From the monthly column "Becoming". ShowSight Magazine, September 2018. Click to subscribe.
We live in strange times. Some of this was predicted by science fiction authors who foretold of a new language called Newspeak where white is black and good is bad. George Orwell’s 1984 was frighteningly close to describing the social norms we are seeing in politics today. Facts are becoming debatable. Is that picture of a crowd of people showing more or fewer people than another photo taken from the same place at a different time? Polar ice caps aren’t shrinking, they’re growing. The lies are becoming so frequent, and blatant, yet there are still millions of true believers who don’t understand that the phrase alternate fact is an oxymoron. Belief is becoming the replacement for fact-driven honesty. And we see it affecting our own small dog world, too.
Let me give you a benign example. I had the good fortune to attend the Manchester Terrier National last week in Lexington, Kentucky. I am a dog-show junkie, so being able to watch a rare breed entry of this size was close to Nirvana for me. I was also fortunate to be standing with a long-time breeder who could answer the multitude of questions I posed for her. One of the questions I asked was about the topline on a Manchester, and her response was that they want a slight arch over a robust loin and a slight drop-off of croup. That sounded great to me, so I said, “Just like a Whippet,” a breed I judge and to which I relate. She responded, “Oh no, we do not want a Whippet topline!” I searched my memory banks (and my phone to pull up the AKC breed standard), and came up with the phrase in the Whippet standard that describes their topline: “backline runs smoothly from the withers with a graceful natural arch, not too accentuated, beginning over the loin and carrying through over the croup…” Both breeds describe a body slightly longer than tall. When I suggested to her that the standard authors were probably describing the exact same topline, she admitted that appeared to be true, but she had always believed a Whippet topline was not what they wanted. I asked her what she thought a Whippet topline looked like, and she described a wheel-back which is clearly identified as a fault in the Whippet standard. The Manchester standard says a roach back is a fault. Roach and wheel backs describe the same structure. This very knowledgeable breeder of top-winning Manchesters was unaware that the correct toplines for the two breeds were described nearly identically in their respective standards. Yet she has been mentoring judges for years telling them that the Manchester topline was NOT like a Whippet topline because that is what she believed. Her belief was stronger than the reality of the facts. Fortunately, the actual description she gave matched her standard exactly. It was her breed comparison that was faulty.
Interestingly, this woman’s interpretation of her standard were resulting in toplines that looked much more like Whippets than Italian Greyhounds. Many of the Manchesters were short-coupled with a steep drop-off in croup—much more characteristic of an Italian Greyhound than a Whippet. She was correctly interpreting her standard and did not realize the similarities her breed actually has to the Whippet. When I told her I breed Bedlington Terriers which also had the Whippet topline, she said she believed they had a roach-back, too. She was greatly relieved to hear that Bedlington exhibitors sometimes make mistakes when we sculpt in our toplines, and some are made to look wheel backed, and others appear to have bubble-butts, but they should all be built like a Whippet. Some of us like more exaggeration in our grooming style than others. Grooming hair can be a blessing and a curse. Unless you put your hands on the breed, you can be fooled by clever or not-so-clever grooming.
Another common belief causing problems in our breeds today is the belief that a person’s first dog in a breed is nearly perfect and exemplifies the standard. That kind of thinking causes people to routinely misinterpret standards. Using the previous example, if a person’s first Whippet has a wheel back, and they think it’s a perfect dog, then they will begin to interpret the standard to match what they have at home. The previously quoted statement from the Whippet standard will be describing their dog, and somebody else’s dog will have the faulty wheel back. We won’t know exactly how that person interprets the faulty wheel back. Perhaps they think it’s only a fault if it is over-exaggerated or if the croup drop-off is too severe. We don’t know. In general, first-time breed owners are not knowledgeable about the language used in standards. They haven’t spent enough time studying anatomy in dogs or horses, or goats or cattle. They don’t know how to objectively apply a standard to their breed of choice because they think the words mean something different from their actual definition. And most first-time breed owners do not want to question the authority of the breeder from whom they purchased their first dog. They want to believe their first dog is perfect, even if it’s not, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.
It’s been a while since I talked about the bone issue in Bassets, so I am going to use it again to interpret this phenomenon of belief vs facts. Many judges and breeders believe that the Basset should have massive bone, approaching the size of a St. Bernard (one of Peg Walton’s favorite examples of incorrect interpretation). However, our standard reads, “heavier in bone, size considered, than any other breed of dog..” Most people believe that means super-heavy bone is better than lighter bone. In fact, the most important part of that phrase is “size considered.” The preferred height for a Basset is 14 inches at the withers. Over 15 inches is a disqualification. Size is height at the withers. If you don’t believe me, please check your AKC book of standards and look up the definition of “size.” Now consider other breeds in the 14-15 inch height category. My Bedlington bitches start at 15 inches. Beagles are 13 and 15 inches. A Sussex Spaniel should be between 13 and 15 inches, and their standard calls for massive bone. Their standard also says they should weigh 35–45 pounds. Because the standard for Bassets has been guided by belief and style preference, we are regularly seeing 70–90 pound dogs in the ring, and some of them are approaching the bone of a St. Bernard. I have often bred dogs judges believed were too refined, yet I have never bred a Basset with bone approaching the substance of a Beagle or Bedlington. I have never shown a Basset bitch that weighed less than 45 pounds–considered massive for a Sussex. Yet judges and breeders still believe this is too refined for a proper Basset. My males usually weigh in the mid-60’s. Our standard also calls for a dog that can run all day, with movement that is never clumsy. I think those 70-80 pound dogs might get a little tired carrying all that weight on dwarf legs.
My last example involves Poodles. Everybody believes that Poodle breeders don’t understand what laid back shoulders are because they don’t exist in the breed—at least not in the dogs that routinely win. They send Poodle breeders to study sporting dogs to figure out how to judge a correct front construction, even though I routinely see poor shoulder construction on many sporting dogs. Except that belief about Poodles isn’t true. I have had the good fortune to go over many standard Poodles, and I can personally assure “everybody” that some really do have beautiful shoulder construction—and they actually win. I have even seen some beautiful head carriage on Poodles that have slight to no ewe necks, even though there are many people who believe this is impossible. I know it’s possible—the Bedlington standard calls for similar construction and head carriage. It’s not easy to get, and it’s even harder to consistently breed, but it does exist. If the judges prefer to continue believing ewe necks are required for proper head carriage, then they are doing long-term damage to the breeds. Rewarding faults to achieve a “look” you believe is correct will not be beneficial for our breeds in the long run. Nobody said doing the right thing would be easy. Preservation breeders understand this.
I don’t want to discourage new breed owners from participating in our competitions. But I also want them to be educated, informed and an asset to the future of our breeds. Preservation breeding requires an educated body of people who objectively understand the breed standards and all of the words in them. That means breeders, exhibitor and judges must all understand the language of standards, and they must be willing to discuss them calmly, and without charged emotional responses. Judges are most likely to understand the importance of this need for fact-driven judging over fad, belief-driven judging. They are at the very least, required to attend school and listen to several breed mentors.
Honesty and facts must be maintained and cherished over personal beliefs. There is a place for beliefs in our world—religion is the temple for these. And beliefs can exist alongside the world of facts and honesty. Our dog world continues to confuse and intermingle the two to its detriment. So how do we bridge the divide? I found a way with the Manchester breeder, and I think both of us are better for the discussion. Judges don’t want to mentor exhibitors for obvious reasons, but perhaps we can find a way to encourage honest, fact-based, breeder-to-breeder contact in similar breeds. I recommend all Manchester Terrier breeders watch and study Whippets, as I have done to better understand my Bedlingtons. No, they are not identical breeds, but they have some similarities. If you want to learn the small details of what makes one head better than another, talk to a long-time Collie breeder. They know the language of heads. Basset breeders can learn from Sussex breeders, and vice versa. I encourage people to watch other breeds and look up the standards on their phones, then talk to somebody who breeds them. Ask questions. Don’t go home right after your breed is done being judged. Learning other breeds, no matter what they are, will always be helpful in understanding your own. Sometimes it’s easier to objectively study a breed you are not personally invested in. That’s my belief and my hope for a healthy future of purebred dogs.