My family has owned AKC registered Sporting Dogs since I was born. My father kept and hunted pheasant with both Weimaraners and Brittanys (then called Brittany Spaniels) when I was a young child. In fact, our very first litter of registered puppies were Brittanys, born when I was about ten years old.
When I was twelve, our first Golden Retriever came along and with it my love for the breed that will last forever. At nineteen, I added my first English Springer Spaniel, the breed that truly became my passion. For 49 years, I have dedicated myself to studying, exhibiting, breeding and, finally, judging the breed that has truly captured my heart.
I was fortunate to have been mentored in this sport by breeders who taught me that my job as a breeder, and later as a judge, was to always stay true to the breed standard. These people first taught me about basic structure in a hunting dog and then trained me in the intricacies of breed type, while always referring to the standard of whichever breed we were discussing. I was taught that breed standards were not arbitrary documents written at the whim of a few sportsmen who then attempted to create a dog that fit the standard, but instead they are descriptions of a perfect specimen of a specific breed that the sportsmen had already created to do a particular job. When the standard of a breed was finally written, that breed was already breeding true to type and function. So, the written standard became the blueprint by which future generations of fanciers could continue to produce animals of the same quality in order to keep the breed capable of performing its original function. Every requirement in a Sporting Dog standard is there for a reason; that reason being to produce a dog that can most easily and efficiently perform the job for which it was created.
The early fanciers of hunting dogs who wrote the original breed standards were people who used dogs to enhance the quality of their lives. Meat didn’t come packaged in cellophane at the grocery store, it came by being shot by the hunter after having been tracked and either caught, flushed or pointed at by a dog. Dogs earned their living by being good at what they were bred to do, and dogs that did not make the grade as hunters were removed from the gene pool. In this simple manner, function and instinct were kept strong in each breed. Back then, it was all about “pretty is as pretty does,” and just being pretty did not keep a dog in the breeding program.
As the years passed and dog shows became popular, more and more fanciers who had never hunted over their chosen breed began breeding dogs for the show ring. This created a shift from breeding for function to breeding for attractiveness and the attitude that could win in the show ring, which was fine as long as those breeders understood and accepted the breed standard as their guide.
In our modern world, hunting has become a part-time sport instead of a means of survival, and relatively few show dog breeders actually hunt over their dogs. Again, not a problem as long as today’s breeders continue to produce dogs that would be fully capable of performing their original function should they be asked to do so. What makes this a possibility? Understanding and breeding to the breed standard!
I have always had a keen interest in all Sporting breeds, not just those that I have personally bred, so I have watched all these breeds at dog shows (and at field trials and working tests) for fifty years. My observations have led me to some interesting conclusions.
While it is true that all breeds evolve to some extent and that there is always something or another that we would like to change or improve about each individual dog in our breeding program, our aim should be to attempt to improve upon each generation to keep our dogs as closely adhering to our breed standard as possible, not to change a breed because we “like it better this way.” Yet, I see a distinct shift in many Sporting breeds away from breeding to the standard and, instead, to breeding for popular fads and many traits that distinctly go against the standard of the breed. I see breeders producing these traits with purpose and, most unfortunately, I see judges accepting these incorrect traits as normal and
I believe that there are two distinct ways that breeders and judges ignore the standards. The first is the acceptance of exaggeration of traits required in a standard and the second is the deliberate changing of the structure of a breed to create a bigger gait or, in some instances, a different silhouette that is sought after for the show ring, but would often actually hamper a dog in the field.
Let’s explore some breeds where exaggerations that are in opposition to their breed standard have become so common that they are all too often considered correct.
The Weimaraner standard is a good place to begin. The standard states “the chest should be well developed and deep,” “the brisket should extend to the elbow,” and there should be a “moderately tucked-up flank.”
There is no mention in this standard about extreme forechest with exaggerated keel, yet a number of years ago I watched many dogs of this breed go from being the “balanced” dog required in the opening paragraph of the standard to a caricature with very exaggerated forechest and an extreme tuck-up that made the dog look totally front heavy and wasp-waisted. Dogs built in this manner do not appear balanced or efficient, yet, as a judge, I have been chastised for awarding a somewhat more moderate animal over those that I felt were so exaggerated they no longer fit the standard. The chastisement came from a well-known handler of the breed who informed me that “they can never have too much forechest.” Seriously? I don’t see this anywhere in the standard. I am happy to have noted—over the past ten years or so—a trend by some breeders to take a step back and remove some of the exaggeration in this breed. I sincerely hope this trend continues.
On to the English Cocker Spaniel, whose standard states “a solidly built dog with as much bone and substance as is possible without becoming cloddy or coarse.” In my mind, this is a clear statement of substance, and the standard goes on to describe body properties that support this statement. It also describes a croup that is gently rounded, a tail set that conforms to the croup, and tail carriage that is horizontal or somewhat higher when the dog is excited, but “not cocked up.” The length of neck required is “moderate.” Yet we often see English Cocker Spaniels winning in the ring that conform more closely to some of the requirements in the English Setter breed standard, such as “croup nearly flat,” “neck long and graceful,” and “tail a smooth continuation of the topline.” English Cockers that carry these English Setter traits show exaggeration of elegance and outline that is in distinct opposition to their own breed standard.
Perhaps, no Sporting breed has been exaggerated so far away from its breed standard moreso than the Golden Retriever. During my lifetime, Goldens have been changed from an attractive, functional, just off-square, close-coated, firm-moving breed into a glamor breed with excesses everywhere. Excesses of coat (both incorrect in quantity and quality) and proportion (much longer than tall rather than just off-square) and grooming abound in the breed, while many critical features required in the breed standard are completely ignored by both breeders and judges. It has become more about hair and big, flying side gait and sharp showmanship than it is about correct heads, front assemblies, and body properties. Breeders ignore the standard (or have no idea what it says) when making breeding combinations, and many judges are totally confused by the dogs that face them in the ring. Large entries with few dogs that resemble one another make for a difficult judging experience by even those who have a great deal of history in the breed. Nowhere is the statement, “the one that looks different is probably the one that fits the standard,” more true than in the Golden Retriever ring.
In other breeds, changes in the structure of the breed have been deliberately created by breeders selecting for traits that are distinct faults under the breed standard. The English Springer Spaniel standard calls for shoulder blades and upper arms that are long and sloping, forming an angle of nearly 90-degrees. It also requires “hips that are nicely rounded” and a croup that slopes gently to the set of the tail. “The tail is carried horizontally or slightly elevated.” These statements describe a dog that is well-angulated at the shoulder and the hip, placing the legs on both ends under the body for support. In an attempt to create dogs with side gait that displays exaggerated lift and kick—as well as to make dogs with extreme sloping toplines that are unnaturally rigid—breeders have selected dogs with shoulder blades that have shortened and migrated forward, and croups that are far too flat with pelvic slope of only 10-15 degrees instead of the correct 30 degrees off the horizontal. This construction opens the angles at the shoulder and hip, and places the dogs’ front legs forward under their ears, and their hind feet far out behind a line drawn from the back of the buttocks to the ground, creating a lack of support for the body. And, as pelvic slope decreases and croups get flatter, tail sets get higher and tail carriage gets much higher, completely destroying the proper angles, gently rounded croups, and broad, muscular thighs that should be seen on all flushing Spaniels. The only flushing Spaniel that should have a tail set that comes directly off the topline is the Cocker Spaniel, and even that standard faults a straight up, Terrier-like tail. Lately, I have seen an appalling new trend in the Springer ring, that in which handlers are picking these dogs up from above by their tails, exactly as Terrier handlers do. I firmly believe that if you can pick a fifty-pound Springer straight up by the tail, that dog is completely incorrect in hindquarter structure. An English Springer Spaniel with a correctly sloping croup and properly set tail would strongly protest this sort of unnatural action.
The opening of the angles of the shoulder and the hip often creates a side gait that many people erroneously call “tremendous reach and drive.” In fact, a dog built in this manner takes long steps in the air, not on the ground, which is a total waste of effort and severely affects endurance in a Sporting Dog. Endurance trotting dogs should take long steps on the ground, keeping the feet close to the ground through all phases of the trot. All that lift and kick just wastes energy. This is not a problem exclusive to the English Springer Spaniel. Rather, it is also seen in a number of other Sporting breeds where breeders have taken the “more must be better” approach. There is an enormous difference between “good length of stride that covers a maximum amount of ground with a minimum amount of steps” and incorrect, exaggerated side gait. Powerful forward propulsion comes from the forceful opening of the hip, stifle, and hock joints when the hind foot is on the ground, not from construction that forces a dog to land its rear foot on the ground and then pop it right back up in the air in order to avoid interference under its body.
In some other breeds, structure has been changed by shortening the length of the leg and lengthening the loin, which will give a dog a longer stride at a trot. However, changing structure in this manner in a breed that is supposed to be square or slightly longer than tall completely goes against the requirements of breed standards that call for square or just off-square. Some breeders seem to have decided that it is easier to change proportion and leg length than it is to breed a correct front assembly, so they deliberately select for longer cast and shorter-legged. Properly built fronts are the key to correct, breed-specific movement and should be a priority in both breeding and judging. Really good fronts are hard to get and even harder to keep, but once established in a breeding program they are the basis for correct structure in almost every breed.
Today’s breeders should consider themselves the caretakers of their chosen breeds. We are not charged with changing or improving our breeds, but with keeping them true to their origins and their standards, and this is how we should safely pass them into the hands of the next generation of breeders, while instilling in that next generation the understanding that they too must honor their breed standards.