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Judging the Kelb tal-Fenek

My love for the Kelb tal-Fenek started when I was quite young. Since my childhood I have had various opportunities to be invited for a hunt. Today, I am an active keen hunter, and therefore I am well engaged in the breed. In our family we presently own three Klieb tal-Fenek, which we successfully show and which are also used for hunting wild rabbits. I am also a promoter of the Kelb tal-Fenek overseas, and have exported nine puppies from my kennel "Tal-Wardija” to Denmark, Germany, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the USA to inject new blood - which I believe is imperative for the breed’s future. 

I act as a judge for field trials for hunting dogs in Malta as well as in local Kelb tal-Fenek speciality shows. I have judged Klieb tal-Fenek at breed specialities in The Netherlands, Sweden and the USA.

During these past years I have attended and participated in many dog shows around the world and I am quite dismayed at the judging situation. There are many judges who, in my opinion, really understand the Kelb tal-Fenek and judge the breed with a superior ability. However a large number of judges unfortunately judge this breed as they do any other breed, not taking into account that the Kelb tal-Fenek is a unique breed and as such should be judged specifically on these grounds.  

Some major faults that are not being highlighted in the breed include: 

  • straight front

  • Serious lack of under-jaw

  • Over-angulated rear 

Let us begin with the first major fault. First of all, let me remind you all that the KTF is a hunting dog used in Malta to hunt rabbits over rough and rocky terrain. It therefore requires the agility of a properly formed front for ease of movement. A straight front, caused by a lack of forechest, looks absolutely inappropriate on the Kelb tal-Fenek, and makes the dog incorrectly constructed. This would automatically make its movement restrictive on the land that it hunts, and therefore a bad hunter – not being able to perform the work it was originally bred to perform. In the show ring, side movement should easily reveal this fault.

The lack in under-jaw is unfortunately being seen too often in the show rings. This shortcoming makes the dog look snipey. A dog with a lack of under-jaw will not be able to perform the task of catching rabbits, since it lacks the power of bite to catch and kill its prey.  

Over-angualtion at the rear is also being seen more and more in the show rings. The reason is quite obvious. A dog with an over angulated rear is much more eye catching, and looks stunning in the show ring. Breeders have altered the breed for this purpose - and this is not correct. We have to realize that the Maltese terrain requires a dog whose hunting abilities are based on high intelligence, stealth, agility, sight, hearing, and lastly speed. Therefore its construction requires a moderate bend of stifle, not an over angulated one. One must be aware that the Kelb Tal-Fenek's hunting ability is directly related to this. An over-angulated dog would certainly lack the necessary agility and therefore risk ending up with broken legs. 

Other points that I have noticed in the show rings, which were not brought to light by the relative judges, include: 

  • Elbowing out

  • Dogs too broad / wide (not slim)

  • Incorrect set ears 

Elbowing out indicates a massive and powerful dog. The Kelb Tal-Fenek is not such a type. It should be of “Sight Hound” construction, but of slightly heavier build – and the emphasis here is on “slightly”! 

Again a broad Kelb tal-Fenek cannot be “lithe” in construction. Incidentally, “lithe” is a requisite of the breed and is commonly being ignored. The word “lithe” in the Oxford dictionary means, “to be flexible, nimble and agile”. Certainly no broad or heavy dog would enjoy these attributes. I have also seen many critiques where judges commented favorably on a “perfectly straight top line”. This is totally incorrect. A Judge writing similar remarks certainly does not know the breed. The standard calls for “an almost straight top line”. The almost straight top line gives the breed the required agility and flexibility – hence “lithe”.  

Incorrectly set ears do not constitute any reduction in hunting prowess. But it does deduct from the perfection of the breed. They should be “medium high set” according to the standard. In other words at “5 minutes to 1” and not at “10 minutes to 2”, as in the Podenco Canario. Lets face it – an esthetically formed head is much more pleasing to the eye.  

There are many other features (faults) within the standard that judges fail to highlight. I will not delve into these, not because they are not important, but because they are, maybe, not as blatant as the above-mentioned faults. Also, if I were to discuss further points, this article would not be only a three-page article. Let me however make one point absolutely clear – the perfect dog has yet to be born! As breeders, we should all be conscious and acknowledge our dogs’ faults. We must constantly endeavor to breed only according to recognized basic principals and breeding ethics – always for the benefit of the breed.  

I have intentionally not included any photos of any dogs to illustrate these faults. I have done so in order not to offend. This article is, in fact, not intended to hurt or insult any breeder, nor is it meant to do any injustice to any judge. The purpose of this article is solely to bring to light certain deficiencies in the method of judging the breed, so that future judging might be performed appropriately and more concentrated on the genuine breed type, for the ultimate benefit of the Kelb tal-Fenek itself.  

A knowledgeable specialist judge once told me, “They have changed the breed”. This comment hit me hard, since I realized the intensity of his words. Let us, as breeders, put a stop to breeding malpractice forthwith for the benefit of the Kelb tal-Fenek.  

My appeal is truly honest and sincere. “Let us, as breeders, avoid the ruin of this wonderful breed through selfishness, romancing and wishful thinking. Let us not change the breed, as we know it today, solely for the purpose of winning at the show rings. We could otherwise risk the loss of the Kelb tal-Fenek as it has been bred in Malta by countless generations throughout the centuries”. 

To all judges my plea is on similar grounds. “As judges, we have an obligation - an obligation to promote the correct type in accordance with the breed standard. We should award the correct type of dog, and be honest in our critique with all dogs. Unless we do so, we will unwittingly be instigating a change in the make up of the breed – something, I am sure, that all judges are not prepared to do”.

Peter Gatt