Caring about a particular breed of dog is a little bit like discovering a fabulous new restaurant: You want it to do well enough to stay in business, but not get so famous it's ruined by the popularity.
With dog breeds as with restaurants, if the secret gets out it can be a disaster. People who aren't suited for the breed buy a puppy and have trouble with it, and people who don't know enough to be breeding the animals start churning out pups.
Soon what attracted people to the breed disappears in a torrent of poor-quality animals with bad health and bad temperaments. The public moves on to the next "in" breed while reputable breeders, shelters and breed-rescue groups struggle to pick up the pieces.
Some call it the "cocker complex."
Years ago, the cocker spaniel was both a hunting dog and a charming companion, a happy little dog with brains, looks and charm. In the '40s, everyone had to have one, and then there weren't many good cockers left. Some were sick, some stupid and others nasty -- traits that still appear regularly in cockers today, despite the best efforts of reputable breeders.
Other breeds have also been damaged, including Dalmatians, German shepherds, collies, springer spaniels and Dobermans. Eye disease, deafness, hip dysplasia and excessive shyness or aggression are just a few of the problems that dog these breeds today, thanks to the problems of popularity. The more popular a breed is -- or was recently -- the harder you have to work to find a breeder who's producing puppies with sound temperaments and good health.
The people who don't know better or couldn't care less are now busy ruining another fine breed: the Rottweiler. With the breed's recent appearance at No. 2 on the AKC's hit parade, longtime fanciers are fighting to educate the public before it's too late.
"The first thing people should know is the rule isn't 'the bigger the better,' " says fancier Karyn Day. "They're not supposed to be 160pounds."
And that's not the only problem. The Rottweiler was developed to be a formidable guard dog, a breed many feel is not for beginners because of its dominant temperament. Yet like many guarding breeds, the Rottweiler has a tendency to attract the wrong kind of people: those who encourage their animal's dominance instead of controlling it through training, or those who buy out of fear of crime and end up with a dog they're afraid of.
"It's disgusting," says Ms. Day of the Rottweiler's popularity and the problems it's causing, such as an increase in attacks. "The problem is the people who own the dog. I tell people the Rottweiler is like a gun -- in the wrong hands it can be lethal. And too many are getting into the wrong hands."
Ms. Day is one of a number of Rottweiler fanciers who're looking beyond the American Kennel Club in their efforts to preserve the breed they love. The Nor-Cal Rottweiler Performance Club is made up of people who want a way to certify that the dogs they're breeding are the best of the best -- dogs with courage and intelligence, strength and agility.
"A good dog can do it all," says Ms. Day. "It can perform well in schutzhund [protection work] and then go into the show ring and say, 'Hi, how are you? I love you to death.' "
That kind of versatility is the goal of competitive events with standards and procedures based on those of the Rottweiler's home country, Germany, and put into play in this country by the American Rottweiler Verein, a new national organization.
Part of the activities at ARV shows include the Basic Breed Test to evaluate breeding stock. Dogs must be 2 years old, certified clear of hip dysplasia and tattooed for permanent identification before the test. The dogs are measured, checked for disqualifying faults and assessed. Courage is tested by making sure the animal isn't gun-shy or afraid of a menacing person; tractability is measured by obedience routines.
"These kinds of events are gaining popularity," says Ms. Day. "Your dog is individually critiqued, and his good or bad points read over the loudspeaker. It's educational."
It's also the Rottweiler fanciers' best chance of preserving the animal's outstanding qualities until the public chooses the next breed to love practically to its ruin.
For more information on the Nor-Cal Club, call Ms. Day at (916) 726-9508 or the American Rottweiler Verein at 13723 E. 24th St., Spokane, Wash. 99216; (509) 928-0211.