AKC Gazette breed column: Connie Vanacore considers that certain indefinable something that makes a dog a star:
What is “style”?
If one reads the New York Times, style means one thing. If you read one of the tabloid magazines, it means another. If you get your sense of style from movies or television, you get a different perspective depending on what you watch—for example, the difference between the elegance of Downton Abbey and the grittiness of the many crime shows on network TV provides a stark contrast in style.
How does this translate into the dog world? Astute and experienced breeders can tell whether a dog will have style from the time he stands on his unsteady legs in the whelping box. The late, great Annie Clark said she could tell immediately whether one of her Poodle puppies would have the quality of style that would set him apart from the others as he grows up.
If a dog enters a show ring saying to the world by his presence, “Here I am—you have to look at me,” that dog has style! There was an Irish Setter years ago whose very presence commanded attention. This dog had his detractors, of course. But there was no denying his presence. Other exhibitors, bystanders, and the judge in the center of the ring all recognized that this was no run-of-the-mill dog. He had star quality. He had style!
Dogs who excel in all sorts of venues also may have style. A hunting dog locked up on a staunch point has style. A hound covering ground as though he was flying has style, just as a model carrying herself like a queen has style.
Style is an inborn quality. It cannot be taught. Nor can it be denied. Dogs cannot fake it, though some of their human counterparts try. Style and elegance go together. They might even be synonymous, though not always.
Style in humans can be taught to a point. One can dress up a person to make him or her appear to be “stylish.” But the minute the mouth opens, it becomes apparent that this person has no style. Not everyone has a mentor like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.
Style shows in other ways aside from outward appearance. Dogs who are born to be guide dogs, or service dogs of any sort, have style. This is the term being used in its broadest fashion. It is an instinct, bred into the genes, that makes one breed different from another.
Sometimes dogs will surprise you by the style they reveal during times of joy or stress. We once had an Irish Setter who displayed both qualities at different times. He loved boat rides, and he would trot over to the neighbor’s on our lake just in order to jump into a waiting boat that would ferry him across the bay, as he proudly stood in the prow, feathers flying, king of all he surveyed. On another occasion a bicyclist came racing down the road, greeted by Casey, who, teeth bared, knocked the unwelcome guest off his seat.
The word style can be as broad or as narrow as the person wrestling with the term wants it to be. There are many judges who view style as a nice polish to an otherwise acceptable dog in the venue in which he is competing. In some breeds, style is built-in to the model; one can hardly imagine an Afghan Hound who does not exude style. On the other hand, one rarely can describe a Bulldog as “stylish,” as unfair as that statement may be for this honorable breed.
Personality is a major component of style, especially in dogs who are less complicated in behavior and their approach to life than people. We equate style with attitude, and that is probably as good a simile as any. —Connie Vanacore, Irish Setter Club of America