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Breed Standards 101

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420 – February, 2016

By William Given

I have had, on occasion, judging colleagues speak to me of their excitement about a judging assignment where they had the opportunity to get their hands on a dog of a given breed that was closer to the standard of perfection than any they have ever judged. I have also had fellow breeders express the sense of joy they experienced in breeding a dog that comes far closer to meeting the standard than any they have bred before. Without the existence of breed standards neither of the experiences mentioned above could have significance.

However, before conscientious breeders can breed and before judges can begin the process of evaluation which will end with the selection of the dogs closest to the standard of perfection, there has to exist a standard of perfection. A document of this type is much more useful if there exists a consensus as to what constitutes the ideal specimen in a given breed.

History of Standards

It is widely acknowledged that organized dog shows were first held in England more than a century-and-a-half ago. Breed standards did not exist at that time. Those chosen to serve as judges were knowledgeable dog men; they were all well-respected and their opinions mattered greatly. What impressed a judge at a show one day was, quite often, different from what another judge felt was deserving of recognition at the next dog show. A written standard describing the ideal specimen of the breed serves to promote consistency as conformation judges travel the path to find the best dog.

The whole concept of these canine conformation competitions might have capitulated to controversy and dematerialized as a result of disappointments had it not been for the presence of a most enlightened physician and sportsman. His name was Dr. John Henry Walsh. It was he who originally devised the system of standards meant to end the mounting chaos and bring consistency in judging to the growing hobby of dog shows. Dr. Walsh surrendered his profession to his passion. He was the editor of the English country sports magazine, The Field. He was one of the most knowledgeable men in England on fox hunting with horses and hounds, as well as bird hunting over dogs. Dr. Walsh had the respect of virtually every man who shared his love of country sports and of dogs. He also possessed the strength of character as well as the resolve to take the appropriate action to foster increased integrity of the sport.

Dr. Walsh sought out men who were knowledgeable and experienced in other breeds and solicited their ideas and recommendations. He then set himself to the task of writing standards for each of the breeds being judged at the time. These breed standards were utilized for many years, even well after his death in 1888. Additionally, they were, to some extent, the standards used here in the United States until the American Kennel Club established breed standards of their own.

Long before the American Kennel Club recognized the need to establish rules and regulations concerning the registration of the dogs entered in its contests, the AKC had designated committees to prepare breed standards. Since the AKC was created to standardize competition at dog shows across the United States, the leadership of the organization realized that breed standards were of critical importance.

Some breed standards go unchanged for many decades. For example, the standards for the English Foxhound and the Scottish Deerhound were approved in 1935. However, concepts in breed perfection naturally evolve over time. Additionally, it seems that in each new generation of the leadership of a parent club there comes a desire for individuals to make their contribution to the breed by making some changes in the standard. So, breed standards seldom go unchanged for great periods of time. There is, of course, some danger in this because, too often, when a deficiency is eliminated in one aspect of the standard, another is introduced.

Type, Form and Function

The primary responsibility of a breed standard should be to list, define and describe the elements of type by the breed which identifies it from the other 189 recognized breeds. This summary of breed type can be and very often is expressed in a single paragraph, and the reader begins to form a mental picture of the dog as a whole with respect to the functional history which may apply to the origin and development of the breed. Only a dozen of the breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club do not have a lead paragraph describing the general appearance in the breed standard, among them are six hound breeds, four terriers, the Italian Greyhound and the Lhasa Apso.

This introductory paragraph on breed type can be followed by a more detailed description of the elements of the breed’s structure, assembly, performance, temperament, condition, and any unique features or degrees of emphasis in the separation of this breed from all of the other breeds. Is it possible that the standards would be more helpful if they contained some ratio of importance of particular features over others. There are 16 standards that have what is referred to as a scale of points or value of points. The Poodle Club of America has the following in its standard for the three varieties:

Value of Points

General appearance, temperament, carriage and condition 30

Head, expression, ears, eyes and teeth 20

Body, neck, feet and tail 20

Gait 20

Coat, color and texture 10

Understanding Standards

We should query, in using the word “standard,” does it suggest that the written descriptions of breed characteristics and breed type, as they apply to the elements of perfection, need be stated as “should be,” rather than as “are” as they appear is some breed standards? The use of the word “are” does imply that there is no room for improvement. Far too often, we find words such as “correct,” “fair,” “fine,” “good,” “nice” and “pleasing” used in reference to one trait or another. We can also find “but not too” used as an adjective with “broad,” “deep” and “long” which give malleable meanings that can be open to individual interpretation.

Almost every breed standard has weaknesses. And these slight failings are, unfortunately, more often the rule rather than the exception. It should be noted that even if a standard is illogical or obviously incorrect, it stands correct and official until and unless it is revised by the parent club and then approved by the AKC.

To illustrate my point, we will use the Official Standard of the Labrador Retriever. My Lab is more than twelve years old and has not been in the ring in many years, so it will not cause her any social angst. It comes from my copy of The Complete Dog Book, 16th Edition, Fourth Printing, 1982. The standard was approved by the AKC on April 9th, 1957.

It states under Head – The eyes should be of a medium size, expressing great intelligence and good temperament, and can be brown, yellow or black, but brown or black is preferred.

However, under Color the standards adds:

(a) Blacks: …preferably brown or hazel, although black or yellow is permissible.

(b) Yellows: …the same as that of the blacks.

(c) Chocolates: Eyes to be light brown to clear yellow.

Eye color was addressed in the 1994 revision and now reads: Eye color should be brown in black and yellow Labradors, and brown or hazel in chocolates. Black, or yellow eyes give a harsh expression and are undesirable.

Making Revisions to Standards

The American Kennel Club will of course encourage a parent club to revise its breed standard once it has been made aware of a glaring error. However, the vast majority of revisions in breed standards commonly begin with concerned individuals of the breed’s fancy or dedicated member-breeders.

No standard will ever be changed unless a majority of the voting membership of a parent club desire the change. No standard will ever be changed until the proposed changes have been studied by the parent club’s breed standard committee. Revisions to breed standards come about only as the result of a great deal of consideration and lobbying and after many, many compromises. Any individual seeking to make a change in their breed standard will, at some point, likely find the necessity of joining their breed’s parent club in order to actively lobby for the change and to build and maintain momentum for the change.

Some parent clubs, when presented with a well-researched, well-reasoned and rationally presented request for a revision to the standard, have sensibly solicited the membership of the parent, regional and local breed clubs to submit suggestions. This is done in order to consider all proposed changes at the same time. Sometime later, a working draft of the revisions are presented to interested and concerned fanciers for additional comment. Eventually, the breed standard committee will present a final draft to the parent club for approval. Upon securing a majority vote of the membership, the proposed revised standard is submitted to the AKC’s Board of Directors for their approval.

I am quite certain that it would come as no surprise that the AKC has, in the past, had some negative experiences with breed standards which it would prefer not to see repeated. All proposed revisions are carefully reviewed and edited for proper spelling, grammar and punctuation. They are also scrutinized to ensure they are consistent with established rules and regulations. The proposed revision will be published on the Secretary page thereby notifying the general public and giving them an opportunity to comment on it. Only after a proposed standard or a revision has successfully met all of the criteria and cleared all of the barriers can it reasonably be expected that the AKC’s directors will approve it.

Many may not know that the AKC does not approve illustrations as a part of a breed standard. Neither photographs or drawings are accepted as elements of official breed standards. Although they are unofficial, some parent clubs have excellent illustrated guides. Check your parent club’s website to discover if they have one. The American Lhasa Apso Club has one that is superior to many. It is easy to understand and user-friendly.

Even after approval by the American Kennel Club, revisions to breed standards may not yield any noticeable results for a period of years. Some judges will, of course, make the appropriate adjustments much more rapidly than others. However, it can take years for breeders to fully compensate for any changes to their standard.

The breed standard is a critical document in the sport of purebred dogs. For conscientious breeders it serves as a blueprint for the construction of the ideal specimen of the breed. For breed judges the standard is the written illustration to which he or she compares each dog entered under them for evaluation. And, for fanciers it serves as a guide for what will hopefully be their lifelong learning adventure in their chosen breed and in the sport of purebred dogs.

A parent club’s single, greatest responsibility may very well be to provide the fancy with an official breed standard offering a maximum of usefulness. It is a written illustration. It must be fully descriptive without being wordy. It must be easily understandable.

Many of the sport’s most highly successful and well-respected breeders have been those recruited to serve on their parent club’s breed standard committee, and rightly so. Here is the place a language arts professional might choose to crack a joke about breeders being more knowledgeable about bloodlines and the practical application of the principals of hereditary than skilled in the English language. However, we must remember this work is, in virtually every case, done in committee. I have never served on a parent club’s breed standard committee, but I submit to the premise that it may be just as difficult to accurately describe the perfect dog as it is to breed it.

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Posted by on Feb 15 2016. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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