A Thumbprint of Influence

By Cindy Vogels

Great breeders never compromise the essentials of the standard. they strive to contribute no more than the merest thumbprints of influence.

Like winemaking, dog breeding is a creative process. Breeders produce dogs that embody their vision of a standard of excellence; vintners create wines based on the traditional characteristics of grape varieties. This leaves room for interpretation, but according to Bryce Jones, president of the well-known California winery Sonoma-Cutrer, "The wine maker's contribution should be no more than a thumbprint." Similarly, every dog breeder's vision should be a unique interpretation of the standard, yet must remain true to that standard if the dogs are to be true representatives of that breed.

What Are the Absolutes?
There are certain elements of every breed standard that are absolute and should not be modified. These are the characteristics that create the essence of the breed type. Although such qualities vary from breed to breed, they generally include function, outline, head type, movement, temperament, and sometimes coat and color.

For instance, the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier standard mandates a "medium-sized, hardy, well-balanced sporting terrier, square in outline. ... distinguished by his soft, silky, gently waving coat of warm wheaten color and his particularly steady disposition. ... moderation both in structure and presentation, and any exaggerations are to be shunned. ... A dog shall be 18 to 19 inches at the withers. ... A bitch shall be 17 to 18 inches at the withers." The head is "rectangular in appearance; moderately long. ... Ears ... breaking level with the skull ... pointing to the ground ... Skull and foreface of equal length. ... Body compact." Legs are "well boned." A Wheaten should cover ground with "good reach in front and strong drive behind. Front and rear feet turn neither in nor out," although legs will tend to converge as speed increases.

If we look at the Brittany, we find that most of the essential elements of the standard relate to the breed's intended work. "A compact, closely knit dog of medium size, a leggy dog having the appearance, as well as the agility, of a great ground coverer. Strong, vigorous, energetic and quick of movement. Ruggedness without clumsiness ... tailless or has a tail docked to approximately four inches. ... Any Brittany measuring under 171/2 inches or over 201/2 inches shall be disqualified. ..." Eyes are "well protected from briers by a heavy, expressive eyebrow. ... Skull well chiseled under the eyes, so that the lower lid is not pulled back to form a pocket or haw that would catch seeds, dirt and weed dust." Ears are "set high ... short and triangular." Skull is "medium length ... very slightly wedge-shaped. ..." Muzzle is "about two thirds the length of the skull ... should taper gradually in both horizontal and vertical dimensions ... Nostrils well open to permit deep breathing of air and adequate scenting. ... A black nose is a disqualification." Lips are "tight" and "dry." Chest is "deep ... Ribs well sprung." Back is "short and straight." Loins are "short and strong ... One must look for substance and suppleness. ... At the shoulders the Brittany is slightly higher than at the rump. ... A Brittany should not be condemned for straight stifle until the judge has checked the dog in motion from the side." Coat is "dense, flat or wavy ... some feathering, but too little is definitely preferable to too much." Skin should be "fine and fairly loose." A Brittany may be "orange and white or liver and white ... Tri-colors are allowed but not preferred. ... Black is a disqualification. ... When at the trot the Brittany's hind foot should step into or beyond the print left by the front foot."

Interpretive Decisions
Although each standard addresses the essentials of type, each leaves room for interpretation of the nuances of the breed. For instance, in the Wheaten standard, a few measurements like length of neck and back are described as "moderate," which allows for variations in balance. The standard allows a range of eye color and size, as well as some latitude in ear size. Correct degrees of coat and color are also listed. The Brittany standard is quite detailed, but there are still areas that are open to interpretation. Because no differentiation in size is made between dogs and bitches, there can be substantial variation within the same sex. The moderate amount of bone described allows for dogs with different degrees of substance, and thus dogs of different balance, particularly considering the 3-inch height range. The medium-length skull and muzzle also leave room for interpretation. Likewise, different interpretations of a "medium" length of neck can lead to different overall balance.

Some standards are much less detailed. The Lhasa Apso standard, for example, leaves lots of room for variation. It states that size is "variable," and dictates that dogs should be longer than they are tall, but it does not detail how much longer. The head description is vague, and the standard does not address shoulders, angulation or movement. It is not surprising that in breeds such as this one, there is much more variation in type than in breeds with more detailed standards.

The perfect dog would be the sum of perfect parts. Realistically, as breeders work toward producing that perfect specimen, they prioritize the essentials of the standard. Sometimes this is based on personal preference. One breeder, for example, will never compromise working characteristics, while another is unwilling to sacrifice coat quality or color. Often a breeder's priorities change as a breeding program progresses. Having solidified one aspect of type, a breeder can move on, striving to consistently produce a different attribute. Breeders must always balance the elements of type without sacrificing the essence of the breed.

Let's go back to our wine analogy. In finely crafted wine, subtle qualities create nuances of individuality. While it should be easy to identify the grape varieties of great wines, an outstanding wine exhibits a unique character. Great dog breeders never compromise the absolutes of their breed standards, but vary subtle points to produce outstanding individuals. It is not our job as breeders to create new breeds. It is our duty to preserve the integrity of our breeds' standards. If we believe a section of a standard is incorrect or unrealistic, we should work to have it modified. We must strive to understand the essence of our breeds, and then explore the smallest details, to ensure we contribute only the thumbprints of our influence.

Cindy Vogels is a breeder-judge from Littleton, Colo. She has bred Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, Kerry Blue Terriers, Welsh Terriers and other breeds for almost 30 years, and she judges 18 terrier breeds.

AKC GAZETTE articles are selected for their general interest and entertainment values. Authors' views do not necessarily represent the policies of the American Kennel Club, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement by the AKC.