The Heart of the Matter
Posted on 06/22/2005 in Ringside Conversations.
No dog - no matter how great, no matter how many Bests in Show it might have won - has it all. There never has been a perfect dog, and I sincerely doubt that there ever will be. Breed Standards do ask for it all however, 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.
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.
Aesthetics Take Hold
As function became less and less significant, and more emphasis was placed on form, the aesthetic components of form took hold in nearly all breeds. For instance, in Cocker Spaniels the long, low-set ears that 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 proportion 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?” For lack of a better term, we’ll call them the Right Wing Gang. To others (the Left Coasters?), aesthetic qualities (form) take precedence. “If it doesn’t look like the breed at first glance, you might as well have a mongrel!”
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 another group that has to be dealt with. As small as it may be, it is that very vocal group that feels all specimens of the breed would look like “Old Nell” buried out in the back paddock because, “She was a dear heart and one of the first.” (We’ll call this group the Dear Hearts). What was good enough for “Old Nell” is good enough for the breed!
This last group can be the most difficult to placate in that their demands are totally irrational and based on emotional considerations with no respect for rules of canine anatomy or locomotion. Incidentals such as these are not about to interfere with their devotion to you-knowwho. They would rather go to their own grave before betraying “Old Nell” and not seeing to it that the entire breed resembled her in at least some respects.
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 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?
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. But 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 take the time to give us.
The veterans of the dog game had such a gift when it came to defining this essence. Perhaps they did it in fewer words than what are needed today, but it certainly got the message across. They talked about breeds in terms that one seldom hears anymore. “The Borzoi, a breed that should be able to cut the wind like the razor’s edge.” “When you look a Peke in the face, think of a number ten envelope.” “If the Afghan doesn’t look right through you to his home in the Desert, he isn’t an Afghan.” “The Doberman should look like it was shot from a bow.”
Of course, these few words are not all that the breeds mentioned are, but if one can learn to recognize these characteristics in them, they will be a lot closer to the truth than someone who looks at the same dogs as piles of unrelated bones and muscles.
While the quotations I have just given you are admittedly simplistic, what the icons of dogdom and their peers were in fact referring to, was the aforementioned, “essence” of the breed. They reduced this essence to just a few words, but words that had meaning and lingered on far after all the anatomy lessons had faded into oblivion. Many of the best among the old timers did not know the scientific names for all the bones in the body of a dog. However, they did understand the mechanism and knew both what it should look like on a correct specimen, and how it should work. They could find the best of a lot in a New York minute (however long that is!).
Back some time ago, I did an article that was reprinted in many magazines and newspapers throughout the world. In it, I asked the reader to capsulize not just the content of their standard, but to define, in as few words as possible (no more than thirty or forty) what was most important about their breed.
This brief was for an imaginary but knowledgeable judge who had never judged their breed before but was called upon as an emergency substitute at the last minute. The judge had read the standard and just two minutes were left before he was to begin judging. It was the reader’s duty to brief the judge so he could do a creditable job.
The article created a great deal of interest and reaction. In fact, one English publication carried a monthly series asking successful breeders to define the essence of their breed within a given number of words.
This is not to say that defining the essence of a breed will end or eliminate the need for discussions of breed type. Hopefully these discussions will never end because it is from these dialogues that greater clarity and understanding evolves. But I think it is vitally important that we have common ground with which to base these discussions.
Also, we’ve got to help that poor judge (you know, the one waiting for the perfect one to come into his ring) to get on with the show!
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 Doral Publishing, Inc.