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A follow-up: On Breed Standards

By Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle, May, 2013

In the immediately preceding issue of this magazine, the subject of breed standards and their central purpose was revisited and broached from various perspectives. Some discussion was offered as to how, and to what extent, we go about interpreting what is meant by the written word and the role which these descriptions play. Interestingly, and not unexpectedly, what was written elicited several pertinent responses and these have stimulated some further thoughts, hence this follow-up. One e-mail in particular, from a respected individual approved by the AKC to judge at Group level, offered some highly astute observations. It is well worth quoting: “I truly appreciated your article in this month’s Canine Chronicle. As my years in dogs have increased, and I have become enamored with multiple groups, I have found it very interesting that the breeds which have, in my humble opinion, changed the least over their history have standards which have not been manipulated over the years. And equally as interesting, those standards are terse. As examples: American Staffordshire Bull Terrier (1935), Greyhound (1935), Cairn Terrier (1938), Afghan Hound (1948), Maltese (1964). Again, just my opinion, I think that the constant ‘tweaking’ of the standards is done by those people who wish to make them conform to current dogs rather than making the dogs conform to their standards. I truly believe that what we should be doing is preserving the breeds, not changing them to be prettier. The breeds evolved as a result of their ability to perform a function and that should be maintained.”

Now, I fully realize that not everyone will necessarily agree with the sentiments conveyed in the above quoted communication but there is surely some serious food for thought contained in the offered opinion. The one thing which can be said for certain is that standards play a pivotal role in anchoring thoughts, understanding and, of course, breeding and judging decisions. As I have said previously, on more than one occasion, these verbal instruments, uneven in content and quality though they may in some cases be, fulfill a vital function but yet we still sometimes wrestle with the question of their adequacy or otherwise. Although they serve as a foundation, we still hear it said that a few, or several, or many of these written descriptions are open to too much interpretation. There apparently still exists a wide disparity of views on, and understanding of, this subject. This sometimes leads to the notion that unduly imprecise wording, which is subject to possible or probable misinterpretation, demands attention and, in due course, revision is contemplated. There is a certain mindset concerning this which has seemingly become ingrained in the psyche of the Fancy, whether justified or not. The fact that most standards have been composed piecemeal over time, with odds and ends being lifted verbatim from previously existing ones may in part, at least, explain where we are at with all of this. Many standards, after all, have highly mixed histories of their own and few are what one might call truly original. Many have been revamped repeatedly. There are those of the countries of origin and then there are the others derived from them and modified to various extents for one reason or other. In a sense they have evolved along with the breeds which they attempt to describe. If you want to trace derivation consider that old-fashioned, somewhat misleading, expression ‘well let-down hock’ (which means, in less words than is probably necessary, ‘short hock’). How many times has it been lifted and applied to breeds other than those to which it was originally applied? An example of ambiguity unless one is perfectly familiar with the phrase and cognizant of the context and meaning.

There are individuals involved with various breeds who seemingly preoccupy their mind constantly with the state of standards and whether or not they cannot be improved upon whilst there are others who are perfectly content to leave things in this regard well enough alone. There exists a school of thought (to which my correspondent quoted above clearly belongs) which is diametrically opposed, on philosophical grounds, to changing any standard however insufficient in detail and particularization it might seem to be to some by present-day norms. If it has served a breed perfectly well over the years, how come this need for modification, for so-called fine-tuning or amendment or so goes the argument. Then there is another viewpoint that looks upon standards as works-in-progress, as dynamic instruments that should be expanded and modified as breeds develop and change. The two elements should go hand-in-hand say some. Incidentally, I came across someone recently maintaining that development and change are not the same thing. Not sure if this was a matter of some sort of twisted semantics. Question: how can you develop anything without changing it? Perhaps you can in a sense. There is, of course, a sort of intermediate position which can be taken in all of this. Language upgrading, augmentation and clarification can be achieved without any substantive alteration of content.

If you should ever wish to follow and trace how changes in both breeds and their respective standards oftentimes work in tandem, consideration of what has happened over the years to the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is an interesting and salutary exercise. Its standard dated January 1950 in the United Kingdom calls for a dog with a body of ‘medium length’, whatever exactly that might have actually meant at the time. Now in the present day standard in the U.S.A., approved by the AKC in June 1972 and reformatted in January 1993, the breed is described as being ‘moderately long and low’, with the proportions called for from withers to the base of the tail ‘approximately 40 percent greater than the distance from the withers to the ground.’ In a book on the breed first published many decades ago (I’ll quote from the revised seventh edition of it, dated 1970) it was suggested that it was difficult to see how the ‘medium length’ description could be improved upon and it was noted that someone had computed that the length of the body in this breed, measured from ‘the center of the shoulder blade to set-on of tail, should exceed the height at the shoulder by as nearly as possible one-fifth, or 20 percent.’ It was added that thus ‘a low-to-ground dog, standing only 10 inches at the shoulder, should measure at least 12 inches in length of body’. So what has happened? Has the breed doubled in length relative to its height. If so, why? Was this change or development, pray tell? I grew up with this breed in Wales in the 50s and 60s and I know the answer to that question! So where did this notion that the Pembroke Welsh Corgi can never be too long come from? How come the now radically different proportions from those of the Swedish Valhund which, at one time, it quite closely resembled in this regard? Do we really want to start entertaining the ‘what is correct’ bit here? If we do, we’ll have to plug in the ‘correct for what’ consideration. Longer cast progeny appeared in litters (I can name some well-known ones, the most famous perhaps being the glamorous Ch. Evancoyd Personality Girl) and breeders purposefully exercised preference selection. This ongoing indulgence is a good example of man playing the role of creator. And so the breed evolved into a rather different entity to the one that existed and fulfilled a particular function in its native environment, the Welsh farms. What of it, you might say? Different people will presumably have differing views on this subject. This author knows where he stands!

As I have said before, in a previous essay several years ago, it is rather easy nowadays to get a feeling that there is presently too much overkill doing the rounds relating to the topic of standards. By this I mean that there appears to be a habitual tendency on the part of successive generations to revisit them time and time again, perhaps even excessively and needlessly. Ultimately a point of diminishing return is surely reached. There comes a time when the limits are reached and failure to realize this can only lead to that which is counter-productive as far as efforts at improved description are concerned. There is a certain intractable element to this which has to be recognized. There are, of course, elements of breed characteristics which will always remain, in a sense, elusive and therefore unwritten for there is a certain dimension to the very essence of different entities which is hard to define, hard to put into mere words. What is distinctive oftentimes defies precise definition and hence we get into this grey area where interpretation kicks in and a ‘feel’ for a breed develops. That’s why breed ‘type’ is sometimes said to be in the mysterious order of things. This is where a certain refined connoisseurship comes into play. Open standards, such as that of the Greyhound, which allow for the full exercise of this intellectual and, yes, aesthetic pursuit, have certainly served their breed well over very many years and who among us has the chutzpah to suggest otherwise? So are these long-winded, cumbersome, overly-detailed standards serving their breeds any better?

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