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Russian Great Dane and Lada car

… they had really nice Great Dane type. Very athletic, clever, highly trainable, working dogs. They bred from original German imports, East German imports and dogs from other communist countries – mostly, but not exclusively. After the WWII Stalin put the breeding of all large breeds under military control for service in the People’s Army. Afterwards, in 1972, all short-coated working breeds, Danes, Boxers, Dobermanns and Rottweilers were deemed unfit for military service and were passed on to the control of the Moscow Association of Amateur Breeders (the Soviet Union military set up a program to create a working dog fit for the Russian climate, which resulted in the Black Russian Terrier breed).  Dog breeding in the Soviet Union was undertaken with scientific guidance and experts (experienced, qualified breeders) at the helm of the breeding collectives, with clearly set-out selection goals and priorities, annually reviewed. And don’t you just love the beautiful medal necklaces they won and wore at dog shows! 🙂 For those familiar with the Lada automotive brand, they were built to be indestructible, especially the rugged off-road Niva models. Soviet dog breeding shared the same values.

TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE

Tatiana Ozerova, born in 1934, is the most senior surviving Great Dane breeder in Russia;  Moscow-born and raised, she studied Philosophy at the Moscow State University and has been involved with Great Danes since 1950. In 1958 she received the first title of breed expert surveyor (judge & breed warden) category III (the highest level). She subsequently became a Russian Kennel Federation (RKF) judge. Tatiana bred Great Danes for more than thirty years. She led the breed originally under ДОСААФ (Voluntary Society for Assistance to Army and Navy), then in МГОЛС (Moscow City Society of amateur dog breeding), and after the collapse of the latter was the president and custodian of the All-Russian breed club for Great Danes under the RKF (founded in 1991) and co-owner of the kennel “Из озерной сторожки” (Lake Lodge) with her daughter Catherine. Tatiana is the author of the most important monograph for the breed in the Russian language, published in 1998, fondly dedicated to her own mentor, Annette Arkhangelskaya and titled “For the Greatest and most Beautiful dog”; it’s a labor of immense love for and devotion to the breed.

Tatiana has tirelessly visited dog shows since 1949, photographed dogs, collected pedigrees, mentored and guided all the younger generations. Without Tatiana, the history of the breed in her country would be largely undocumented and lost. It is from this book that the photographs are reproduced here and the information for this post is based. Tatiana is a true breed historian. This lady is a cornerstone for the breed in her vast country that is a huge and important center of breeding (more than 7 million pure-bred dogs registered) – and that is an understatement. I am grateful beyond words for her monumental dedication and assistance. It’s just a shame I never got around to visit Moscow before the invasion of the mammoths…

Right now the Russian Kennel Federation is preparing to hold the first ever FCI World Show in Moscow, amidst a storm of corruption allegations and legal battles. The transition from communism to capitalism, Russian-style, was never going to be a smooth ride…When the Soviet era ended, pedigree dog breeding in Russia became, like elsewhere, an open to all and sundry affair; we don’t have suitability tests for prospective dog owners; and apart from a few Scandinavian countries that have elevated dog breeding to a highly qualified field, with diplomas and extensive studies and demanding tests, any Joe Bloggs can get two dogs and proclaim himself a breeder; I happen to think that’s a bit haphazard and not very responsible, considering there’s lives (and public service) involved.

Open market competition might suit many things that are commercially produced, inanimate objects that feel no pain, but not at all suited to sentient beings with feelings; there’s horrible lessons to learn from everyday occurrence of horrific abuse in factory farming and horse breeding, to name just two obvious examples; any readers too quick to pigeonhole me in the animal rights radical (or even communist) wacko category because of these views, please remove blinkers and read again; I would also add for good measure that being (or trying to be) an independent artist I’m too painfully aware that, under the misguidance of ignorant politicians like the current Irish government (the same that’s happy to allow “the industry” export racing greyhounds to become chow mein in China), the Arts can be wiped out from corporate profiteering and replaced by a mass-produced tasteless, odorless and non-offensive toxic gruel of no value, no freedom and no individuality, if we’re not fully awake; the recently departed David Bowie and Prince were pioneers against such happening in their field; take note and stand up against dog breeding becoming an “industry”. Because the dog governing bodies are not going to fight this good fight. They will always prop up the establishment – no matter what.

The line between professionalism as applied in dog breeding to differentiate between commercial puppy farming facilities and hobby breeders is not very clear or well-regulated either; what we call “Dog World” is so laissez faire that the activity is constantly in danger of being crushed between the Skylla of  ill-informed one-size-fits-all state intervention and the Charybdis of the anti-dog lobby extremism. We really need to step up, if we don’t want legislation to hand dog breeding over to the mass-producing farms like we see here in Ireland and exist in many European countries, with three and more hundreds of ‘heads’ of bitches stuck in industrial arrays of kennels whelping litter after litter after litter until their bitter end, to supply the pet shop windows and the internet trade. And out governing bodies need a major shake up to keep up with the times. It would enormously help the hygiene of our hobby (breeding dogs certainly shouldn’t be classed, respected or tolerated as a business, in my opinion) if at least the worse elements and promoters of corruption were to fall out of the pockets of the system during a most vigorous shake-up; mind you, we would need to hold said governing bodies (certainly the most elitist and undemocratic of them) upside-down for quite a while and thoroughly look in their pockets for this to happen… and if it doesn’t happen, if we don’t make it happen, we must be prepared to kiss dog-breeding as a highly skilled amateur field of excellence good-bye. The writing is on the wall. Can’t you see it?

One can’t help thinking along these lines and drawing parallels and differences between communism and capitalism, one form of corruption being replaced by another, reading Tatiana’s foreword in her invaluable book: in the ’90s the breed community and overseeing in Russia broke down into many smaller clubs and quality control became much more difficult if not impossible to implement as a common plan and to an even level; as she explains vividly: it was the chance ambitious power-driven people, often novices with little or no genetic and breeding (zootechnic) expertise and no clear goals other than winning and rising to positions of influence, have been waiting for; the floodgates opened and Russians joined pedigree dog capitalism novelty with gay abandon; jumping on the bandwagon in earnest they began mass-importing the most exaggerated, overdone, heavy mastinoids their rubles could buy; since they had no in depth knowledge of the western pedigrees and health history, having to put their trust on people who were only too eager to cash in and export to the new market indiscriminately, and based only of the face value of champion titles, all the careful breeding work of the previous decades in Russia was demolished overnight; hypertype was the dominant fashion in continental Europe, spreading from France and Italy, in the 80s and 90s and eventually carpet-bombing the Eastern former communist countries -so how could Russia (or China nowadays) resist the trend?

What ensued was chaos – the same winning-driven cut-throat win-at-all-costs competition we experience elsewhere, more or less, with Breed Clubs attempting at varying degrees of competence to manage the breed and success or failure largely depending on the people serving (or self-serving) on the committees at any given time; power struggles and abuse of privilege and everything, in the end, depending on the individual breeder’s ethics and ability, within a system equally prone to corruption as in the old Soviet Union. The great shame in this particular case is that those old USSR lines included some very valuable strains, long lost in the West; they carried brains, health and longevity, as they were originally strictly selected for working ability. For as long as the scientific know-how (and there was a lot of it available and put into good use through the military and subsequently the collectives in the USSR) was allowed to work in dog breeding, it did produce some positive, even spectacular results. Tatiana, writing back in 1998, concludes that the breed in Russia is just hanging on because of the sound foundations laid down during those precious few decades when Great Danes were bred in her country scientifically and as working dogs, with efficient think-tanks in charge. But for how long? It has sadly become the same agonizing question that conscientious and informed breeders toil with everywhere nowadays.  I saw some of these ‘old school’ Russian Danes still shown in the Balkans in the early ’90s and they were impressive: balanced, strong, typical, fit for purpose, magnificent dogs, sound of body and mind and without exaggerations.

Huge thanks to Russian breeder Ольга Линде (Olga Linde) for these historic photographs and to Elena Miroshnikova for her invaluable help – and for sending me this essential Russian Great Dane book, authored by Tatiana Ozerova, and edited by Olga, that I will cherish. Might even brush up my Russian coupla focail to try and read it fully 🙂 Спасибо!

Most of the Danes pictured here, Russian-bred (or should I say, Soviet-bred?) and imports to the USSR, are from Olga’s archive and from Tatiana’s book; they date from the ’50s to early ’80s, so just prior the intense mastiffication that took over. Before the age of the pseudo-Dane mammoths. The brindle that was my BISS winner in Brazil last year, has a grandsire imported from Russia. Some breeders do keep up with what’s going on elsewhere and outside their own back yard when they are looking for males to use…And are occasionally, rewarded, as everyone who ever took a calculated risk knows.

BISS

Int. Braz. Grand Panamerican Ch. Vip’s Vip Kathmandu (Neruh)

Some of those imports to the USSR, 30-40 years ago, were from the USA !  – gasp, shock, horror – despite the cold war; of course the mammoth breeders (or rather, greeders) would never import / use American-bred Danes today, or even Scandinavian-bred dogs carrying North American lines, in case their precious kennels got infected by the elegance and fitness for purpose they so despise, from ‘greyhounds’ or ‘grasshoppers’ as they call the classic Danes in their warped little bubble… Oh no – they prefer to have their dogs drop dead (or keel over and crash on every laboring step) instead, rather than outcross to a Dane proper and risk producing dogs that are not entirely disabled. (Apologies to real mammoths – as they were fit for their purpose). Doesn’t mean of course that classic Danes don’t suffer from the widespread health problems that have been allowed to become endemic in the breed, precisely because of idiotic reluctance to outcross. But puppy buyers are not going to tolerate this sad state of affairs for ever. Buying a very expensive dog only to spend fortunes on vet bills is not funny or fair and even the most deluded fans snap out of it eventually and opt for a more moderate breed – as it happened in the case of the Mastino and the Cane Corso. People abandoning the former for the latter in their droves…

027

Author Tatiana Ozerova, with her dogs. Her Great Dane bitches would sometimes nurse her Bulldog litters.

If there’s lessons to be learned by what happened to Great Danes (and Black Russian Terriers and others) in Russia, maybe it’s that there’s no perfect system for breeding dogs – because human nature tends to mess things up; but in reality, Breed Clubs are but a similar attempt to set up priorities, standards of excellence and quality controls, like the old Soviet collectives were. Always striving for improvement and questioning ourselves and our motives; applying scientific principles, putting facts above fads and fashions; soundness of body and mind above all else as goals in breeding dogs, are what should inform our choices anywhere and everywhere. We have at least a simile of democracy so we must use it courageously against corruption and nepotism. Governments and committees must be changed as often as nappies – and for the same reason. Participation, education, communication, quality mentoring, open discussion and disclosure of information are essential to our community and to the health of our dogs. Today the meaning of success has been devalued to become a synonym of commercialism, profit and quantity, instead of quality – so a little bit of community spirit, for balance, wouldn’t hurt in redefining and restoring dog breeding values.  Individual ambition must serve the common good; instead of the quicksand of the winning drug, we ought to build on the robust principles of breeding dogs better.

And if some of these rare old classic lines still exist in Russia or elsewhere, breeders should preserve them at all costs. Survival of diverse populations is paramount for the species as a whole; breeds of cattle that have become genetically homogenized the world over, for example, could be wiped out overnight from a common disease if there isn’t a diverse strain somewhere, immune or highly resistant to that particular disease, to come to their rescue. So it’s important to repeat and spread and share the call for preservation breeding far and wide, understand it and revise the way we breed dogs, to make it healthier.

Finally, I hope that contemporary Great Dane breeders in Russia all read Tatiana’s book; it’s important for the records but also packs a powerful message, especially in the current state of the RKF; you don’t realize what you have until after you’ve lost it;  what they had back in the USSR was crucially valuable for genetic diversity; they can be proud of this history but don’t just put it in the museum to admire and mutter about the past: it’s a powerful tool to use for present and future; learn from the failures and might-have-beens. Because the age of pseudo-Dane mammoths is going to come to a crushing end, very soon. “You can fool some people some time but”…And we will be called upon to replace this problematic era with something reformed and valid and viable. For the love of Great Danes and all dogs.

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