From the monthly column "Becoming". ShowSight August 2018. Click to subscribe.
That’s the Jeopardy answer to the question, “What are the three most important things to look for as a dog show judge?” When I am judging, and I am looking at a lineup of dogs, I always start by looking for the dogs that exemplify breed-type before I begin the nit-picking process of finding the structure I am looking for and identifying faults. If a Basset has legs too long, or a head with a wide-flat back-skull or flat ears, or a short cobby body, I won’t be spending a lot of time looking for a well-laid back shoulder or an ample rear. I can find soundness in almost any breed—but what I really want is a dog that exemplifies breed type first. After that minimum criteria is met, I will look for the soundest dogs I can find. The same is true even if an entire class of dogs is not particularly strong structurally. I will always choose type first.
But how do other judges define breed type? That’s the question of the century. My mentors often quizzed me about breed type. One of the most important lessons from a very knowledgeable breeder/judge was that I should be able to instantly identify the breed of the dog from a moderate distance. There should be no confusion in my mind about what breed is on the end of the leash. With the glaring exception of tri-colored American English and Treeing Walker Coon Hounds, I am almost to the point where I no longer confuse one breed with another. And if I do, then I consider the dog I am unable to instantly recognize to be lacking in breed type. I should never be confused about whether a dog is a Miniature Bull Terrier or a Standard-Sized Bull Terrier. I should be able to instantly recognize if a dog is a black and tan Lakeland or a Welch Terrier. A Greyhound should not look like an
oversized Whippet, and an English Toy Spaniel does not look at all like a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Sheltie heads are not the same as Collie heads and a Staffordshire Bull Terrier does not look anything like an American Staffordshire Terrier. Scottish Deerhounds have a very different head and body-type from Irish Wolfhounds and Rat Terriers are not Basenjis without tails. The list of potential confusions is long.
Recently, Facebook has had some interesting old photos of purebred dogs being posted. Many of the photos are of dogs from several decades ago. Readers are asked to guess what the breed is. What a great idea! There have really been some interesting answers to the questions. Clearly, there is a large range of breed-specific knowledge among the readers of these posts, but the exercise is still a good one. It’s especially good if there is no recognizable handler the photos so there are no obvious non-dog clues for the viewers. Some of the photos are more than 100 years old, and it takes a really keen eye to identify the breed in its older form. Some of the breeds are extinct, but the photos are still interesting, nevertheless.
While this exercise is wonderful for many breeds, I am afraid it will fall short when it comes to breeds with stylized trims. Sometimes the photos are dogs that were in very different trims from the ones found in the ring today. While many of us have seen the older Poodle and Bichon trims, some of the other dogs, like the early American Cocker Spaniel are nearly unrecognizable without the long flowing side coat. Sometimes the physical structure evolves to a point that the earlier dogs barely resemble the modern dogs. The evolution of the German Shepherd is fascinating. The early Doberman ears are nothing like the modern ears. The earlier Presa Canario certainly looks a lot like today’s Cane Corso.
Over the years it has become clear that grooming techniques, products and tools have made a huge difference in the evolution of show dogs in many breeds. All show dogs presented today seem to undergo an extraordinary amount of grooming. Who knew it could take as much time to get a beagle ring-ready as it does a Bedlington Terrier? And how do the over-styled trims of today affect judging? Hair can be sculpted to make dogs look typey, even if they do not possess some of the characteristics considered essential in a breed. What kind of ribs are underneath the Poodle, Bichon or
Kerry Blue Terrier? Where are the elbows on these dogs, and how laid back are the shoulders? How many of them have forechest or sufficient upper arm to meet their standard? Does that Bedlington have a V-front, or is it cut into the hair? Many faults are no longer visible from a distance and must be found with a good hands-on examination. Unfortunately, I have watched several judges do only cursory hands-on exams of sculpted breeds. Very few judges actually check Bedlingtons for V-fronts the way Gracie Brewin taught me to examine them.
The real question of the moment is, what parts of the standard describe things that are mandatory for breed type vs those things that are desirable in a dog breed? I personally like to study the opening paragraph of a breed standard describing general appearance, then I look for those things that are unique to the breed. Bassets are described as short-legged, heavy-boned for their height at the withers, and never clumsy. Then further into the standard you find some of the characteristics that distinguish the breed, like a prominent sternum showing clearly in front of the legs, pronounced dewlap, extremely long ears, prominent haw, massive paw and distinct wrinkles on a lowered head. All of these contribute to good Basset type. Forgiving the lack of these traits is like saying the dog doesn’t really need to look like a Basset as long as it moves soundly.
I am particularly fond of the Basset standard because it is so easy for a judge to work with. Once you determine the dogs with correct Basset type, then you must determine which ones have the soundest running gear because all of the serious faults except two (bite and ears) are found in the construction of the running gear. As much as I dislike a saggy topline, or flanged and short ribs or light eyes, those are just faults, not serious faults and those traits should be prioritized as such. If a dog exhibits good Basset type and has a properly constructed front that allows for great reach and a well-constructed rear that is well-let-down in stifle and hock, then some of the other minor faults must
What about the breeds that can be sculpted? I don’t know any breed standard, with the exception of the Poodle standard that specifies appropriate traditional trims, that says the trim of the hair is of utmost importance in the breed, yet I see many judges fooled by hair. It is easy to build a forechest, straight legs, level topline and square structure on dogs that do not naturally posses those traits. It is easy to hide flaring elbows and cowhocked rears or round eyes with strategic trimming. I am not talking about appropriate texture of hair—another issue all by itself. I am talking about the sculpting and use of products to hide type-killing and serious faults. Judges may believe that they aren’t fooled by grooming, but I don’t think that’s true. I have seen unfortunate markings on a whippet and a basset that have tricked my brain into seeing a bad topline where none existed, so why not a well-sculptured Kerry Blue or Bedlington Terrier? A skilled groomer can easily build a topline or straiten a turned-out front. As grooming has improved, the ability to see beyond it seems to have diminished.
Most good breeders will insist that soundness in their breeds contribute to breed type—and I do not disagree with them. But soundness in a Basset Hound is not so different from soundness in a Sussex—and the two breeds certainly do not look alike. The devil is in the details—and that’s what type is all about.
I have noticed a disturbing trend in the past two decades. Judging that is finding the generic, sound dogs, but missing the really beautiful, exquisitely typey dogs that have a couple of minor faults that are easily recognized by anyone, but not seen as significant by most breeders. I think this trend is the result of judges that have not had the time to immerse themselves into all of breeds they judge. This kind of judging has the potential to change breed type over time as breeders breed to what the judges put up rather than to their breed standard. I don’t have a solution for this problem. I can only hope that parent clubs get better at teaching the judges those characteristics that are essential to breed type. And I can only hope that breeders will continue to place emphasis on those characteristics of their breed that make it different from other breeds. Type—not style—is what we should all be looking for and