I WONDER how often we – as breeders, exhibitors or judges – stop to consider how easily we become accustomed to changes within a breed.
In some cases these changes can actually become so engrained in a breed that they are elevated to the level of desired characteristics, even though they might be quite alien to typical and necessary. It is generally the case that such changes begin with dogs shown by well-known exhibitors or handlers, as these so often set the benchmark that others gladly follow.
How do changes come about? They begin with the breeder who produces a litter that gets to an age where the puppies need to be evaluated. The breeder who fully understands his breed is looking at every puppy in terms of the breed Standard and what is correct for the breed. In most breeds ‘moderation’ is a requirement that is desirable in many aspects, and it is the consistency of moderation throughout any animal that will contribute significantly to its balance, and the impression that everything fits. However, occasionally there will be a puppy who has something about it that always catches the eye, and invariably that ‘something’ tends to be an exaggeration of some kind or another – too long a neck, too refined or overtyped a head, excessive rear angulation – and here is where the danger lies. The totally steeped-in-the-breed breeder will see exaggeration for what it is and will discard the guilty puppy as being alien to correct type. Many others, however, will be realistic enough to acknowledge that the exaggeration, which is constantly catching their eye, will also catch the eye of the judge when the dog hits the show ring. And so the puppy is kept, nurtured, schooled and groomed.
As soon as a dog whose type deviates from correct starts winning, the ball is set rolling. That dog appears in the big ring and other judges comment on its great bone, long neck, fabulous angulation, ultra-short back, high tailset, great open side-gait or whatever, even when these may not be breed-specific attributes.
They reward it when they get it, and others follow suit. In due course breeders see this dog and all the winning it is doing, and they think that they had better start breeding something like it. They rush off to use said dog, and within a matter of years the rather deviant type has got a foothold in the breed.
It takes a little time, but soon judges arrive at a situation where they get a class of six dogs – five of them are of the ‘new’ rather off-beat type, one is completely correct. The knowledgeable and constructive judge will know enough about the breed to be able to say with conviction "This one is right – the others are wrong” and judge accordingly. Many other judges, however, perhaps lacking depth of knowledge of that breed, will take the easy option, assume that the five must be right as they form the majority, and the sixth dog in the class gets left out of the awards.
This particularly applies to size in a breed. So many of our breeds have, over the years, got bigger, maybe because of improved nutrition and very gradually size has crept up. As we only routinely measure or weigh a handful of breeds that have more than one variety determined by size this increase is barely noticed.
However, when some dedicated breeder puts in the ring a dog that is of absolutely correct size in terms of its breed Standard it is criticised by other exhibitors as being small. In truth, this is the correct sized dog; it’s just that the others are over size.
Going with the flow
At this juncture the dedicated breeder who has been intent on maintaining type and simply intensifying quality begins to get, understandably, frustrated. He knows what he is breeding is correct, but the numbers of those who are drifting away from type are such that other breeders, exhibitors and judges seem to be going with the flow, and he is left swimming upstream.
This has happened in several breeds in Britain and beyond, and I have seen many ‘old time’ breeders reduce their exhibiting activities dramatically, simply because they feel it is pointless showing dogs under judges who just don’t understand breed priorities. These are the very breeders who SHOULD have stock in the ring, so that those who do have independent minds can see and appreciate it.
When dogs with major faults – usually of the ‘attractive’ kind – continue to win and be bred from, newer breeders will see no reason to correct and improve. Why should they? These dogs are winning. Those who own the ‘modern’ dogs can usually talk the talk, and provide convincing arguments as to natural evolution and obvious improvement. In some cases strong-minded individuals can actually be instrumental in persuading breed clubs to change the breed Standard to fit these new dogs, a heinous crime in anyone’s book. And then of course there is the power of advertising and social networking!
Sadly many of the breed changes we have witnessed are pleasing to the average eye – so what if a dog is too necky, too hairy, too upright, too short, too long? It looks pretty and the judges like the look!
Although showing dogs is today, in truth, more about chasing challenge certificates, ribbons and points than it is about preserving breeds, the show ring should remain the breeders’ shop window. It would be sad to think that genuine breeders who are keen to maintain true breed type could not find the dogs necessary to perpetuate correctness in the next generation.
If we look at the Pekingese, for example, through the years this country has produced many outstanding specimens that have taken on the best of other breeds and flown the flag for their breed. But it is a long time since the breed’s vintage years when there were numerous large, strong kennels owned by knowledgeable and strong-minded breeders who produced their own distinctive kennel types.
I believe it would be fair to say that as these kennels began to become less and less the breed went through a period of exaggeration, not just in terms of the physical aspect of the dogs seen in the ring but in the manner in which they were presented. A Pekingese should possess a coat that enhances its body shape, not mask it and turn it into a walking footstool, yet some exhibitors seemed to be of the opinion that the more hair, regardless of texture, the better.
In recent years the conscientious Pekingese breeders have addressed health issues with conviction and the results can be seen in the ring. The fact that, despite being deemed a ‘high profile’ breed, we saw a Pekingese as the top winning toy dog of last year is testament to the fact. Furthermore let’s not forget that a British-bred Pekingese won best in show at Westminster, America’s most famous dog show, last year.
However it is always interesting to stand back and look at a breed in an historical context and for that reason I am including in this article a famous photograph of the legendary Ch Caversham Ku Ku of Yam who was for many years the top winning Pekingese of all time in this country.
Although the study by Thomas Fall, who photographed so many of the great Pekingese of the past, is of Ku Ku sitting down it is clear to see that he did not carry an unduly profuse body coat (other full body photographs of him confirm this fact). His coat is obviously clean and well groomed but is presented in a very moderate fashion, rather than having the hair on his ears brushed up in an exaggerated way to emphasise width.
However it is the dog’s face that I feel is worthy of the most careful study, and bear in mind that this dog was born in 1952. Here we see a Pekingese head which complies perfectly with the requirements of the breed Standard yet in no way could be considered extreme. A seminar could be given on this head alone. Look at the width yet shallowness of the face, the naturally flat topskull, the position of the correctly fringed ears and then examine the facial features. Here are eyes that are set well apart, large and expressive, with no suggestion of being bolting. The position of the eyes relative to the nose is exemplary, the nose and nostrils being sufficiently large. The over-nose wrinkle is in no way exaggerated and sits perfectly on the nose while the muzzle is well padded, wide and in no way ‘lippy’. Most importantly the underjaw is wide, deep and strong, proving perfect lip-to-lip placement. I feel that so many of the Oriental breeds these days are lacking in chin and this is a vital ingredient when it comes to creating the essential arrogance of expression. All these individual features help to demonstrate the ‘openness’ of the face.
I believe it is vitally important that breeders and exhibitors should occasionally browse through the old breed books and actually study the dogs of yesteryear. Doing so might give them a slightly different perspective on the dogs of today and pose some interesting questions.