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Border Collie current and past
Border Collie current and past

Translations are more like corrections or clarifications. When standards are clarified, they usually get longer and, consequently, more exclusive. A standard that calls for feet to be “round, compact, catlike, standing well upon the toe pads,” is more restrictive than one that says feet must be “close, round and firm.” Revisionists tread cautiously because an imprecisely rephrased standard can have an impact on a breed’s genetic diversity.

Amending a standard for any reason is controversial for those entrenched in a time-honored tradition devoted to blueblood history (albeit a fanciful history, since geneticists tell us that very few breeds are as old as they were once touted). As one Greyhound breeder observed, “The torch handed to us was the perfect coursing dog. Our standard is taken word for word from what Stonehenge wrote in the 1860s. If we added more words to make it more explicit, it may end up being a Greyhound different than the one each one of us has in our head.”

But progress necessitates change. A handful of words differentiate an apple, an orange or a pear, but 13 varieties of apples require a larger lexicon. In his 1576 treatise, Of Englishe Dogges: The Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties, cynologist John Caius described the generic land Spaniel in 58 words: “The most part of their skins are white and if they be marked with any spots, they are commonly red, and somewhat great therewithal, the hairs not growing in such thickness but that the mixture of them may easily be perceived. Other some of them be reddish and blackish, but of that sort there be but a few.” Today, Caius’s dog has morphed into 13 f lushing Spaniel breeds. The Field Spaniel standard uses 973 words, short in comparison to the English Springer Spaniel standard, a 2,040 word descriptor.

Occasionally, words are added to explain what something is not. As one breed standard committee member noted, “There were lots of questions from judges about the preferred shape of the eye opening. So we said it’s acceptable as long as it’s not this, that or the other thing.” And at a California dog show, pointing to Mastiffs benched only a few feet from his St. Bernards, an exhibitor told me, “Sometimes breed clubs have to lengthen standards to differentiate their breeds from others so similar that, if marked differently, could be shown as Saints.”

When Words Fail Dressed in formal attire appropriate for the straitlaced Madison Avenue cocktail party that precedes every Westminster dog show, AKC VIPs sipped their drinks and talked candidly about breed standards.

A Doberman breeder, specialty and all-breed judge opined, “I’m not sure that the standard hasn’t been what’s wrong with some of the breeds, in that by naming and describing the criteria with which the animal is to be judged, the words lack exactness. When people bred to the standard, the animal changed and became what the words described. Also, some groups wrote the standard and have not been able to breed to that ideal, so now, they change the nuance of the words to fit the breed ideal. Making the dogs fit the words, and not vice-versa, is wrong.”

For instance, a standard that establishes criteria to develop the best muzzle shouldn’t include terms that are subjective or indefinite. Or as one judge said, “If the standard calls for a short muzzle, judges select dogs based on the shortest muzzles in the ring. The breed’s muzzle gets shorter and shorter. So you have to ask, ‘Shorter than what?’”

Another said, “Our standard calls for the ear, when pulled forward, to reach the eye. You see so many dogs in the ring now with longer ears. We always say, well, which eye is it supposed to reach, and is it pulled under the muzzle or over it? I have never seen a Golden Retriever with ears too short.”

Some breeders get so fixated on one attribute of the traditional standard that they are willing to sacrifice something more important. “For example, they may create a broad head but are willing to accept shorter legs and a longer back in order to do so,” another judge observed.

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