It has recently come to my attention that, as bizarre as it seems, I would appear to know my own dog’s ancestry in more detail than I do my own. When I kept bull terriers, I would sit enthralled as mates and acquaintances would real off pedigrees like some idiot savant on the set of Record Breakers TV show. Remember that show with Roy Castle and Norris McWhirter? The former being a trumpet playing, Carry-On star, the latter being an ex-international sporting hero and right wing political activist, whose brother was shot by some Irish chaps in the seventies. They might think that identifying the make of car just from the shape of its hub-caps is impressive, but all it proves is that they really should get out more and that they’ll probably die a virgin. Seriously, how the hell do they remember all of that stuff? It’s like they’re autistic or something.
Bullyson, Honeybunch, Jeep, Old Bull Bitch, Max, Dillinger, Possum, Duke….these and other names were mentioned so many times that I was invariably in a spin. Then once I thought I’d got a handle on just what they were talking about, they’d say “no, not that Duke…the other one.” I will freely admit that I do not have the kind of brain that can process a pedigree and remember it. Maybe for two minutes maximum, but after that, it’s gone. I will also freely admit that some of my friends would shame Rainman into revisiting his times tables. I was sat on the sofa at home not two months back, reading some old copies of the Sporting Dog Journal from years gone by, and I remember thinking that this magazine must have been like pornography for my pedigree chums! They must have pored over those charts when those mags dropped through the letterbox to such an extent that they would memorise them to a frightening degree. I just think that my brain is wired up wrong as I simply can’t retain that knowledge. As they say in those circles, breeding is everything and it pays for the fancier to be clued up not only on his own bloodlines, but every bugger else’s too. What blood gels well with what; what’s a bad cross, what to bring in for wind, mouth, gameness. If I was that way inclined, perhaps I would have to make myself more invested in the knowledge of the pedigrees, but I still reckon I’d make a lousy database of bloodlines.
I do, however, remember some of the pedigrees behind some of my own dogs, but only so far back. I did spend a spare couple of hours at the Kennel Club near Green Park tube station one afternoon, where I started with the pseudo mystical and ever-so-slightly gay sounding name that had been bestowed upon Kesh by his breeder, and worked back. For a nominal fee, I could get a photocopy of his pedigree, and then once I got to the 5 generation line, I could do the same for any dog I chose there. Which is what I did – Ch. Warstone of Ironcloud…or Ch. Warcloud of Ironstone…something like that. Anyway, I picked him and looked back at his pedigree. Lots of Rapparee, Constones, Betchgreen stuff, which I’d heard of. Scarthwaite Coachman rang a bell too, as he was something to do with Ch. Kim (if I remember correctly). Anyway, before you all think I’m starting to sound a bit autistic myself, the long and short of it was that I walked out of the Kennel Club with a few sheaves of papers and a fair idea of some of the dogs behind that old Kesh dog of mine. It didn’t make him any better, but I’m a sucker for a sense of history.
Armed with the internet, which, despite being in its infancy, still had some useful information on there, I started to look up some of the dogs in the peds. Actually, it probably wasn’t in it’s infancy at all, and what I should have said was that it was in its infancy to me. This is coming from the bloke who still plays vinyl records which will tell you a great deal about my relationship with new technology. What was apparent was that a lot of the dogs behind Kesh, didn’t really look that much like him. They were of the short, squat variety that is commonly derided as show stock these days. What was abundantly apparent though, was despite looking like they couldn’t run out of sight on a dark night, they clearly had the necessary mental faculties for the various tasks that were put to them, and some of those dogs had made a name for themselves, allegedly. This suggested to me that putting that essential mental ingredient back into the dogs, once they’d lost it (for whatever reason), might well be a lot more difficult than breeding a dog that would look like it could do the job at hand. As I said, none of this made Kesh any better or worse, but it intrigued me. I’m afraid to say that during my move, I seem to have mislaid the paperwork that I took away with me that day in Green Park, so I only have a few half remembered names of Kesh’s ancestors rattling around my head. No matter though, as I’ve not long gone past the three year anniversary of Kesh’s death, and he was never bred from anyway. Not to say that didn’t stop the bugger from tying with Nell at every conceivable opportunity, which was often the most inopportune moments, such as next to the kids play area over the park, or outside Sainsbury’s. He always had great timing.
As Colin Didriksen said in a recent copy of the mag, there are sometimes some surprises when you start poking around in the past. In my experience there are all too many folk out there trying to link dogs they happen to have, to famous names from the past. This might be for various reasons too, such as compensation for their own shrivelled under-carriages, or they might be trying to shift pups that they’ve been stuck with. I once feared that I’d been taken in by one of these shysters when I bought my Nell. I was told that she was one thing, and l believed the bloke and bought her. I handed over my cash and drove home with a young, overweight bitch making herself comfortable in the stinky Audi 80. She spent most of the journey from Chatham to my village sniffing the back seats and she must have thought she’d been bought by a right dirty b*****d! The stench must have been too much for her, as she jumped into the front passenger seat, and made it her own. My suspicions about her breeding were raised when I’d spent a bit more time with her. Despite her sire and dam looking like what they purported to be, Nell’s jacket was denser; much denser than any bull terriers I’d ever known. And once I’d got the weight off her, she was very slight and leggy, despite being only 16″ tall. I forced these suspicions from my mind though and wrote the dubious physical attributes off as just anomalies.
A while later, when I was in the vets for a booster jab or some other such expensive nonsense, I bumped into the bloke who had sold Nell to me. There he was, sitting in the waiting room, looking for all the world like Freddy Boswell, holding the lead to a muzzled and ancient pit bull terrier. He recognised me, if not Nell, straight away and spoke at length about her sire and dam and the bloodlines. “Here we go” I thought, “another bloody Rainman pedigree chum.” But then he started talking about Patterdales. “Whoa there big fella…..Patterdales?” Now he’d got my attention. He was sure he’d told me about the Patterdale side of the breeding before? Had he hell as like. I tried to intimate politely that I’d bought the bitch as a bull terrier, but he said “no mate, she’s about a quarter terrier. Goes back to Harcombe’s Jack.”
I left that vet’s surgery completely bewildered. I’d had two different stories about Nell, which came from the same bloke. Which one was true? Given the jacket, build and the propensity for Nell to go to earth and stay there, I’m inclined to believe the terrier story a bit more than the bull terrier one. This bloke thought I was in the market for a bull terrier, and that’s what he sold to me. If I was in the market for a Dalmatian, he’d probably have told me that she was one of those too. It reminded me of the Two Ronnies sketch, when Ronnie Corbett thought he’d bought a racing pigeon when he’d in fact been sold a duck. As to the veracity of the lineage from Jack, well that could very well be a perfect example of someone hijacking the reputation of a well known dog and attaching it to something that they had to sell in order to make it more desirable. I might be doing the bloke a disservice – he could have been telling the truth, but I’ll never know. As soon as someone has compromised themselves by lying about pedigrees, it’s very difficult to then trust anything that subsequently comes out of their mouths. Obviously I have spoken to the editor about this, but we’re still none the wiser. Again, much like Kesh, it doesn’t matter, as Nell was never bred from and has been in the ground for a number of years.
This story has parallels with my own life too, as I’d quite happily gone along for many years, safe in the knowledge that my ancestors were as English as HP Sauce or mushy peas. I visited France and Belgium as a youngster, in order to try and find my gt. gt. grandfather’s grave from World War One, but he was one of many listed on the Menin Gate in Ypres. His son joined the same battalion of the same regiment and fought in the Battle of Arras and finally made it off the beaches of Dunkirk after bloodying the noses of the SS Totenkopf. This man, my gt. grandfather, gave me my first dog. He called him a border, but he didn’t look much like what we’d call a border these days. Anyway, it was this branch of the family that brought me up really, and when I started becoming interested in family trees, it was them that I started to trace. There were various theories and stories in circulation within the family, and they were very exotic! Fascinating stuff for sure, with tales of the family regiment fighting in India and New Zealand in Victorian times. One of the family finally bit the bullet and actually paid for a family tree to be done, which they kindly forwarded on to me, much to my initial dismay. All of the stories and theories were just that; stories and theories. What I thought we were couldn’t have been further from the truth. My gt. gt. gt. grandfather was Swedish; his son was a Norwegian; who married an Irish lady and settled in Liverpool. Their son (my gt. gt. grandfather) married a lady whose parents were Welsh and Cornish, so what it all boils down to is, that in a branch of the family that I thought for years were all-English war heroes, there’s not one drop of English blood at all. So it would seem that there are parallels with tracing a dog’s pedigree – some people tell you what you want to hear and over time, falsehoods become ingrained in people’s minds and blur the boundaries between truth and legend. That is until someone approaches the matter objectively and despite them maybe having a vested interest, strips away the bullshit and gets down to brass tacks.
My current dogs have no such skeletons in their closet that I know of. They come from another branch of the family and their heritage is well documented. Again, it doesn’t make them any better than either Kesh or Nell. They are simply just my dogs. I won’t pretend that I can sit here and list off all their predecessors, as I can’t. It’s the age old question; does the pedigree make the dog, or the dog make the pedigree? I can only judge the dogs in front of me and if they are not worth a tinker’s cuss, then the pedigree can go to hell.
I mentioned in a recent article that Jasp was easy to train when it came to retrieving, and he showed a great example of this the other day. I’d left my wife (Norwegian-Irish-French, or so we are led to believe!) and daughter playing in the courtyard of our house, on the new trampoline bought by my parents, and headed off into the forest with the two mutts in tow. I had a knife, bin-bags and phone in my pockets and some serious intent on my mind. I won’t bore you with another tale of blanking, but it was again, on the way home that we scored. Both dogs had been gone for some time, so I did the usual of waiting where I was, for either one of them to return. Van came back without any quills in her mouth and no blood on her chops. She immersed herself in the swamp whilst I sat down on a log and waited for the youngster to return. Time ticked by and he still hadn’t returned and I was getting a bit worried by this point. I thought about ringing my wife and telling her to keep an eye out for him, but no sooner had I reached for my phone, then Jasp appeared on the track about 100 yards away. He looked at me; satisfied himself that I was indeed waiting for him, and then promptly disappeared into the forest again. This confirmed to me that he’d got something for me. Before I even set off up the track to get him, the ferns at the side of the track parted and out struggled a big, dumb dog attempting to retrieve a deer! I was laughing my head off and instead of walking over to him, I thought I’d stay put and see just how far he could carry his quarry. The poor bugger was really trying, but he was having trouble carrying the deer by its neck and getting enough clearance off the ground, without actually standing on its hind legs. Not the most elegant display of retrieving I’ve ever seen, but you can’t fault his effort! Pedigree or not; he’ll do for me.