Sun, 12/12/2021 - 5:45pm

The Eye of the Beholder

Sid Marx ponders the subjectivity of beauty

There is a commonly used expression that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Some say that Plato was the first to coin this phrase. Others credit its use in a novel by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in 1878.

In any case, the saying is taken to mean that the perception of beauty is subjective, and that beauty doesn’t exist on its own, but is instead created by the person looking at it. This is like the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?”  

Certainly, beauty is subjective to some extent. Consider paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh, or some of the modern art that looks to me like it was a homework assignment for children in kindergarten. And yet, there are those who would pay millions for a Picasso or Van Gogh. It is very much like “I don’t understand why everyone does not think the same way I do.” Maybe it is just being pretentious. Isn’t that what some of the public and certainly PETA supporters think about our dog shows?  

Apparently, I have to admit that there is some truth that the perception of beauty may depend to some degree on our physical, mental and experiential position. When it comes to our dog-show community, there are many times that those sitting ringside see a “beautiful” dog, and when the judge does not put this dog up, questions arise about the judge. Is this just a difference in “the beholder”? Sometimes it could be, but I think more often than not, it is a case of “What you see is not what you get.”  

In order to discuss this, we need to have a basic understanding and agreement about the judge’s job and responsibility. It is NOT the duty of the judge to find the most “beautiful” specimen in front of her. It is NOT the judge’s job to reward the most flash or showmanship. It IS the judge’s responsibility to find and reward the dog that most closely adheres to the AKC breed standard as determined by that breed’s parent club. 

Before we get into breed nuances, certain anatomical basics need to be understood, such as correct shoulder layback, depth of chest, acceptable bite, proportions and proper movement. And not all of these things are the same for all breeds.

For example, correct shoulder “layback” for an Irish Setter is “Shoulder blades long, wide, sloping well back, fairly close together at the withers. Upper arm and shoulder blades are approximately the same length …,” whereas that of the Ibizan Hound is “The shoulder blades are well laid back. At the point of the shoulder they join to a rather upright upper arm.” So, where an “upright upper arm” is correct for the Ibizan, it would definitely not be desired in the Irish Setter.  

Consider the differences in describing the body of these two breeds. For the Irish Setter the proper chest is “… deep, reaching approximately to the elbows with moderate forechest, extending beyond the point where the shoulder joins the upper arm. Chest is of moderate width so that it does not interfere with forward motion and extends rearwards to well sprung ribs.” The chest description for the Ibizan states, “The chest is deep and long with the breastbone sharply angled and prominent. The ribs are slightly sprung. The brisket is approximately 2½ inches above the elbow. The deepest part of the chest, behind the elbow, is nearly to or to the elbow.” So, a judge should look for and feel for chest depth AT the elbow for an Irish, and BEHIND the elbow for an Ibizan Hound. Without knowing these differences, appearances from ringside could be very misleading.  

How about things that can’t readily be seen from ringside? What about a bad bite? This might go to a judge’s priorities. For some judges, a slightly undershot bite might not be a big deal in some breeds, but it might be a bigger deal for a Sporting dog judge in a retrieving breed. Most importantly, a bad occlusion would be even worse. If all things are relatively equal (and they seldom are), wouldn’t/shouldn’t a bad bite be a determining factor in a judge’s decision? And, by the way, handlers doing a “quick flash” to show the bite aren’t fooling anyone. 

I think we are at the epitome of grooming excellence in our community. In my opinion, a few decades ago, the art of grooming excellence was confined primarily to the Terrier Group and Poodles (with a few notable exceptions). Today, we see all breeds sculpted by excellent groomers. Observers cannot necessarily see straight, upright shoulders or a straight rear because the groomer/handler has sculpted in apparent laidback and angulation. 

Sometimes overgrooming detracts from getting a proper determination of the dog in front of you. For example, an (incorrectly) blown-out and fluffed up coat on a Golden Retriever or coat (incorrectly) reaching to the ground on an Irish Setter might look good from ringside or to the casual observer, but it could – and often does – cover up the fact that the dog has a very short rib cage and a long loin, but the judge’s hands should easily tell her that. The same holds true for many breeds.  

How about movement? Certainly not all breeds do – or should – move the same. One of the most misunderstood terms is “TRAD” – Tremendous Reach and Drive. Just because a dog has a long front reach and kicks dramatically behind does not mean it is correct for that breed. Often it is not. 

The standard for the Ibizan Hound calls for “An efficient, light and graceful single tracking movement. A suspended trot with joint flexion when viewed from the side.” The Irish Setter standard says, “The forelegs reach well ahead as if to pull in the ground without giving the appearance of a hackney gait. The hindquarters drive smoothly and with great power.” The Miniature Pinscher standard describes its gait as, “The hackney-like action is a high-stepping, reaching, free and easy gait in which the front leg moves straight forward and in front of the body and the foot bends at the wrist.” 

So, none of these three breeds should move – or have their movement judged – the same. (Actually, the front-movement description for a Gordon sounds more like an Ibizan than an Irish: "When viewed from the side, the forefeet are seen to lift up and reach forward to compensate for the driving hindquarters.")  

Even though a high-stepping Irish Setter with coat flying may get the crowd screaming at a show like Westminster, it is incorrect and a drag on the breed. And when breeders use these dogs/bitches because they have won – not because they are correct or fit well into their breeding program – it is detrimental to the breed, and sometimes it is almost impossible for a breed to recover.  

There have been many changes in our dog community since I started, and the two that have been most damaging have been the use of social media, and a lack of real “dog talk and knowledge.”  

Internet muscles and small minds have people commenting on shows, winners, judging, etc., whether or not those people have even been at the show or saw the dogs or competition about which they expound loudly. Many of these comments question the breed knowledge and/or integrity of many judges. This is another example of our “Me First culture,” and the lack of respect for others. Perhaps the biggest loss in our sport is the time we used to spend “just talking dogs.” People learned. People cared. People become “dog people.” I fear we are losing adding to our real “dog people” today. There are too many who just want to win – even if they don’t know why or if they should. 

So, instead of learning, there are those – in every walk of life – who just open their mouth and denigrate others, even though they could not even come close to doing what those they criticize can do.  

So, for our community, the correct saying should be: “Beauty is in the eye of the knowledgeable beholder.” Or maybe, we really see beauty with our heart.

What do you think? 



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