Considering the Whole Dog

AKC Gazette breed column: West Highland White Terriers

Very often, dog fanciers will gravitate toward some features in their dogs more than others. It’s understandable. There’s a downside, however. One can get carried away with a specific feature to the point of tolerating glaring blemishes, while genuine virtues go ignored.

We’ve all heard about “tooth fairies,” “size freaks,” and “movement nuts” and have probably shown to at least some of them at various times. These uncharitable labels may fix in our collective mindset what such judges might look for. We can, however, be easily misled by these designations. Whether we learn about judges’ preferences from other exhibitors, from our own experiences, or from written critiques, it is essential that we objectively consider the total picture of every dog we see—regardless of who owns it!

Every part of a dog is essential to evaluating the entire animal because they all contribute to the dog’s functional ability. Some components are more easily evaluated than others.

Bite and coat are two obvious examples; one has only to check a dog’s mouth or feel his coat to determine how closely these important features conform to the Westie standard. Even there, however, it’s easy to misjudge individual quality.

Other aspects are less immediately obvious and require some knowledge of skeletal anatomy and musculature. A fuller understanding of what bones and muscles do to allow a Westie to function efficiently makes anyone a more informed fancier. Beauty is not skin deep, and understanding that makes the difference between superficial and in-depth understanding of what a Westie is and does.

When we understand that neither faults nor virtues of conformation can exist in a vacuum, we can better appreciate the importance of evaluating the total dog. An ewe neck or a straight shoulder, for example, will be connected to other aspects of faulty structure. Taken together, they comprise sort of a ledger of pluses and minuses. Hopefully both columns will result in a harmonious balance, but often it does not work that way.

In any case, it is essential to know what we are observing and what makes a dog superlative or average. The ability to make these determinations separates the great dog judge from the nice person handing out ribbons.

Currently, we hear a great deal about upper arm. It seems as though a short upper arm qualifies as what I call a “designer fault.” In this connection surely, proper length of upper arm is very important, however it also helps to know something about skeletal anatomy to understand what an upper arm is, where it is, and how it contributes to movement.

It works the same with every other part of canine structure. Sadly, there is often more interest directed to coat and showmanship than correct type.

It is especially regrettable when a judge rewards dogs with glaring “holes” over dogs who excel in all aspects so clearly that the disconnect is obvious even to the ringside. And while the judge is hands-on, there will still be decisions that could be questioned for legitimate reasons.

We can parse until we are blue in the face. In the end, however, whether fanciers, breeders, or judges, we need to seek the entire dog to best serve the West Highland breed. —S.W. (February 2015), West Highland White Terrier Club of America