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Breed Character
Posted on 01/23/2009 in Ringside Conversations.

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Richard G. (Rick) Beauchamp
Many judges consider breed character one of the most important characteristics by which they evaluate the worth of a dog. Yet just as many exhibitors are really not clear on what breed character actually is. To help solve this predicament I define the term as follows: Breed character is the sum total of all the mental and physical characteristics that define not only what the breed should look like but also how it should conduct itself. A dog possessing great breed character give you all the clues to its origin and history and assists you in establishing that all-important vision of excellence for the breed.

Personally speaking, I consider breed character such an important characteristic of breed type that I have devoted an entire expanded chapter to it in the new, revised edition of my book, Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type. In that chapter I attempt to illustrate with both word and picture something that is actually more “essence” than it is measurable. Characteristics like height, length, size and color are easy to calculate and picture but breed character both includes and goes beyond these obvious characteristics.

In my longtime search to best illustrate what breed character is I came upon a drawing (Fig. 1) that I had filed away many years before to use as an example of what we did and did not want in the Bichon Frise breed. But coming across the photo these many years later I suddenly realized that it went beyond making a point for the Bichon breed; it was a graphic example of what a great difference breed character can make.

Fig. 1
If stance and elegance portray the ideal, which of these two ponies illustrate those characteristics best?
(From Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type.)

The correct Bichon is a small, elegant and smartly tailored breed that exudes an air of the aristocrat. The antithesis of the breed would be anything short-legged, awkward, and lacking in spirit and style. The elegant show pony in the background of the illustration is an animal whose stance and long elegant neck represent all that can be comparable to the Bichon’s breed character. The dwarf-like animal in the foreground represents the opposite.

Fig. 2
This drawing well represents what we should see in the quality Bichon Frise.
(Art entitled “White Gold” by Steven Hubbell from Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type.)

Of course this is not a literal translation of the breed character of the Bichon Frise, but when you compare the two ponies to the photo of the Bichon I have included (Fig. 2), I am sure you can understand the point that is being made.

Fig. 3a
A purebred Labrador Retriever, no doubt, but how closely does the dog follow the dictates of the breed’s standard?
(From Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type.)

Fig. 3b
There should be little doubt that even a precursory reading of the Labrador Retriever standard of excellence would make it easy to identify this dog as a quality example of the breed. He character-izes the origin and purpose of the breed.
(From Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type.)

Lest you think that breed character is applicable only to the decorative breeds I have also included photographs of two Labrador Retrievers, Fallshort’s Mister Blackie (Fig. 3a) and CH Ransom’s Armbrook Indigo Hue CD MH (Fig. 3b). Both are purebred Labrador Retrievers. Both trace back to blue-blooded ancestors and for the sake of argument we will concede that both are at least good gun dogs. What then makes the difference?

How does Indigo Hue’s picture score in respect to the elements of breed type as described in the standard of the breed? Obviously you could prop Indigo Hue’s picture beside the standard and follow along pretty much word for word.

Does this make Indigo Hue a perfect Lab? Not by any means. What it does do is illustrate what the Labrador Retriever looks like that “gives you all the clues to its origin and history and assists you in establishing that all-important vision of excellence for the breed.” His picture tells of an appropriately athletic and powerful dog whose physique equips him to participate in the most telling of land and water pursuits.

Correct breed character also tells us when we have gone too far in our quest for a dog that embodies all the characteristics of the standard. Americans particularly have a great penchant for going over the top – “if a little bit is good, then obviously a whole lot is better.” Not so! This is a trap that the specialist, regardless of country, can easily fall into.

For instance, although we want the Lab to be a dog of great substance with a slightly lower center of gravity than what might be considered average, he is most definitely not a barrel on legs - a dog whose obese body is slung over dwarfed legs that is barely able to move out of its own way or, heaven forbid, jump into a boat. (Some Labs I’ve seen in the show ring would sink a battleship!) Liking the Lab to an Olympic contender, he is neither the long distance runner nor is he the weight lifter. He should be seen as the Decathlon champion - capable and versatile.

Breed character is the most obvious thing about any dog when it enters a room or the show ring. Breed character is the immediate impression the dog gives at first sight. Stalwart determination personifies the Bulldog. The fine bone and light-footed agility of the Papillon add to the breed’s butterfly air. The Alaskan Malamute stands ready to transport you and all you own into the far horizon.

I have often quoted the late, great Cam Milward, master breeder of the Grenpark Fox Terriers, who wrote, “Breed type and character I see as being almost synonymous. I have heard people describe it as being the life and expression of the eye, mobility of the ears, tail carriage, correct construction - it is all of these and more - remember it is all the ‘collective peculiarities.’”

Matching every single detail of the Border Collie standard’s description of the breed would mean nothing at all if, in the end, the dog’s expression and attitude did not say, “I am ready to go. What’s next?”

If we can’t look at a dog and instantly recognize, by its general appearance and attitude, that it has the style and bearing appropriate to that bred, then it not truly that breed - in spite of what a pedigree and registration certificate might say.

We all love glamour and showmanship in the dogs we exhibit. Sometimes it is appropriate, sometimes it is not. What we must stop to consider, however, is how closely the dog in question follows the purpose and intent of its standard. Does in fact, the dog character-ize what the breed standard asks for?

(This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of BLOODLINES Magazine.)

The information contained in Mr. Beauchamp’s “Solving the Mystery of Breed Type” series that appeared in BLOODLINES, can be found in his book, Solving the Mystery of Breed Type, published by Kennel Club Books.