The following is an excerpt from Leaving the Wild: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Cows, and Horses by Gavin Ehringer, which explores the ever-evolving relationship between humans and domesticated animals.
Preamble, by Jessica Case, deputy publisher, Pegasus Books:
The little-examined, yet omnipresent act of breeding lies at the core of Gavin Ehringer’s book. You’ll meet cows cloned from steaks, a quarter horse stallion valued at $7.5 million, and visit a Denver cat show featuring naked cats and other cuddly mutants. Is this what the animals bargained for all those millennia ago, when they first joined us by the fire?
England Goes to the Dogs
by Gavin Ehringer
Early in the summer of 1859, British gun maker W. R. Pape and a few of his well-off hunting pals got together to put on a dog show in Newcastle upon Tyne. Only pointers and setters competed, as these were the only dogs the men owned. In lieu of blue ribbons, the winners received Pape shotguns—and doubtless were happier for it. It was a low-key start to what soon became a fanatical Victorian pastime.
In short order, dog fanciers throughout England began creating shows of their own. The early provincial shows were casual affairs, often held in pubs. Women lifted their skirts above the sawdust-covered floors to avoid urine spots. At one Manchester show, chickens shared top billing.
“Toffs” & “ruffians”
These gatherings earned the scorn of urbane critics, one of who characterized the upper class participants with their sporting dogs as “toffs” and lower class exhibitors with their terriers as “ruffians”—with both as likely to kick their dogs as pet them, said canine historian Mary Elizabeth Thurston.
But that soon changed. By 1863, interest in dog shows had grown so much that 100,000 people came out for a weeklong contest at a hall adjacent to Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. Considered the social occasion among Londoners that summer, the event included among its participants the Prince of Wales. The newly esteemed “dog fancy,” as the Brits referred to it, had come of age.
As competition for exhibitors and audiences grew, show officials clamored for aristocrats to add panache to their events. Coverage of a particularly well-attended show reflects this elitism, as a correspondent wrote, “Yesterday, at the Botanic Gardens, half the Peerage seemed to be present at the Ladies’ Kennel Show, and the list of prize winners reads like a report of a Queen’s drawing room.”
Noble & Sharp
The biggest prize of all was England’s beloved Queen Victoria.
Throughout her long life, Queen Victoria reveled in her dogs. It’s said that on the day of her coronation, she left the festivities to go bathe her favorite childhood pet, a Spaniel named Dash. Though she was a woman who had everything, Victoria’s favor could still be earned with the gift of a cute puppy.
Her magnificent and spotless kennel at Windsor Palace included Skye terriers, Scottish terriers, Irish terriers, Spitz breeds, Pomeranians, Tibetan mastiffs, chows, Saint Bernards, Great Pyrenees, Chinese spaniels, greyhounds and Pekingese, a breed she helped rescue from extinction. Her favorites, though, were Scottish herding dogs. She especially favored her border collies Noble and Sharp, the latter a sometimes unpleasant character known to nip at members of the Queen’s entourage.
Privilege of the privileged
Her Majesty whole-heartedly joined the “show fancy,” exhibiting dogs at the highest levels. She filled entire rooms of Windsor Castle with trophies, ribbons and portraits of favorite dogs.
Needless to say, Victoria’s dog show involvement sometimes led to conflicts of interest among those courting royal favor.
Charles Lane, an in-demand show judge, reportedly took offense when members of show committees leaned on him to place the Queen’s dogs. The unbendable Lane stood on principle rather than giving preference to Her Royal Majesty. Show dogs were to be “judged on their merits,” he said, a policy he maintained would “have been approved by Her Majesty . . . if the circumstances came to be known at the palace.”
Shows were one of the few occasions when commoners competed alongside the upper crust on a (mostly) level sporting field.
This represented a huge crack in a dam that for a millennium had kept well-bred dogs out of the hands of run-of-the-mill Europeans.
Literally from the fall of Rome to the early nineteenth century, dogs of the best quality and uniform in type had been a privilege almost exclusively of the privileged.