Is Breed Type becoming Extinct?

Almost all long-time active participants in the sport of pure-bred dogs will tell you that it is “Type” that distinguishes one breed from another and makes it unique. While observing a dog in the stack it should be apparent that a dog has the correct type for that breed and in movement, it should also display those characteristics that make it unique from other breeds.

Long time judges that went through the extensive process of adding breeds at a much slower pace than many of today’s judges will tell you that learning and developing the understanding of each breed’s unique type and qualities were essential in the learning process of acquiring additional breeds.

Most of our highly respected judges from the past and in the present always tell you to find type first in your exhibits and then prioritize each animals’ virtues and place them accordingly. It was a common statement that a good moving dog can be found at any local shelter or roaming the streets, but a truly great dog exhibits extreme type first and if built correctly it should move properly.

Today the common words heard are that judging today is either too generic or too political. Why is that? Is it a lack of knowledge on both the judges and the breeders in recognizing correct type or does it go even deeper?

As someone who has been involved in our sport for many years, I would just like to share my own observations and opinions of what is happening in our sport regarding breed specific type.

According to the Golden anniversary edition of the The Complete AKC Dog Book published in 1979, there were 133 recognized breeds and varieties spread across the six Groups. Twenty-six Sporting, 23 Hounds, 32 Working, 23 Terrier, 17 Toy and 12 Non-Sporting, later the largest of these the Working Group would be split to create todays Herding Group.

Here in 2020, a little over 40 years later, I calculate 198 recognized breeds and varieties with 32 Sporting, 32 Hounds, 31 Working, 31 Terriers, 21 Toys, 21 Non-Sporting, and 30 Herding. We also have 11 breeds in the Miscellaneous Class and an additional 68 recognized FSS breeds. That brings the AKC recognized total to 277 breeds while the FCI has well over 300 breeds being recognized.

Obviously being able to not only distinguish the different breeds and to identify the correct breed type is a difficult task for any judge.

At some point during the 1980’s the American Kennel Club requested that all of the parent clubs review and reformat their breed standards into a more uniform style. Prior to this request many of the standards went back many years and some were very specific and unique while some were rather short and open to greater interpretation.

No less than 1/3 of all breed standards in 1979 assigned a point scale to various parts of their standards. In some cases, the point scale was a simple guide breaking down a rating of importance to specific areas of the breed and in others it was very specific assigning points to various parts such as eyes, ears, muzzle, topline and so on. These point scales served a purpose in alerting breeders and judges to the areas the framers of the breed standard felt were most important in distinguishing them one from another. In fact, two of the Hound breeds, the Irish Wolfhound and the Scottish Deerhound, have an “order of importance” written right into their standard. When reviewing the standards today you will find that only 17 breeds assign a point value of importance in their standards along with the Wolfhound and Deerhound breeds that kept the order of importance.

What that means is that less than 10% of the recognized breeds give judges a quick reference to areas of importance within their respective breed standards.

I would say that most fanciers understand that there are breeds that are known as “head breeds” while there are also some known for other unique traits. One example would be the Brittany. In the standard from 1977, 40% of the total was assigned to the running gear, 25% to the head and 35% to the body while the revised standard of 1990 there is no emphasis on any one part of the standard.

In some cases, breeds did not make changes to the standard requested by the AKC. Some examples of those would be the Airedale Terrier, last revised in 1959, the Border Terrier 1950, and the Cairn Terrier all the way back to 1938.

Most breed standards were revised in one way or another with some adding DQ’s and some removing them while others have had more than one revision over the last 40 years. If you read the AKC secretary’s page, it is not uncommon to see proposed standard changes on a regular basis.

You may wonder “what does all this have to with breed type?” Remember the standard is the “blueprint” for the breed and a revision is a little like an automaker coming out with a new model with some modification in style, body and parts.

When the founders of the breed wrote the original standard, they were describing their “ideal” representative of what they created the breed to accomplish, you know it as “Form and Function”. One must wonder when a breed makes changes to the standard is it being done to accommodate the breeders or those movers and shakers within the breed to make the “Blueprint” more in line with what they are producing and not what was intended when the original standard was written.

When the original standards were written the breeders had very significant reasons for almost all parts that make up the whole dog with areas of significant importance. Each part serves a purpose. The size and type of eyes, ears, and nose play very significant roles for many breeds. While in others the running gear and depth of chest, play a very important role in that breed’s ability to do its job. Even tails are extremely important and one area most often ignored by today’s judges and breeders.

In his book The Pointer and his Predecessors An Illustrated History of the Pointing Dog from the Earliest Times by William Arkwright, published in 1906, in the chapter on the Characteristics of the Pointer he writes; “The Tail of the pointer must be moderately short, with thick bone at the root, very gradually tapering to a fine point. It must be covered thickly with smooth glossy hair, and must be carried straight, on a level with the back the ‘pot-hook’ curve being very objectionable. When questing it is wantoned and lashed without ceasing, but when pointing it is held rigid, either quite straight or with a slight ‘pump-handle’ curve.

There is nothing for a Pointer more necessary than a tail of the right shape, of the right length, of the right carriage, and of the right covering. It is more convincing warranty of pure blood and high breeding than reams of written pedigree. There is a saying about the pedigree being carried on the back, but in this case, it is told by the tail. The head is invaluable for showing the character of a dog, but for a certificate of blue-blood apply the other end!”

The Arkwright book is a rare collector’s item and considered one of the best books on the history of the Pointing breeds ever written. In the above-mentioned description, while the breeders place a great emphasis on the head and other parts of the breed, they felt it was the tail that was the true sign of blue–blood pedigree. If you compare today’s standard for the breed it reads. “Tail—Heavier at the root, tapering to a fine point. Length no greater than to the hock. A tail longer than this or docked must be penalized. Carried without curl, and not more than 20 degrees above the line of the back; never carried between the legs. A little further down in the standard under Gait the tail moving from side to side rhythmically with the pace.”

Almost all Pointer breeders long for the specific “Bee Sting” tail and proper carriage and side to side motion. Yet all too often this very specific description is ignored in the ring.

This is just one example of the importance of a specific area of a standard that is often overlooked or misunderstood by judges that do not study breed type. The standard also says not carried more than 20 degrees above the line of the back.

Tails are a problem in many breeds and until judges pay attention to those that don’t adhere to the standard, breeders will continue to ignore them. In my own breed, the Vizsla, our standard reads: “Tail set just below the level of the croup, thicker at the root and docked one-third off.” Ideally, it should reach to the back of the stifle joint and when moving it should be carried at or near horizontal, not vertically or curled over the back, nor between the legs. Unfortunately, high tail carriage is also accepted in my breed and many others.

Many people say, “Tails are not that big of an issue.” Wrong! Framers of the breed have reasons for each description. Think of it as the headlights or taillight on your car. If they were aimed at the sky would you be able to see the road? Would the person following you be able to see that you were in front of them when you were coming to a stop?

It is the same with each part of a standard. Proportions are another area of confusion for many judges and breeders. Do you know what is Square? Rectangular? Slightly longer than tall? Ten is to nine and so on?

How about length of back and length of loin? Do you know where the back ends and where the loin begins? Or length of leg and depth of body? Size is another area that varies greatly from breed to breed. In those breeds that have a disqualification for size or weight judges need to pay attention. Too often a good dog is put at the end of the line or ignored because a judge thought it too big or small in a breed with a DQ. If the judge thinks this is a deserving dog, he or she must measure it and if it is within standard place it accordingly or disqualify it from the ring. A 13″ outstanding Shetland Sheepdog is just as deserving as the one just under 16″ both specimens deserve equal consideration as long as both fit within the parameters set by the standard.

Toplines in every breed serve a specific purpose and, in most cases, they are referenced as level, or a slight slope, while others are unique to their breed. The gentle “S” curve of the Whippet or the American Foxhound which calls for, “loins broad and slightly arched with defects being very long or swayed or roached back or flat or narrow loins.” The Borzoi is another example with “the back rising a little at the loin in a graceful curve.” There are many breeds with unique toplines called for in the standard. It is very important for judges and breeders to pay attention to the details.

Many breeds are specific about heads and in many cases, they are the “hallmark” of the breed. For example, the “one-piece head of the Flat—Coated Retriever”, the blunt wedge and expression of the Shetland Sheepdog, the massive short faced head of the Bulldog which also under proportions is stated, “the circumference of the skull in front of the ears should measure at least the height of the dog at the shoulders.” The different heads, ears and expression of the Corgis. The brick–on–brick description of the Setters. Again, these are just a few of the examples that distinguish breeds from one another.

While we are on heads, we should mention the bite. There are 68 breeds that call for full dentition which requires the judges to examine the fronts and side of the bite. There are another eleven breeds that require the judge to open the mouth completely to check dentition. Five breeds just require a thumb examination while two breeds, the Chinese Crested and the Xoloitzcuintli, have a different requirement for the hairless and coated varieties.

All breeds have some type of description of the coat and again this is extremely important in the form and function for many breeds. There is a reason for a single coat, a double coat, a wire coat, the length and shape of coats and how much grooming and trimming is permitted under the standard. Today in the show ring many exhibits are bathed and groomed so often the true texture or natural fall of the coat is hard to evaluate, but that does not change the need for the coat as called for in the standard and it should come into the decision making especially in those breeds that have very specific definitions in their standards.

When learning about the various breeds some of the breeds’ educational materials will offer an acronym to help judges remember certain things. Examples would be the Sussex Spaniel, the four L’s; Long, Low, Level and Liver. Or the Neapolitan Mastiff with the W.H.A.M. method; Wrinkles, Head and Mass. The Dogue De Bordeaux uses H.E.A.R.T; Head, Expression, Athletic, Wrinkles, Trots like a lion. Labrador Retriever; Head, Coat and Tail.

Different breeds have very specific grooming requirements regarding coats and trims and the judges and exhibitors need to pay attention to these. There are many exhibitors that take grooming to extremes way beyond what is called for and permitted in the standard. I am not aware of any standard that call for “pretty” and says it should win because it is just groomed to look so pretty.

As you can see there is a great deal of material in every breed standard that is very specific and in others very vague. First and foremost, it is the responsibility of the breeders to pay attention to the standard and try to breed according to the standard and not toward a current “fad”. Many of the Parent Clubs have put together illustrated standards to assist judges in identifying breed type and breed specific traits. Many of these are excellent reference guides for judges and I know on a personal note I review those in my possession regularly. On occasion a judge and an exhibitor may have a conversation on the exhibitor’s breed. I have often been surprised when in a discussion I have pulled out the illustrated standard that I had with me only to have the exhibitor say that they had never seen one on their breed. This is just one example of why breeders must learn to talk to each other and to mentor and discuss the breed with newcomers so they can understand the importance of breed specific traits as called for in the standard.

When it comes to gait remember all breeds have a purpose and a specific gait for that breed. Learn what they are. Bulldogs don’t move like German Shepherds and Fox Terriers don’t move like Pointers, while a Borzoi won’t move like Miniature Pinschers or Labrador Retrievers. Be sure to apply the proper gait to the breed being judged.

A message to some of the parent clubs would be to try to expand some of the points in their standards to clarify those areas that are particularly lacking in specificity.

In closing, breed type matters. If you are a judge, breeder, or exhibitor you should be able to recognize each breed and its unique qualities. To do any less is to continue to reward a “pretty or showy” specimen that is “Generic” and will eventually look like an “All-American” breed.

Just my opinion. 

 

  • Walter J. Sommerfelt

    Walter Sommerfelt of Lenoir City, Tennesse has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs since acquiring his first Old English Sheepdog in 1972. He is a former professional handler as well as a breeder, and exhibitor of breeds in all seven groups, most notably Vizslas, OES, Pointers, Bearded Collies and Weimaraners. Judging since 1985 he is approved for All Sporting, Working, and Herding breeds and groups, Junior Showmanship and Best in Show and has had the honor of judging on four different continents. Mr. Sommerfelt has judged many of the most prestigious shows in the United States including the herding group at the 2014 Westminster Dog Show in New York City where he has judged on three separate occasions. Mr. Sommerfelt was the founder and chairman for the St. Jude Showcase of Dogs from 1993 until 2009, a unique event showcasing the world of purebred dogs. This special event was the largest collection of various dog events in one location, featuring an AKC all Breed Dog Show, AKC Obedience and Rally Trials, AKC Agility trials, (prior to AKC adding agility NADAC trials ) One of the largest Fly ball tournaments in the U.S.A., Herding and go to ground demonstrations, A main stage featuring performances by Canines from Television and the Movies, Freestyle, Demos by drug and various therapy dogs, A full room of booths for meet the breeds, over 50 AKC judges seminars annually, Lure coursing, A fun Zone for Children, and other dog related fun activities for the general public and their dogs. Over the years the event not only raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, but also raised awareness of the many activities for people with their dogs as well establishing a voice for dog people in the Memphis area with regard to legislation. Many aspects of today’s AKC Royal Canin show can be traced back to the St. Jude event. Along with Carol his wife of 36 years they have bred well over 90 AKC Champions including Group, Best in Show and Specialty Winners, dual Champions and multiple performance titled dogs. During the past 40 years Mr. Sommerfelt has been active in a number of dog clubs and is currently the President of the Tennessee Valley Kennel Club. He is recipient of the AKC outstanding Sportsmanship Award and is also a career agent and financial planning specialist with Nationwide Insurance. The Sommerfelts’ have two grown children, both former Junior Handlers and they are still active breeders and exhibitors of the Vizsla breed.

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