Getting to the Bottom of it All
Posted on 07/13/2012 in DED News.
Getting to the Bottom of it All
Richard (Rick) Beauchamp
No dog - no matter how great, no matter how many Bests In Show it might have won - has it all. There has never been a perfect dog, and I sincerely doubt that there ever will be. Breed standards do ask for it all, how- ever, and rightly so. It’s a case of the old adage that goes something like, “If you’re going to bother shooting, shoot for the moon!” You may not hit the target every time you shoot, but you sure as shootin’ aren’t going to hit the moon ever, if you don’t at least try.
Saying this, however, does not imply that the world’s largest atomic cannon needs to be used make your shot. (You’ll get a better understanding of the latter as you read along.)
Breed standards describe, in greater or lesser detail, what the ideal specimen of a particular breed should, and, in the case of a good many of our standards, should not look like. I say “in greater or lesser detail” in that there are some standards whose message amounts to only a few hundred words while others take ten times that to make their point.
In reality, a good part of the reason for this inconsistency in word count is that the good shorter standards waste few words explaining what the breed should not look like. On the other hand, there are standards that devote nearly half their word count to describing what isn’t wanted.
Words - in some cases, a lot of them, in others, just a few - but what were they intended to mean? Let’s go back in time a bit in order to understand what standards were originally and what and why they have become what they are today.
How It All Began
In the beginning, breed standards described the construction of animals created to fulfill a particular function. Later, when exhibitions and competition became popular, standards for dogs with no particular purpose other than to look pretty in a particular way were added. Then, as time marched on in its own obstinate way of doing so, two things happened.
First, the opportunity for dogs to perform in their intended function became less frequent. As urbanization expanded, and a more sophisticated lifestyle developed, there were fewer opportunities for the gun dogs and sighthounds to hunt, the draught dogs to haul or the scenting breeds to trail.
Second, because of these societal changes, standards became theoretical rather than practical guidelines. That is, our standards described certain characteristics that would, in theory, permit a dog of a given breed to perform in a prescribed manner.
“Esthetics” Take Hold
As function became less and less significant, and more emphasis was placed on form, the esthetic components of form took hold in nearly all breeds. For instance, in Cocker Spaniels, the long, low-set ears were a matter of function in that they helped carry the scent to the nose. As field Cockers decreased in number, but increased as popular pets, those long, low-set ears were prized as points of beauty rather than as functional.
As more time passes and a breed grows in popularity, the number of fanciers increases in direct pro- portion to the level of popularity. A high percentage of the new fanciers become breeders, as well. Each of them has yet something else they consider vital to the character of the breed - these characteristics become their agenda.
To some, only characteristics denoting ability to perform (function) are of consequence. “What good is the dog if he can’t do what the breed was intended to do?” To others, esthetic qualities (form) take precedence. “If it doesn’t look like the breed at first glance, you might as well have a mongrel!” Unfortunate.
So when time moves along, and adjustments to the standard are made, it must be obvious there are problems to be dealt with other than describing what the breed looks like and what it was intended to do. Both the Right Wing Gang and the Left Coasters must be placated.
And, just to confuse the situation a bit more, we have yet another group whose input, sooner or later, also influences what the standard (actual or unwritten) says. They come from the school that pays allegiance to what I call the Dolly Parton school of dog breeding - if a little bit is good, more is better. Ms. Parton believes, “more is more and less is less.”
Thus, if long ears are considered esthetically pleasing for our Cocker, very long ears become something that causes many to wax ecstatic. In their minds, the thought of the breed being a hunter does not even enter the picture.
So, repaired, amended or clarified, standards include that which was written in the beginning plus all the compromises and interpretations that occur as time has passed. The interpretations include those of the knowledgeable and the not so knowledgeable - all people who dearly love the breed.
Where does this leave the person who is trying to learn what the standard and all its implications really mean? What dog, or even dogs (that the beginner might see) could possibly achieve all the variations and personal interpretations that time have brought about? How do they separate fact from fancy?
What Really Counts?
The answer is none of them! And this takes us back to where we started in this article. That is, the breed standard is primarily an overview of what the ideal specimen of the breed could be. It is what lies at the core of these lists that the student of a breed is actually after - what many of us refer to as the heart of the matter or in the vernacular of purebred dogs, “the essence of the breed.”
In my mind, this is the most important thing to know about any breed - those few words that vividly capture what the heart and soul of a breed is. Yet, it is the one thing that few, if any, standards - especially those that have undergone the “surgery” of time - actually give us.
Richard G. (Rick) Beauchamp has been successfully involved in practically every facet of purebred dogs: breeding, exhibiting, publishing, writing. He is the author of numerous breed and all breed books including the best-selling Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type and Breeding Dogs for Dummies. He has judged all breeds throughout the world and was one of the United Kennel Club’s first all breed judges.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of BLOODLINES Dog Event News.