The Evolution and Interpretation of Breed Standards

Success in Show Dogs, Dogs in Review May 2011

Dogs in Review

Just recently I was judging English Cockers, one of my favorite spaniel breeds, when into the ring came a dog of such true standard quality that he made me do a double take. He had all those things that longtime breeders strive for and veteran judges regret they so seldom find — that well-sprung rib cage, depth of forechest, properly set and carried tail and those ham-like hindquarters with that distinctive “fanny” that allows the breed its “bustling action.” All of this set off by that distinctly unique English Cocker head and expression — neither English Setter nor American Cocker.

So that the reader doesn’t think my decision was based on a flight of fancy, allow me to say that he equally impressed a fellow Sporting dog judge on another day of the weekend. Mind you, not just another Sporting Group judge, but someone for whom I have enormous respect. At any rate, the dog’s Best of Breed win sent him into the evening’s Sporting Group and when he was given his opportunity to show on his own I could not help but overhear one of the two judges in conversation behind me remark, “Hmm, doesn’t even look like an English Cocker.” We can only hope (pray?) that Sporting breeds are not part of their repertoire. 

In all fairness to these judges, however, I think that it is important to shed a bit of light on the English Cocker’s background and its transition from England to America’s show rings. Through the early days of dog shows in England and the 1800s, a spaniel’s breed was more often determined by its size at maturity than anything else. Thus the “Springing,” “Cocking,” FieldClumber and Sussex Spaniels could all easily have emerged from the same bloodlines if not the same litter.

By the turn of the century the Cocking or Cocker Spaniel enjoyed interest and success on both sides of the Atlantic. And although those breeding the English-type Cocker and those breeding the American type had different goals in mind for their dogs they were interbred and shown in the same classes. In 1938 a meeting was held by the fanciers of the English-type Cockers to cease interbreeding the two Cockers. It was declared an English Cocker was a “dog or bitch of the Cocker Spaniel breed whose pedigree can be traced in all lines to dogs or bitches which were registered with the English Kennel Club on or before Jan. 1, 1930.” 

However it was not until 1946 that the two Cockers were officially separated by the AKC. Each went its separate way with the English fanciers maintaining the English standard that was developed in the early 1900s. Those favoring the American style developed a standard that would assist in achieving the dog they envisioned. American English Cocker fanciers have basically adhered to the original English standard with only minor subsequent revisions. The same cannot be said for the dogs themselves that gives way to our two judges saying, “Hmm, it doesn’t even look like an English Cocker.”

As the years have passed, the American version of the English Cocker has developed within the English Cocker breed. You see it in the longer-headed, heavier-muzzled, much more racy type dog. In some cases the dogs border on English Setter rather than English Cocker type. Much of what I considered so “Cockery” and attractive in the dog I put up has been lost in deference to a much more eye-catching, stylized-but-incorrect version of the breed.

So in defense of our two chatting ladies, if all they have ever seen, or ever seen win, is the “new, modern show-dog version” of the English Cocker, should we expect them to appreciate the real thing? Perhaps not, that is unless one has concerns for the loss of correct type in the breed. The more who are exposed only to this breed spinoff, and the more it is sanctioned, the greater the danger for what the breed is supposed to be.

I would venture to say that with some breeds, those breeding and judging them have never seen a specimen that represents what the breed was and could be. How would someone who has seen only the alternative and never the ideal, appreciate what they are actually looking at when and if it does come along? The unfortunate part is that so many wrong examples are in the ring, and winning. Judges (and exhibitors) begin to see them as being correct — and begin to look for and reward them. This has a devastating effect on the breed as a whole at least to the purists. This is true in many other breeds as well. Popularity in the show ring seems to have that effect.

Further complicating the matter is that often these variations within their respective breeds are very good dogs. They are in fact good dogs, but not particularly good specimens of the breed. They are well-made, sound, move well and carry the breed’s characteristics in a general sort of way, but they lack the defining elements that create superior breed type. Unfortunately the purists will often criticize those who reward these dogs by telling them they are guilty of putting up “bad dogs.” Actually this is not true. They are in fact good dogs, but they are not the dogs that will help maintain the unique qualities of their respective breed.

Change or Development
Those who know no better confuse change with development. They are not the same! Breed development is taking the respective breed ever closer to the ideal — eliminating characteristics that detract from an ability to perform or to achieve a particular look.  

To illustrate the difference between development and change I have often used the analogy of a woman taking a suit to her seamstress so that it will fit better. That’s development. She doesn’t take the suit to the tailor to have it made into a Versace gown. She takes it there for an adjustment — to make it right. When she wants a gown for William and Kate’s coronation ball she goes out and buys one.

This veering off course into an entirely different direction can occur subtly, slowly and with no real intention to bring about a radical change. One need only to look at the American Cocker transition in hair alone. In many cases those involved are not even aware the changes are taking place. I don’t think it occurs maliciously or with an utter disregard for a breed.

Nor do I believe that this might be the first time in history that situations such as this have ever existed. I do believe, however, that the opportunities for this taking place are more prevalent today than ever before because we have more people with no intention of breeding dogs and who exhibit dogs simply because they enjoy the competitive aspects of the dog game  the thrill and excitement of the win.

Certainly no crime in that, and I can think of a good many competitive activities that do the individual far less good and a great deal more harm. We dog-breeding purists need to remind ourselves that people show dogs for all kinds of reasons. While some use dog shows as a means of comparing their achievements to that of their peers, others may have entirely different reasons for being there.

Why Does It Happen?
Why do breeds drift off in the first place? There are a variety of reasons of course, but quite frankly I believe it has much to do with a preponderance of cases when we have those “breed explosions” that occur when knowledgeable and influential breed experts pass away or cease breeding.

The influence of these individuals I am inclined to refer to as “master breeders,” is greatest within their own generation — that in which they are actively breeding and exhibiting. They are there to produce proper examples and to access the quality of dogs presented by their peers. Their knowledge and opinion is held in high regard because they are able to consistently produce superior stock themselves. But just as important they have the ability to apply their vast storehouse of knowledge across the board, so to speak. They can appreciate a good one regardless of who bred it, who owns it or the bloodline it represents.

The influence of these masters diminishes somewhat upon their retirement from breeding or judging. Unfortunately it is at this point that innovations can occur. The masters are no longer present to access and call a halt to inappropriate changes or drifts. Consequently the breed begins blowing off into new, often irreversible directions. As generations pass and the fanciers of a breed are further and further removed from “the source” of breed knowledge, the wider the variation spectrum becomes.

All that is needed is a dominant winner or heavily bred-to variation to come along and the breed can become severely altered and totally removed from its origins and purpose. It often takes great courage and often years of thankless crusading before the landslide can be brought to a halt and some semblance of proper type can be restored.

It is not only up to the occasional crusader to employ checks and balances; this responsibility lies with each and every person who breeds a litter or judges a dog show. Agreed, there are breeders and judges who have not had the benefit of seeing what a breed can and should be, but this does not relieve them of the responsibility they have to study, research and seek guidance.

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Dogs In Review

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