Breed Standard Maintenance

From You Said It, Dogs in Review February 2012

As a young person I used to love to dine at a regional restaurant that was extremely fashionable. The menu was completely original with outstanding signature dishes like creamy baked chicken that literally fell off the bone, a wonderful tangy green rice dish, a delicious frozen fruit salad and exquisite apple fritters made from apples grown in their own orchard.

Many famous celebrities dined there while visiting the area. Then, over time, I noticed some fraying of the carpet. Soon there was evidence of the wallpaper peeling. It all began to feel stale and spent, and it was clear the owners were no longer investing money in it.

Naturally, the public soon found other places to frequent. The restaurant has now long been closed. I often wonder what chain of events, what string of bad decisions, what refusal to accept new technologies and trends ultimately led to this sad end? 

We all understand through life experience that failing to maintain things that matter ultimately leads to their demise, whether it is our own health, our homes, our cars, our jobs, our relationships or what have you. Once you no longer put effort into being relevant, to keeping up with the times, to fixing the broken stuff, you have set yourself on the inevitable path of demise.

It is with this realization that I view certain aspects of the purebred dog fancy including its backbone — the breed standards. The very purpose of the breed standard is to keep everyone on the same page, to ensure there is a relatively singular, well-thought-through, clearly defined ideal. And yet, as I consider the various breed standards, I am seeing what looks to me like fraying carpet and peeling wallpaper.

Let’s first look at examples of non-compliance to breed standards. Whether we have situations where the standard fails to correctly describe the breed or the breeders have failed to adhere to the breed standard, we have the same mismatch of breed standard to dogs winning awards.

Let’s begin with Cocker Spaniels. The breed standard describes coat as, “… well feathered, but not so excessively as to hide the Cocker Spaniel’s true lines and movement or affect his appearance and function as a moderately coated sporting dog.” Read these words: feathered not so excessively …to… affect… function…as a…sporting dog. Is that really an accurate description of the desired Cocker Spaniel coat?

The Poodle standard states, “In all clips the hair of the topknot may be left free or held in place by elastic bands. The hair is only of sufficient length to present a smooth outline.” With my understanding of English terminology, the phrase, “only of sufficient length” means the minimum amount required.

Does this describe the Poodles of today with rubber bands down the neck to support the switch-fortified, gigantic headdress they now bear? It even states, “’Topknot’ refers only to hair on the skull, from stop to occiput. This is the only area where elastic bands may be used.”

The Cairn Terrier standard specifies, “height at the withers-bitches, 9½ inches; dogs, 10 inches,” but this is not what is being exhibited. There is even a propensity to surgically correct the tail of the Affenpinscher so it is held upright giving it a generic terrier silhouette, even though the breed standard states, “The natural tail is set high and carried curved gently up over the back while moving.”

It is also necessary to keep up with scientific research and appreciate that what might have been construed as ideal is, in fact, an error. A breed standard with fictional elements is very damaging. That’s a leaky roof, in my opinion.

The work lead by Professor Dr. Martin Fischer from the Friedrich Schiller University in Germany made many discoveries about dog structure and movement. One of them is that the upper arm is always in the same proportion across all dogs.

This notion that the “terrier front” consists of a shorter upper arm has thus been scientifically proven as inaccurate. For instance, the Lakeland Terrier standard states, “The shoulder blade is long in proportion to the upper arm, which allows for reasonable angulation while maintaining the more upright ‘terrier front.’”

Likewise, the Havanese standard also incorrectly states, “The upper arm is short.” Are these breeders in fact breeding for forward and straighter forehands thinking they are producing a unique shorter upper arm?

The study of color genetics has moved from theory to scientific fact and I wonder if the mid-20th century bias against white German Shepherds as genetically “weak” would have been so strident had it been known the white German Shepherd is simply a black dog with the double recessive at the E locus that prevents black hair from showing.

This is the same situation that gives us the white Puli, the Samoyed and countless other well-established and functional breeds. And does it seem logical that the Labrador Retriever standard provides for black Labradors (with black noses) and chocolate Labradors (with brown noses), but only allows yellow Labradors to have black noses when in fact, the “yellow” Labrador is simply a black or chocolate dog with the same recessive?

Depending on the situation, we should update breed standards to accurately describe the desired characteristics of the breed or enforce adherence to the existing breed standards where breeders and judges have strayed from the true ideal.

Continuing to ignore portions of ever more breed standards is a slippery slope that ultimately undermines the construct of the purebred fancy. We must recognize an outcome is inevitable; we can control it or fall victim to it — the choice is ours.

Do you have something on your mind regarding our sport? We’d love to hear from you. Send your 1,000-word think pieces to We cannot confirm receipt of entries nor guarantee publication.

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