It turned into a joke at one of the Sporting Group seminars I attended. Presenter after presenter would walk in the room and tell us that their breed was medium-sized and slightly longer than tall. By the last day, when someone would start to describe the proportions of their breed, we would then all lightheartedly reply, “Is it medium-sized and slightly longer than tall?” I even started using an acronym in my notes—MSSLT. But what does it mean to be medium-sized?
Of the 33 breeds in the Sporting Group, 16 of them describe their size as “medium.” In fact, the word appears in the Breed Standards of the Sporting Group 102 times, and in the Standards of all AKC breeds 481 times. So, while this article is meant to focus on the medium-sized Vizsla, there is clearly a need to discuss the context of the word “medium” in our dog-minded lexicon. For instance, how on earth can a Doberman Pinscher and a German Pinscher be medium-sized?
Upsettingly, it has nothing to do with communing with the dead, so you’ll need to manage your expectations a little.
I have noticed over the past few years that our fancy, as a whole, is understanding less and less about the colloquial language of Standards and Conformation. Partly, it is about advances in technology (where once there was an extremely straightforward word there is now confusion over the definition of “back,” for example; is it from the withers to the croup, or from the withers to the end of the ribs?), and partly it is about the myopic view the fancy now has. Gone are the days when everyone would hang around to support their breed in the Group, and by doing so, expose themselves to breeders of other breeds. And in these times, I feel frustrated. I’m worried that it might be a simple lack of effort—as if there is something lackadaisical to adding genetics to a breed that is at least 1,000 years old.
I know that my dog experience has been different from most of the people who are currently involved in shows. I am a second-generation breeder. I started showing dogs when I was nine years old. I read AKC’s The Complete Dog Book cover-to-cover three times by the time I was 12. Rachel Page Elliott’s Dog Steps was my own comic book collection. I had the obsession that maybe only a child can have about this sport. I do know, however, that I listened and asked questions, and because of that I was graced with extraordinary mentors.
So, what is the subtext of the words and phrases in the Standards that cause so much ire between breeders? Why do Standards keep being opened up in order to “clarify” something, when the end result is usually to further muddle and distort the essence of the breed? The answer is about history and purpose.
Recently, I was discussing Fox Terriers with someone who has judged them for over 10 years. I was saying that I think one of my favorite phrases out of all the Standards is in the Smooth Standard:
“He should stand like a cleverly made hunter…”
To me, it is eight words that say absolute volumes. To this judge, it means a well-made hunting dog. It does, in fact, refer to the Hunter horse (a horse that is short-backed) while standing its ground (and plenty of it), and which is up on leg, perfectly suited to do its purpose.
This is the kind of thing that makes curmudgeonly dog people like me want to pull out our own hair. It is disrespectful to the history of the breed, the effort of hundreds of years of breeders, and today’s exhibitors not to know what the words in the Standards actually mean in the context of a breed’s history.
Now, I am someone who is a lover of the Oxford Comma, printed books, Shakespeare, and a properly brewed cup of tea. I have a major in Anthropology. I was born in Germany, and grew up in Belgium, before moving to Illinois, and finally, landing in New England. All of which is to say that I have a deep love for and respect of cultures. One of the foundations of a culture is its unique language. This is why, when creating an American culture from British subjects, Noah Webster wrote a dictionary that did things like take the “u” out of colour and honour, and dropped the “k” from publick and musick. He knew that in order for there to be an America that could stand on her own two legs, one of the things she needed was her own language.
This may be an extreme way to explain why our language of dogs is so important to us. It is an integral part of the culture of purebred dogs. While we don’t have our own spellings, we have an agreement about the definition of words and phrases we use, like “well-let down hocks,” “layback,” and “foot-timing.” So, while it is convenient to blame the AKC’s system of education for the lack of knowledgeable judges and breeders, the problem is actually entirely different and one the AKC can’t really control. We are trying to teach in a language that many people no longer understand. We pride ourselves on being “preservation breeders,” but while we are trying to save our breeds, we are simultaneously losing our culture.
As previously mentioned, the other misunderstandings about a Breed Standard are usually about a matter of purpose. Everything in a Standard is there to describe the perfect specimen for the exact purpose of the breed. And while the general knowledge that a Vizsla is a pointing breed that points birds is a useful start, understanding the deeper purpose of the breed is when the words of the Standard start to make sense.
Vizslas come from the Carpathian Basin, in which is contained vast stretches of gently undulating grasslands (“…the coat is an attractive shaded golden rust”). Their ancestors were bred by Magyar
warriors to match their cavalry’s speed and strength (“Robust but rather lightly built…”). They were used to hunt along with a falcon (Far reaching, light footed, graceful and smooth.”). They were companion dogs for barons and warlords (“…shyness, timidity or nervousness should be penalized”). Vizslas hold a point while the hunter kicks about nearby to flush out the bird, and shoot it in close range of the dog (“Tail…should be carried at or near the horizontal, not vertically or curled over the back…”).
So now we have a bit more of an idea of what the medium in the medium-sized Vizsla actually means. Oxford Languages defines the adjective “medium” as “about halfway between two extremes of size or another quality; average.” For synonyms, it gives average, middling, and fair—not exceptionally inspiring words to attach to my favorite breed. But take into consideration the greater context of the Vizsla. Yes, there is a height standard, and “medium” could simply be the average of that height (what the Standard calls “ideal”), but I think it means that and so much more.
From their conformation and field work to their light-duty guarding, while ending up in a child’s bed, the Vizsla is a dog with so very much to him; so much purpose and history
So much of writing anything at all is a flair for the artistic. As the Fox Terrier Standards have shown us, a beautiful turn of phrase can be the absolute explanation of the essence of a breed in a mere sentence. For me, “medium” in respect to a Vizsla invokes the idea of “center.” They should be in the center of the height standard. They should have a centered temperament (“Lively, gentle-mannered, demonstrably affectionate and sensitive though fearless with a well developed protective instinct.”). This is a breed that is centered around their purpose (“Deviations that impact performance and function should be considered more serious than those that affect only appearance.”).
From their conformation and field work to their light-duty guarding, while ending up in a child’s bed, the Vizsla is a dog with so very much to him; so much purpose and history. And for me, when you portion all of that out perfectly into a dog completely and utterly fit for all of his purposes, that Vizsla is medium-sized.
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