What Factors Go Into Determining Breed Type?

From "Success in Show Dogs," Dogs in Review, March 2012

Clarity is something we unfortunately do not always have an abundance of in the dog game. For that reason, many of its important facts remain unnecessarily vague. I concede breed type is extremely difficult to understand for those not blessed with an eye for it, but the components that create it are not. Recognizing the individual components that create this elusive thing that we call breed type is exactly what helps us to visualize it.

In order to recognize those components, however, we must have some rules, some guidelines to go by or we are left to grope in the dark for consistent meaning and eventually resort to individual interpretation. As we all know, individual interpretations may or may not be valid.

Modern-day thought would have us believe that our knowledge of purebred dogs in general and breed type specifically comes by way of the seminar. We used to get our “seminars” at the benched shows, soaking up every word uttered by those who had preceded us in the game and had success that earned them respect.

For the most part, benched shows are a thing of the past. The few survivors have become so large a person is lucky to find their way from one end of the site to the other, much less ever attempt to locate a particular individual at whose feet they can sit and learn. And so seminars – all the good, the bad and the ugly of them, as I’ve written in the past – have become our path to knowledge.

We have within our midst those who believe there are many different types and all of them are valid. I do not argue politics, religion or the fact that there is one type and one type only for a given breed. It is there or should be there within the words of the properly written breed standard. There are many interpretations of the standard, but those interpretations are styles. And none of those styles should ever contradict what a standard calls for.

But let me give you a very good example of the vagaries of dog terminology before we go on. A situation arose recently that serves as an example of what I am talking about.

A good friend had been invited to judge a specialty match in a breed other than his own. The actual breed makes little difference because what we are about to discover applies to many breeds. The friend anticipated a rather large entry and wanted to know if I could give him some input on type.

I did a bit of research and collected a good amount of material. As I plowed through the material for my own enlightenment I came upon some very well-described and illustrated points. I also discovered some perplexing omissions and contradictions.

Something I was looking for which the breed standard did not address was ideal proportions. In fact, the standard did not give much of a clue as to how much of hardly anything was desired. If proportions are the basis on which the entire dog is hung, as I believed, then I was left hanging in midair.

Proportions create the silhouette by which we recognize the breed. Correct proportions are what Anne Rogers Clark so astutely referred to as her “breed template,” through which she viewed all members of a particular breed.

That template is of course forged over a continuing period of time by reading, studying and observing, but it becomes tempered when one finally sees that “great one” for the first time. I like to call that one my “ah-ha dog.” (“Ah-ha, this is what all those books are talking about!”) Now all of the research has meaning.

Until an individual is able to form that rigid picture of the ideal, there is no possible way for the person to assess to what degree the dog (or any animal for that matter) departs from the ideal. And it is then and only then that the aspirant judge or would-be breeder is really able to expertly view one or a class of dogs and render a truly meaningful evaluation.

Individuals who are unable to do this are apt to fall into the trap of evaluating dogs on the basis of faults rather than to how closely they approach the ideal. Prior to developing the ability to recognize the ideal, selecting one from many or even evaluating a single dog is difficult at best and usually inconsistent.

If you know what a given breed’s proportions actually are and how they add up to the whole, you know a great deal about the breed. You know how much length of body you must have in relation to a dog’s height. You will also know how much of his total height is body and how much is leg. You will be aware of how much neck the breed should have and a myriad of other things like muzzle-skull relationships and in some cases, even details like length of tail and length of ear.

Now, how do you know if what you are acknowledging as “correct” is really so? How do you know if your “breed template” is not misleading? In some breeds, you will be told specifically so by the official breed standard. In other cases there are “illustrated discussions” of the standard published by the parent club that will tell you what the standard does not.

If the standard and the parent club have not provided you with the information you seek, the next obvious source would be “breed authorities.” This can be quite tricky nowadays, in that anyone who is able to so much as hunt and peck on a computer has become a self-ordained authority. Therefore you must exercise a bit of caution.

Not all books on a breed are written by experienced breed authorities. Nor can we always rely on the opinion of the handler or owner of the current top winner. In their minds their “mega-star” is perfection in all respects — “Just look at the dog’s record!” Make sure the handler or owner you ask for help is someone who truly understands the breed and can be honest and objective enough to give you a straight answer.
Back to square one
This all takes us back to the standard of the breed my friend was preparing to judge. The only thing about proportions that the breed standard told me was that the breed needed to be “symmetrical.”

According to Mr. Webster’s definition symmetrical is, “the quality of being well balanced or well proportioned.” That didn’t get me much closer to the specifics I was looking for, so I turned to several books available on the breed in question. They appeared to be well researched by competent breed authorities.

However, the closest I could get to specific proportions was that the breed was “slightly longer in body than it was tall.” What I also found was one author measured the distance from withers to set on of tail to determine the breed’s body length, another took the measurement from point of shoulder (forward most protuberance of the shoulder blade) to buttocks as length of body, and a third writer measured from point of sternum to root of tail to calculate body length.

The authors measured three entirely different portions of the anatomy to determine body length. If you doubt what a huge discrepancy this represents, try it on your breed! If one uses the distance from withers to set on of tail as needing to be longer than the dog is tall, the dog is going to be much longer in body than if we were to use the measurement from point of shoulder to buttocks.

Who is right? Who is wrong? The standard doesn’t give you the answer and the information gleaned from three very authoritative books is contradictory.

The respective authors may well be able to substantiate their positions, but I am just as sure you can see what a great disparity these differences create, a disparity that could easily be remedied by a standard that explicitly stated correct proportions.

I am quite certain that every person who breeds or judges this breed or the vast number of other breeds that leave a great deal to be decided upon by the interpreter, have resolved this and similar problems in their own way. Many people feel that it is not the responsibility of a standard to give such specific information.

I can certainly sympathize with the resistance a parent club might have to opening up their standards to any change. I wonder though if it is not time to rethink the old adage, “dog standards are written for those who know the breed.” So many of our authorities who “know the breed” have left us. Many more will go as time passes. Soon we will be left only with what is written. 

Exactly what we want has to be put down somewhere and in terms understood by all who read the requirements. There are many characteristics that constitute a breed’s essence, but if they are not stated as such, or if not stated in a clear and consistent manner, they can be lost forever. I can speak from experience of some breeds whose fanciers are so far removed from the truth of their breed that even if the rare “great one” were to pass before them, it would go unrecognized.

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