The Nostalgia Effect
Were the top winning boxers of the past really better, sounder, typier than their present-day counterparts? Were the leading stud dogs of yesteryear more prepotent, more prolific, more consistent than the popular sires of today? Those questions have been running through my mind ever since I participated in a discussion that took place on the Showboxer List a couple of weeks ago. Some list members (the majority) argued that the Golden Age of Boxers was long past, while a few of us (definitely the minority) argued that the breed was, on the whole, in better shape today than it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.
At the time, I accused the proponents of the good-old-days theory of looking at the “greats” of the past through rose-colored glasses. On reflection, however, I believe it’s not so much selective memory as it is nostalgia – “A sentimental longing for the past…for a period or place with happy personal associations” – that affects most longtime breeders’ feelings about what was, and what is, a truly great boxer.
For example: I will never forget the thrill of watching Ch Scher-Khoun’s Shadrack take the breed at the first ABC my ex and I attended in 1972. What a magnificent dog! What a fabulous temperament! We had already made up our minds that we wanted to begin our breeding program with a Shadrack daughter, and meeting Shadrack “in person” after the show just clinched it for us.
What’s more, to my mind there will never be a more strikingly beautiful bitch than Ch Scher-Khoun’s Tarantella, our stunning black brindle foundation bitch. And
Tara wasn’t just beautiful: she produced an ABC Sire and Dam of Merit in her first litter; a multi-Group winning bitch in her second litter; and put our neophyte kennel on the map. Tara was also my introduction to the thrill of owner-handling, winning numerous BOB’s with this unknown novice handler on the lead, several of them over professionally handled BIS dogs.
Oops! Sorry. I still get carried away when I start talking about MY good old days. But actually, that’s my point: when we started out in boxers 38 years ago, we were young and wildly enthusiastic; the show ring provided a brand new world of infinite possibilities; and the dogs and bitches that formed our early impression of the “ideal” boxer will forever remain fixed in our hearts and minds as the greats of the breed. I suspect that many longtime boxer fanciers feel exactly the same way.
So just how good are the good new days? Well, for starters, temperament, on the whole, is much better now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Yes, there are still shy dogs in the ring today; and there are still skillful handlers who can inspire enough confidence in their mentally unsound charges to get them through to a championship, and in some cases, even to a specials career. But shyness is by no means as widespread and severe as it was many years ago, when I watched one “famous” special shrink away from the judge on exam, go around the ring with his tail tucked between his legs every step of the way, get behind his handler when he approached the judge on the down and back, and still go BOB and later on, Group I!
Conformation is better these days, too. Yes, there are still poor toplines, bad feet, straight shoulders and untypical heads to be seen, sometimes more than occasionally depending on which fault or faults are lurking in the genotype of the stud dog of the hour; also depending on whether the breeders of the day breed his sons and daughters and cousins and nieces and nephews to one another. But with our heightened awareness of the dangers of inbreeding, which serves to double up on recessive faults and health problems, I think fewer breeders are doing the intense inbreeding that was the order of the day 25 years ago. And I believe that overall, today’s breeders are producing more pretty-good dogs and far fewer blatantly awful ones. Or at least, the truly dreadful ones don’t often make it into the ring.J As to the great dogs, I think they come along only once or twice in a generation; and I think that’s always been the case.
Finally, has there been an improvement in breed health? With only a few caveats, I think boxer health has improved tremendously since the founding of the ABCF in 1995. No, we don’t yet have a treatment for DM or a surefire test for ARVC; and we’re still arguing about what constitutes an acceptable aortic flow rate for an SAS clearance. But we are talking openly about those issues and trying to find solutions; most breeders take Holter results very seriously; and almost everyone clears their dogs and bitches of SAS before breeding. As for hips, it’s been years since I saw a promising puppy enter the ring, limp on the go-round, be excused…and disappear, never be seen again.
Speaking as a breeder who has seen a number of outstanding boxers in my lifetime and expects to see a few more at the Regional in a couple of weeks, I am firmly convinced that these are The New Improved Days. I can only hope they will keep getting better.
Most people are mirrors, reflecting the moods and emotions of the times; few are windows, bringing light to bear on the dark corners where troubles fester. The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. - Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author (1917-1986)