Judging Dogs: Pieces, Parts, and the Whole Dog

There is that wonderful line from a poem by John Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

In the poetry of Keats this sentiment holds great power, reflecting on maturity and memory.

I thought of the line recently when pondering fault judging, assessment of our dogs, and also the lovely concept of the “parts match.”

I also enjoy bearing in mind how fellow fanciers have noted our beautiful veteran Field Spaniels aging well, “like a fine wine,” getting even better with age! I do feel that truly great dogs hold together well over time and are not flashes in the pan as youngsters who then fall apart with age. We should be mindful of those with nice angulation and toplines that hold true over time, and sound, quality specimens who hopefully show us what they are made of well into their senior years. 

As I review history in purebred dogdom and look ahead to the future, I see a need to revisit the standards and consider all of the pieces and parts—not only of that journey, but also those of our lovely dogs.

Please be sure to take a moment to lay hands on your dogs today and honestly assess them as whole, beautiful animals, and remember that for every strength or virtue, a compensation or weakness exists by nature’s design. Love them for their entirety as well as for those individual pieces and parts that make up the whole. Set aside thoughts of breeding plans, showing, kennel blindness, and even what you do and don’t like about individual specimens for a while, and consider the past and the future.

The "Virtues Match" at Sunnybank

An example I read about years ago could be instituted for Field Spaniels and other breeds in terms of keeping an eye toward strengthening the breed as a whole and helping us all to keep in mind the details as well as the big picture. I love that the Collie Health Foundation sponsors an annual “Gathering” at Sunnybank—the former home of Albert Payson Terhune, famous Collie breeder and author of beloved dog stories including Lad: A Dog.

Mr. Terhune having a frolic with his dogs; the rightmost Collie is Wolf. [Library of Congress]

The event includes a “Virtues Match,” not only in the interest of fundraising for their breed’s health initiatives, but also as friendly, fun competition and as education amongst breeders and fanciers. The match is panel-judged, and photos can be seen online. Class winners are shown for best profile, skull, muzzle, expression, outline, front, rear and side gait in their breed. Pups and adults who might display a stellar piece or part are recognized and rewarded, rather than picked apart or critically faulted.

I may be imagining or idealizing, but it looks pleasantly reminiscent of folks on microphones judging livestock at county and state fairs, giving the audience information as to their likings when comparing and contrasting specimens, and this is always interesting to learn about.

It could be a refreshing concept for more dog events to have such a match environment, or even “people’s choice” type of votes or awards where exhibitors might have a voice or opinion. Learning from each other can be a powerful tool.

History and the Breed Standards

Getting back to the point of individual parts making up the sum of a whole, and a gangly young Field Spaniel pup becoming a junior dog and maturing into the prime of life (and even on into that gorgeous veteran!), let’s get back to history. Breed standards are written by clubs of fanciers and are developed and changed over time. Some utilize nomenclature true to their hunting or equestrian roots, while others change in terms of modern practices or allowances. Physiology and anatomy terminology are used along with nonspecific language in describing the canine’s observable traits—external qualities of appearance, movement, and temperament. A very few retain points allocations, as at one time there was an attempt to institute a common format by including weighted points within the written standards. This gives food for thought with regard to judging as well. —Shannon Rodgers, Field Spaniel Society of America, January 2015 AKC Gazette