Thursday, September 25, 2008

Standard Issue


This Pekingese is not only "correct" for his breed standard and superior to other Pekingese, he's a better dog than all the others whose owners were vying for that silver cup.

Is he even recognizable as a dog?

Is he a fully-functional animal? Can he mate, move independently, perfuse his tissues with oxygen, thermoregulate?

The thread, on a non-dog discussion forum, was about cutting off tails and ears on dogs to meet "breed standards."

Oh yeah -- that one isn't going to start some wars.

Much passion back-and-forth among the factually, grammatically and punctuationally challenged. (No dearie, the plural of puppy is not "puppy's.")

On the pro-amputation side, we had individuals whose logic boiled down to "We wouldn't always have done it this way if the people who wrote "the standard" weren't wiser and in every way better than ourselves. It is not for the likes of us to question the intentions of the Ancient and Most Sacred Standard Givers."

On the anti-amputation side, there were occasional degenerations into colorful imaginary imagery featuring rivers of blood and wailing puppies.

But I was most interested in this dire warning from a "we've always done it this way" partisan:

Traditional reasons are that, tradition. Standards were made by the people who created the breeds and they stated their reasons for doing so. Standards include appearance and function.

I didn't write the standards and I wasn't there, those are some of the reasons given.

I happen to appreciate their efforts. I see little point in mocking them for living in their times and doing what they thought best.

Without them, we wouldn't have those breeds. When people start breeding outside a standard to suit themselves, you stop having identifiable purebred dogs. Eventually you can't tell purebred from mutt, or byb junk.

Now I can't attribute this opinion to its author, since the author uses only a screen name. No matter. It's a perfectly representative, utterly unoriginal, agglomeration of the misinformation, ancestor-worship, and unexamined prejudices that hobble the brains of dog owners. Let's look at them in order.

First, the misapprehension that the people who "created" breeds were the ones who wrote standards for them.

Poppycock. The people who created almost every breed, extinct and extant, were people who needed or wanted a dog for a particular job. Some of these acts of creation took place over thousands of years; others were seen through in a single human lifetime. Breed creation was, and is, the act of genetic selection for a purpose. The number of breeds (real breeds, not latter-day marketing whimsy) whose "creators" penned a written "standard" can be counted in single digits, and is limited to a short window of late 19th and early 20th century canine eugenics.

No, for the most part, "standards" were the inventions of the Victorian poseurs who, breed-by-breed, hijacked useful gene pools of working dogs, set up artificial walls around those gene pools, and charged forward under the misapprehension that one could reverse-engineer function by starting with a scrap of dog-show scripture ('umbly penned by yours trulies) and reasoning backwards: If the dog resembled the Platonic Form of the Breed as codified by the gentlemen in the dinner jackets, then it logically must be superior at performing the work that its "unrefined" ancestors had actually managed. No need to actually test it out on that work -- that would be so, you know, common.

The dogmen and dogwomen who developed breeds -- and I include the lapdogs in this story, for they too have their work -- selected animals who fulfilled a function; a size and shape that was more or less consistent followed from the demands of that work. The Mrs. Grundys who later wrote Platonic descriptions of the "ideal" cosmetic form for that kind of dog (refigured into closed-gene-pool "breeds") had nothing to do with the hard task of selection that had made the dogs useful and unique in the first place.

The coda to that erroneous belief is that, of course, standards change -- and not when the fiery finger of the Almighty recarves them in new granite. Committees of humans get together and change them to suit themselves. Each new committee is made up of zealots who are further removed in time and space from the working function of the breed. (Or, in the case of the United Kennel Club, perhaps an anonymous company employee who has never seen an example of the breed in question.) The 2008 standard frequently bears little resemblance to the 1920 standard. And like any scripture, the words could stay the same in a written standard and the interpretation morph so drastically that the dogs themselves are unrecognizable. Nowhere in any past or present GSD standard, in any country or registry, do the standard-writers call for a dog with
Hind feet planted in a different county than front feet. Hocks wobbly and both cowed and sickled in the extreme. Pasterns approach the horizontal plane. Dog has difficulty standing without assistance, and difficulty in transitioning from a stand to a walk. Gait is wobbly and unstable, conveying the clear impression of an animal that will be nonambulatory by middle age, and is incapable of sustained motion at any age. Dog shows clinical signs of connective-tissue disorder.

Unlike the anonymous breed standard fundamentalist, I actually have been a member of a standards revision committee for a dog breed with a long history. The standard that resulted is not a "show standard" because the Club that promulgates it does not sponsor nor approve of pageants for judging the dogs. IMO, it came out the far end of the committee process with far too much structural resemblance to a kennel-club-style show standard, rather than a practical description of what one of these dogs should be like; next round, I have hopes that these shortcomings can be corrected. In particular, reference to "disqualifications" are made for dogs with defective temperaments, misplaced or missing gonads, and an autosomal dominant color that does not appear in the breed, but is common in a related breed.

"Disqualification" from what, I asked? They can't be excused from a nonexistent pageant ring, and the registry is certainly not sending inspectors around to every farm in order to decide whether a dog is "reserved" (good) or "vicious" (DQ). Nevertheless, that meaningless language was retained.

We conducted our discussions via email. There were some heated disagreements. Some were settled by compromise, others by one side of the disagreement predominating. The discussions are archived (somewhere) in case anyone in the future wants to explore "legislative intent" for some reason.

My one verbatim contribution to the physical description of the dog is this sentence:

Variation in ear set is common and of trivial significance.

I have no problem with anyone arguing with me, disagreeing with me, or even mocking me for "living in my time," over the above sentence. If you have evidence that variations in ear set are of monumental significance in the lives and work of English shepherd dogs, please, do share.

Because that sentence, and the entire standard, is a document put together by human beings, each with his or her own perspective, expertise, prejudices, character flaws, and strength of will.

In the case of our ES standard, the limitations of the document come with an automatic check on the damage they can do to the breed genome: Because there is no selection for pageant wins, and no market for "champion sired" puppies, there are no institutional rewards or punishments for "not meeting the standard." I've never heard of anyone having trouble placing cute piebald pups, or pups from parents larger or smaller than the "standard" range, for example. While the breed community might collectively frown on someone who deliberately selects for 90 pound or 30 pound ES in a breeding program, individual dogs of those sizes are not viewed with disdain. Pups from parents without hip clearances, on the other hand, can be a hard sell. (In my opinion, not hard enough, but that's another topic.)

Finally, there's the Levitican obsession with being able to determine the breed of any given dog by appearance. Implied is the common sentiment: If any idiot off the street can't recognize it as a Sardinian Snarklehound at a glance, then the Fabric of The Universe will begin to ravel -- Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! ... Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes ... The dead rising from the grave ... Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria!

What's up with that? Why is it so important? What does it have to do with what a "breed" is?

A breed is a population of animals that are selected to perform the same function. The "any idiot can tell" cosmetics are -- or should be, in a world not designed to cater to idiots -- entirely secondary to the breed's ability to consistently produce individuals that perform that function.

The notion that anyone off the street should be able to unerringly assign an animal to its breed just by looking is grounded in the worldview that what is important about a dog is not just what it looks like, but particular cosmetic aspects of appearance, what are called "fancy points." The dog should look like a Platonic specimen of its specific breed first, then it should give the appearance of the tuxedo guy's version of a sound and functional animal, and waaaaay down the list, maybe it ought to actually be healthy and sound. (Which cannot be assessed in any meaningful way through the only assessment system the "fancy" provides, the dogs-on-a-string five-second "exam" by a hard-core "fancier.")

So a Dalmatian is now defined by his spots, not by his function as an endurance athlete and companion to horses. In the AKC Dalmatian standard, 236 words are devoted to the correct coloring; 81 to gait; twelve to temperament, none to working ability. The Australian shepherd, predominantly a working dog as little as 20 years ago, has 58 words devoted to the correct color of his nose*, 39 on temperament, again, none to working function. Lip service? Barely even that!

I could go on.

It's strange that people who are fanatically obsessed with the minutia of "fancying" very specific breeds of animals -- such that, like all fanatics, they create a maniacally closed insider culture of jargon and shibboleths -- are equally obsessed with the most trivial cosmetic factors, the ones that distinguish those animals from other breeds, or (gasp!) the impure.
Eventually you can't tell purebred from mutt, or byb junk.
One would think that they would want to keep the mastery of classification a further mystery, one that requires their special expertise.

But then, that would require them to possess special expertise, wouldn't it?

Special expertise that is hard-won by living with, working, observing, training, raising, breeding and handling scores of members of a breed. Learning their minds. Letting them learn yours. Takes years, decades to become an expert in one breed of real dogs.

And that just won't do, will it, when one "judge" must determine the "best dog" from a dozen individuals sorted out from hundreds of breeds. So he can determine that a waddling, farting, dysplastic English bulldog is a better dog than a shaking, seizing Belgian shepherd.

And it certainly won't do when one is trying to sell one's "well-bred" cull puppies -- the ones that don't have exactly the right fancy points at seven weeks of age, and so will not crush the competition in a few months' time -- as "pet quality." Because that "pet buyer" is going to insist that his $1500-on-a-sterilization-contract Danish Diving Terrier pup look just like the one he saw on the teevee, winning at Westminster. He does not want or need a dog that dives for danish, which is good, because those "well-bred" pups are terrified of water and allergic to pastry. The one he gets has a small white spot on his chest, which is what makes it different from the show winner. But that's okay, because it has much in common with that winner -- same coat, same crooked legs, same oddly-domed head, same epilepsy, bleeding disorder, same progressive congenital blindness.

If you come to my farm, I'll excuse you for believing at first that Pip is a border collie, that Moe is a barbie collie who has been abusing steroids, that Rosie is a Sheltie mix, that Sophia has a Malinois in the woodpile somewhere. That's what they kind of look like, and you have been conditioned -- as have we all -- to assign dogs to brand names based on what they look like. Even a toddler can identify a Dalmatian -- same kid who recognizes the McDonald's logo without hesitation.

But if you tell me that Pip is "byb junk" because her ears are too high, that Rosie is unworthy of contributing to the gene pool because she's smaller than "standard" size, that Moe should have been bred because he is so bloody handsome, and that we were right to spay Sophia because she is under-angulated -- well, Moe is accomplished at showing you the door.


*Including the caveat that it is a serious fault for an Aussie to have a nose that is 26% pink. Italics in the original. Oh well, at least the pink-nosed dog is not formally disqualified like the one with a dot of white on his back. But also unlike the dog without a tooth in his head, the unilaterally deaf merle -- which are either okay with the AKC Aussie fanciers, or not worthy of mention.


  1. When I saw the Peke that won Westminster, the only thing I could think of was, "Is that a DOG? It looks like an ugly little monster." I agree with what you write. How far away are you from Erie? I'm visiting my folks in October and would love to meet some English Shepherds. Have been on the general ES list for several years now, learning about them. Don't worry, Moe wouldn't need to show me the door!

  2. Wow! You've got some dedication to your breed standard -- Moe is just gorgous and when he was a puppy, he was just beyond precious, wasn't he? :-D


  3. Hi Kathy --

    I look at that Peke, and what I hear in my head is a raspy, tiny semi-human voice begging Kill me! Please kill me now ...

    When disability and deformity is a by-product of someone's breeding practices, that's a tragedy. When it is the whole point -- I don't know what to call that.

    I'm about 90 minutes or so from Erie -- but don't count on finding us home much in October. It's the unofficial peak of "SAR season." Always a very busy time. Feel free to drop me an email though.

  4. Great piece!

    Pekes have sure changed since I was a kid, even, although that was over 50 years of inbreeding ago.

    My friend had one who retrieved a dumbbell for hours at a time, went for long walks, stood up to bigger dogs. Longer legs, some nose, different coat, etc. They look very strange now. I doubt the Chinese royalty would recognize them. I think the Tibetan Spaniel is a lot closer to the old Peke type but with a shorter coat.

    I'm glad you mentioned GSDs. It brings tears to my eyes to see them at shows - pups tripping over their own back feet, funny big heads on crippled bodies. It's horrible.

  5. (Applauding) Came to your blog via a link from a dear friend, we are currently discussing this issue. Thank you for the wise and clear sighted thoughts. That Peke, by the way, looks like some exotic monkey... not a dog.


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