Success In Showdogs

What Governs Your Powers of Observation?

“A child learns to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, but it takes years for an adult fully to understand its implications. To understand every requirement and implication of a breed standard takes time and application; judges and breeders never stop learning — the judge who knows it all has yet to be born.”

-Tom Horner, Take Them ’Round Please

There is certainly nothing new in the quotation given above. However, those who understand what breed type is are aware of how little the ability to memorize actually has to do with good judging and good breeding.

The American Kennel Club’s current reemphasis on a judge applicant’s ability to memorize is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction. I can readily name any number of individuals who can rattle off breed standards and their accompanying disqualifications as easily as turning on a water faucet. The words flow like water from a faucet.

I admire these individuals without reserve. I admire their ability to memorize. That said, with few exceptions I would never ask them to buy a dog for me. They know every one of the words contained in a given standard and little of their meaning.

These are not isolated cases. They permeate all levels of purebred dogs; no one is innocent: not breeders, exhibitors or judges. This inability to see “the picture” is not caused by having a good memory, but stopping at memorization and proceeding no further is where the problem lies.
Memorizing a standard tells us things like a given breed must have a well laid back shoulder, what the breed’s legs should look like and do, as well as how the breed might behave. What the ability to memorize does not and cannot enable us to do is recognize a top-quality specimen when it appears before us.

Why, you might ask, is this so? Would not total familiarity with the standard automatically lead us to the best dog? One might erroneously think so, but the breed standard tells us of the parts and not the whole.

In another publication, dog judge, breeder and psychologist Elliott Weiss made reference to the great advances made during the past two decades in regard to understanding the human brain and how it works. What scientific research has discovered is not only fascinating, but sheds great light upon the differences we see in the approach the dog fancier may have to breeding and judging.

Although it is somewhat an oversimplification here, Weiss’ article explains that the left side of our brain controls our mechanical thinking — where we might weigh and measure each part of a whole. The right side of our brain is our artistic side, our creative side. The right side of our brain assists in creating a total picture.

Most educational opportunities within the dog game reinforce what we already know — what we’ve learned by reading a given breed standard. The seminars and lectures are left-brain oriented and assume that once the parts are examined and become recognizable, the best animal will emerge from the group. The lessons are most apt to send the student in one of three possible directions:

a) Looking for the dog that has a preponderance of the correct parts  
b) Looking for the dog that has the fewest incorrect parts
c) Eliminating the dog or dogs that have the most incorrect parts

Unfortunately, none of these avenues leads us to recognizing the best dog.

Again referring to Weiss’ article, he writes of discussions he had with breeders of the master class —  whose influence on their respective breeds was the result of creating a crystal-clear picture of what they were attempting to accomplish and not straying from that picture in selecting or breeding.

I say these breeders were of the master class because the results of their breeding programs were indeed artistic triumphs. This is not to say they totally ignored common sense (the left side of their brain), but their decisions were based overall on the grand design — that picture they had created mentally of the ideal dog of their breed.

They did not bring in dogs that excelled only in the single characteristic they were looking for. They used dogs that first and foremost remained within the overall picture they had in mind that could possibly assist in improving a given characteristic as well.

I know of breeders whose kennels house some of the best dogs of their given breed. The dogs, however, are of such diverse styles that they as a whole do not add up to any one picture nor have the matings of these quality animals yet to produce any recognizable picture. This is not to say that no winners have evolved. On the contrary. Winning dogs have resulted, but while they are certainly recognizable as their breed, there is not the remotest clue to the fact that they may have come from the same kennel.

Today there is so much emphasis given on the parts of a dog and to what degree they do/do not appear that the one outstanding dog may well be missed in the process. In this approach the dog with the least flaws and faults triumphs and only those who truly understand their breed realize that a lack of faults does not result in quality. The process does, however, give us the generic “show dog,” “the all-rounder’s dream,” where there is little to criticize, but just as little to admire.

My book, Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type, was published a decade ago. I must admit that at the time I was not consciously thinking of understanding breed type as a right-brain process. But as time has passed, I have learned that practically the entire book is a training manual for those who wish to fully engage their right brain in evaluating purebred dogs. It is in this manner that recognition of the truly outstanding dog will come.

It’s important to remember that while excellent information regarding conformation may be found in books about farm animals, livestock is bred and judged for overall consistency of quality. Purebred dog judging has us look for the superior animal from the group.
A word of caution here, I do not mean to imply that left-brain thinking is of no consequence in evaluating dogs. Being able to recognize the correct lay of shoulder or turn of stifle is of consequence, but neither of those anatomical issues should interfere with finding and rewarding the best dog in a lineup.

The latter does create some confusion for many left-brain thinkers who are quick to reduce their pictures to black and white — the sound dog versus the typey dog. They would be quick to ask if one should ignore all faults because a dog is “pretty.”

This is far from what is being advised. What is being said is that the best dog (the dog with the most quality) in a class despite a flaw or faults should be rewarded to the extent of its quality. One should not allow themselves to fall into an “either/or” trap (to which left-brain thinkers are most vulnerable).

It is the entire picture that makes the great one, and although a dog’s designation as such comes through having all or most of those parts, it is the dog’s unique ability to unite and operate them correctly that elevates it to a level of distinction.

There have been dogs I have known through the years that I would summarize as being a highly successful sum of their parts. Among them dogs like the Irish Terrier, Ch. Rock Ledge Mick Michael, the English Foxhound, Ch. Stewart’s Cheshire Winslow, the Clumber Spaniel, Ch. Clussexx Billy Goat’s Gruff, the Kerry Blue Eng./Am. Ch. Torum Scarf Michael, and the Bichon Frisé, Eng./Am. Ch. Paray’s I Told You So — the latter two great winners in both the US and England.

The operative word here is “sum” rather than “parts.” If you can make that distinction, you are in fact drawing from the right side of your brain and it will help tremendously in understanding why some dogs  go down in history as having had great type while others do not.
The more thought I gave this matter, the more I realized that the great mentors I have been so fortunate to have had seldom spoke of a breed’s parts, but rather of its quality; how certain dogs epitomized what in fact defines a breed.

Perhaps concentrating more heavily on what constitutes excellence, rather than the pieces of what is tantamount to a jigsaw puzzle, will get us past this generation of generic show dogs.

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Dogs In Review