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Impish Iggies

WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT BRINDLE AND BLACK-AND-TAN ITALIAN GREYHOUNDS?

Tatum Clinton Miller

According the to AKC breed standard for Italian Greyhounds, the only two disqualifying faults for the breed are as follows:

A dog with brindle markings. A dog with the tan markings normally found on black-and-tan dogs of other breeds.

I have known this for several years and always wondered what the reasoning was behind it, as it seemed to me that there must be a particular reason for banning these two very specific color patterns from the breed.

I had little luck in turning up research on the topic for a while, but recently discovered an anthology of old dog breeding/showing texts which shed light on the answer.

So why are brindle and black-and-tan IGs banned from the conformation ring? Here are the reasons:

The Whippet and the Toy Black-and-Tan Terrier (now split into the English Toy Terrier and Manchester Terrier breeds).

On IGs and Whippets

Around the time that dog showing was becoming established and the idea of registered “purebreds” was becoming culturally significant in Victorian England, Whippets were still considered a relatively new crossbreed. In 1888 John Walsh described the Whippet as

a cross between the Italian and the English greyhound, or between the latter and the smooth English terrier.

The same texts also notes how the breed was mostly limited to the “mining and artisan districts,” which indicates that these dogs were seen as accessories of the working class, used for sporting as the “poor man’s greyhound” and also for poaching.

A woman with two Whippets c. 1897. Due to frequent crosses with terriers and other breeds, the first Whippets were fairly heterogeneous in appearance and had both smooth and wire-haired varieties.

The Italian Greyhound, on the other hand, was seen as an old and “pure” breed which was favored by the social elite and featured prominently in Italian fine art as well as portraits of royalty. In 1904, Herbert Compton wrote of the breed:

Ancient and aristocratic is the ancestry of the dainty little dog Italy has given us. Its sensitive veins seem to throb with the bluest blood, and imagination domiciles it in palaces and noble mansions, lapped in luxury, not merely metaphorical, and fondled with jewelled fingers.

This difference in the social perception of the two breeds did not stop people from crossbreeding between them fairly regularly at the time, however. These crosses were not only working dogs but also exhibited in dog shows, much to the dismay of dog fanciers who wanted to limit the show ring to purebreds only. Even worse, crossbreeds often proved to be successful in the show ring when shown against “pure” Italian Greyhounds! One author laments:

There is no breed which shows more quality in conformation and movement than [the Italian Greyhound], when you get the genuine article, and you cannot blame the few who have bred and kept these dogs pure, for withdrawing from competition when their efforts are set at naught by half-bred terriers or whippets getting the prizes. We have seen at more than one show, dogs that looked like litter brothers to the whippets at the same show and these were the sort that won.

A Whippet c. 1897. This dog appears to have recent IG blood. Such early crossbreeds were hardly distinguishable from purebred IGs, and only formed a distinct type several decades later.

Even after the breed founding, Whippet blood was introduced again following the bottlenecks in IGs after the first and second World Wars. Virtually all modern IGs will have at least one Whippet in their pedigree, and most will have more. Below is a pedigree chart for my own dogs dating back to the mid 1800′s, with each recorded Whippet highlighted in red and circled for better visibility:

Despite the fact that Whippet crosses were once common practice in the breed, in later years, it became increasingly frowned upon by IG fanciers who wanted to keep the breed “pure,” though the brindle coat was not considered a disqualification until fairly recently due to a brindle IG who was successful in the show ring.

In spring 1976, a dog named Ch. Wilwyn’s Streaker won BOB in the Southern IGCA specialty show. However, since this particular dog was brindle, many fanciers were upset with his winning and suspected that he was actually a Whippet cross with a falsified pedigree. It caused such an uproar that the president of the IGCA at the time personally contacted the breeders of every dog in Streaker’s pedigree to collect data on their coat colors, eventually concluding that there was no chance that Streaker’s pedigree could be legitimate with his brindle coat.

Despite the fact that Streaker was a conformation champion who was apparently close enough to the breed standard for a judge to award him with BOB at an IG specialty, he was stripped of his title and went on to father no litters.

In December 1976, the IGCA revised the breed standard to make brindle a disqualifying fault, in hopes this would promote breed purity and discourage any potential crossbreeding between IGs and Whippets. Of course, the fact remains that an IG x Whippet cross can easily fly under the radar as long as their coat is anything but brindle.

Several years later, another purebred brindle IG was born, Flagstone’s Black Tye Affair. As this was after the color ban had been in place for years, it seems probable that this dog was in fact a purebred IG, proving that brindle remains in the gene pool for the breed. Though brindle is dominant over k which allows for a fawn coat, it’s recessive for the dominant black K and can also be masked by recessive red which is found in IGs. Though it’s certainly rare, there’s a possibility that brindle remains hidden in the gene pool even today, a testament to the close relationship of the Italian Greyhound and Whippet breeds.

Manorley May, one of the many Whippets included in my dogs’ pedigree.

On IGs and Terriers

As previously mentioned, IGs, Greyhounds, and terriers were all used as part of the blend of types to create the dog we now know as the Whippet. Sighthound x terrier crosses, called lurchers, are still commonly produced today as hunting dogs, combining the speed of the gazehound with the versatility and high drive of terriers. In the early days of the Kennel Club, IGs were also commonly crossed with terrier breeds, namely the the Black-and-Tan Terrier, albeit for much different reasons than the practical lurcher crosses.

Every community goes through various phases of fad and fashion, and the dog fancy is not exempt from this. In Victorian England, it was extreme miniaturization that was all the rage with dog breeders. Numerous breeds were bred down as small as possible, resulting in highly inbred, structurally crippled toy breeds, most of which went extinct by the early 1900′s. Here are several examples:

Pocket Beagle c. 1900

Toy Bull Terrier c. 1890

Toy Bulldog c. 1900

Unfortunately, the Italian Greyhound was also victim to this craze:

Although Italian imports were typically around 12-16 lbs, to British dog fanciers the ideal weight for a fully grown IG was about 5 lbs. One particularly successful show dog, a bitch named Molly, weighed just under 5 lbs and remained undefeated in the show ring until the day she went to her grave, “literally burdened with honours.” While the original Italian dogs were larger and fit for coursing game, the perfect British IG was seen as a delicate pet and wholly unfit for hunting. In 1903, William Drury wrote of the breed:

The dogs brought from Italy are also rather large and coarse, and it is not under the azure skies of their native home that those dogs have been brought to the greatest perfection, but rather under clouds of dense London smoke, and amongst the raw, chilling mists that surround them in their Scottish homes.

IGs used as rabbiting dogs. Though the original Italian imports were known as successful hunters, the Victorian ideal for the IG was a dainty companion dog rather than a small sighthound used for coursing game.

To achieve that “greatest perfection,” those dogs of minuscule size, some breeders chose to crossbreed IGs with the smaller toy-sized Black-and-Tan Terriers.

Though these crosses also introduced undesirable traits such as domed skulls and prick ears, they proved to be popular and successful in the show ring. John Walsh remarked in his 1888 book,

many of these cross-breds have been extremely beautiful, and the practice has enabled breeders to obtain a diminished size without loss of symmetry.

However, not all fanciers approved of these crosses, especially those who wished to maintain the purity of the breed.

Toy Black-and-Tan Terrier c. 1900.

In 1901, Harry Huntington wrote of his distaste for using an “infusion of terrier blood” to achieve the desirable tiny size, which he believed to be

so detrimental to the preserving of type and character, for [the Italian Greyhound] has an individuality all its own and as distinct as in any other breed.

So, what was the acceptable method of achieving small size in IGs? Heavy, repeated inbreeding. In 1904, the honorary secretary of the Italian Greyhound Club wrote:

In its own country the Italian greyhound is not a “toy dog”; I never saw one abroad that weighed under 8 lbs., and there are many ranging to 12 lbs and over. In England it take six years of careful inbreeding from true type to accomplish in size the diminution that can be achieved by a single cross with a toy terrier; but the fatal defects introduced by that cross take years to breed out.

Italian-bred IGs displaying the larger size found in native Italian breeding stock. 

One of the most famous and extreme examples of this kind of inbreeding was a dog named Gowan’s Billy,

whose grandsire, great grandsire, gg grandsire, ggg and gggg grandsire were all the same dog, imported from Italy. At the time he was generally admitted to be the most perfect specimen of his kind in England.

An illustration of Gowan’s Billy and another IG Minnie. Both dogs are found in my dogs’ pedigree.

Inbreeding to achieve diminutive size while preserving breed purity and type was noted to be common practice in these early years. This tight inbreeding around the founding of the breed has had long-lasting effects on breed health, especially when coupled with the bottlenecks that the breed suffered following both World Wars and the prolific use of popular sires such as Int. Ch. Ulisse di Peltrengo of Winterlea and UK Ch. Noways Matthew in the 1950′s. Low genetic diversity is commonly associated with increased incidence and severity of autoimmune disorders, and Italian Greyhounds suffer from more types of autoimmune disorders than any other known dog breed.

As early as the 1880′s, black-and-tan coloring in IGs was associated with terrier crosses and looked down upon in the show ring. In the 1930′s, black-and-tan coloring officially became a disqualification for the breed. It is interesting to note that theoretically it is entirely possible that the gene for tan points remains in the gene pool of pedigreed IGs, as it is highly recessive, and could possibly still show up through breeding purebred IGs. 

A 1934 Italian Greyhound exhibiting throw-back characteristics of the Toy Black-and-Tan Terrier, including black-and-tan coloration and prick ears.

Eventually it went out of style to breed such tiny, fragile IGs as were popular in Victorian England, but broken legs due to small size and poor bone density remain a common concern for the breed even today. And while the average size of American IGs today is significantly larger than those of a century ago, the preference for smaller rather than larger dogs remains, as stated in the illustrated breed standard that, “A good small dog is preferable to an equally good large one.”

A European IG c. 1970, displaying the desired diminutive size required by the FCI breed standard.

In summary, the reasons there are no brindle or black-and-tan Italian Greyhounds are the same as those behind most other color bans in breed standards: concerns over breed purity and plain old dog fancy politics.

Italian Greyhounds in Italy c. 1930; notice the dog on the left appears to be blue with tan points.