Memory and experience are personal—that is, they die with the person. But sometimes we are fortunate to find a repository of such memories written down, so that future dog aficionados can enjoy and be enlightened. I hope that wherever you are reading this now, it will be saved in case some grandchild who fancies dogs might want to know what it was like “in the old days.”
Each witness to a single event may have a different version to report, and as time elapses, the differences grow greater. Even with commonly agreed-upon events, accuracy tends to diminish. The most valid histories, though, are still 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. Folks who were more than toddlers at the time the once-popular Dog World magazine began are now few and far between. For this article, which I wrote decades ago, I tried to choose interviewees with varied backgrounds and in different geographical locations as well as dog exposure in their youths. Somewhat surprisingly, their recollections of what dogs were like 75 (now over 100) years ago were quite similar. Perhaps it is because the game of dog showing didn’t take off with the middle class until relatively recently, after WW2.
Also, dogs in earlier ages, from the time of Noah to well into this century, were primarily working or hunting companions. Of course, there were lap dogs in the past centuries, but they were for the rich, and were not as numerous. Purebred dogs then, and even now, made up the minority in the canine population worldwide. Today, most of the dogs in the world are in the “Non-supporting Group.”
Let’s hear first from a friend of mine, a real “dog man,” the late 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 with the wealthy class 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 through the years, it was natural for the breed to be favored by other moneyed people and judges. Martin remembered one time that John Rockefeller had dogs en route to a show, when the railroad put them off the train to make room for fresh oysters. The tycoon sent an engine and a rail car just so the dogs could make it to the show on time.
In 1904 Martin’s father got his first Bull Terrier, a breed with cropped ears and a slightly 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 Staffies were used to combat deafness in white Bull Terriers, an indication that so-called breed purity was regarded a little differently 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 U.S. Midwestern farms as could be found in any of England’s best show dogs, 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 a neighbor of ours, Lee Barnard, born in 1908 and still farming and keeping a few dogs into his mid-80s. He told me that some people trained dogs “for the rich people” such as doctors. The farmers or caretakers kept them on their land, and when the wealthier people’s friends visited, they’d all go out to the farm, get the dogs, and go hunting. In “the war days” (WWI, of course) and for decades after as well as always before, dogs were owned only for the work they could do. Lee told me 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 and could not afford to miss any shots the way the wealthier owners could; 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 or she did without. There was a much larger and poorer lower class then. (Although in the current politico-economic climate it appears we are reverting to that type of situation!)
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 hounds chased 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, but guess whose property they were: not the farmers’! The poor people not hired by the rich had their own “`possum dogs”—any cur or “feist” that would tree a squirrel or other food for the table. Most feists were of a general terrier type. Keeping an eye on the prey and barking until the hunter caught up and dispatched it was their job. At the time of this re-writing, I have a Shepherd that works squirrels the same way, but she does the same with chipmunks and lizards! No, thanks; I’m not hungry enough for the amount of work for a little meat.
Annie, Lee’s wife, was born in 1903 and raised in a small central Alabama town. She remembered Redbones and other coonhounds, and told me almost the same thing I remembered from my early childhood: dogs lived on cornbread with any other leftovers and perhaps some meat scraps. No dog food was commercially available. Her daddy would take dogs out and stay for a week at a time, fishing and hunting fox, raccoons, wild boars and other game. He sold the hides but hunted mainly for the enjoyment of being with the dogs.
In cities, in the first half of the 20th Century, there were not many loose or stray dogs. When city folks did have dogs, they typically would be rich ladies with dogs on leashes. A correspondent named 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 herding (cow) dogs that 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 said he had seen a “terrible” change in German Shepherds since the early days, because people of late were breeding for the show ring more than for any useful function. Back then, he says, very few people (only the rich) had show dogs, and George didn’t run in those circles. The “pure” GSDs of those days were known as “police dogs,” indicating that even in America the breed was already known for more than herding sheep, although the original club in Germany (founded around 1890) was less than two decades old.
There were no dog shows in Washington State before the 1920s, George told me. 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 around the turn of his Century were mixed-breeds.
In West Virginia, World War I veteran (and later to become my father-in-law) Bill Cook recalled a truth now familiar to the reader: There was no exposure to dog shows close to the Virginia line, where he grew up, and very little emphasis on registration in the world of 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. (See my article on Dogs of the Civil War.) She had more contact with dogs than did Bill, who grew up in a backwoods area. Patty said 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 a century ago were farmers or lived in rural areas, I’ll close with a reminiscence closer to my former home, the Northeast. Living in town was a fairly typical American experience for pre-teen Tessie Bangma, the oldest of six children born to an immigrant Dutch couple. 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 not many driveways to speak of, and because of a relative scarcity of automobiles, the few dogs were in little danger of traffic. They ran loose and came home to eat.
The only dogs Tess remembered from her childhood were 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 Great War” began. A few years later they obtained their first purebred, an Airedale named Bessie, and the die was cast. Tess was my mother, who said the love of dogs skips every other generation, and I guess she might have been right, as she had only a tolerance for them, while I and Grandma couldn’t be without one. My son had an old dog, but was in no hurry to get another one when that one passed. Perhaps I worked him too hard when he was a kid and I was a handler who took him to weekend shows in Canada and the American Great Lakes region. Family lines sometimes die out, and leashes wear out and break; there is no guarantee of continuity. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to write down such memories as these, in the hope that dogs and dog stories will not pass into oblivion.
Fred Lanting, German Shepherd Dog breeder and all-`round dog expert, often writes on veterinary medicine and anatomy. He lives in Union Grove, Alabama.
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