogs suffer terribly? Who will then stand up and take responsibility? Do we have the right to crossbreed such unlikely and poor matches in the name of vanity and fashion? It would certainly not happen in the African bush, where we often look in wonder and awe, a place where nature ultimately decides the fate of the breed.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with crossbreeds and mongrels; in fact, I have for many years admired and often thought about getting one of my favourite crossbreeds – the Lurcher. This is a cross I have admired for many years, which comes in a number of variations, but the breeding has been thought out, planned and is sensible. My preference would be the Bedlington Terrier and Whippet cross, here we see a variety that man has for centuries been devoted to creating, a dog that has function and purpose, not one raised simply for fashion, money and vanity.

Coming back to the purebreds and pedigrees, we need to look at the old and established packs of foxhounds we have in this country to witness how the bloodlines are maintained, improved and preserved for the benefit of future generations of hounds. Love or hate fox hunting, the established hunts have mastered the ability, over hundreds of years and a multitude of generations of hounds, to produce some of the strongest, best bred and healthiest functioning hounds that can be found across the world. In fact, they are the envy of many countries.

Here we must see and understand, our desire to give hounds decent sport and to see their unique talents developed for the betterment of the breed and their future. But then, don’t we have a duty to do this for every hound or dog, irrespective of its breed, nature or history?

I am not at all sure that people who are against or do not understand hunting with hounds – and here I am not just referring to fox-hunting – really appreciate the desire and passion people have to give hounds a challenging, but legal, sport; in addition to seeing their ability developed for the furtherance of the breed, pack and its future. If hunting was stopped, what would happen to the hounds? More importantly, who would ensure the breed’s unique integrity as a working hound, not a show dog? I can only hope they do not become another appalling crossbreed, with the health risks it could bring to the noble hound we see and love today.

I don’t see my passion and drive to witness and enjoy man and his best friend working together ever diminishing; if anything it gets stronger as I get older. It must be one of the most natural things and has been around for centuries, with dogs and hounds having served man in peace and in war – that bond today is as strong as ever. But let us remember it was not brought about by accident, it has been brought about by many years of perseverance, hard work and dedication focused on the great potential of working dogs and hounds, and I would suggest it is something we do not have the right to damage or destroy.

Photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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