How Have We Changed Our Breeds?
Sitting in the judges’ area, watching the groups, it became apparent to me that many of our breeds have been significantly changed over the past 50 years.
In most case, the changes have been to “prettify” our breeds instead of allowing them to be the “workmanlike” breeds they were bred to be. Elegance has usurped utility. To me, there is absolutely no question that areas such as coat, handling and attitude have changed – sometimes for the better, and sometimes not so much. I wanted to see if this was just my impression, so I reached out to significant breeders to get their feedback. This very informal survey has resulted in a mixed bag of opinions.
Some have seen little to no changes, with statements from a Weimaraner breeder such as “… we have the same breed standard, which I think is the breeder bible. It hasn’t changed … neither has my interpretation … the dogs I liked then I would still like now.”
Some see improvements. For Ibizan Hounds, a relatively new breed to the AKC (1978), a breeder-judge says, “I think we have settled into better soundness and more consistent, in-standard size since the breed was first shown in Group competition. We no longer have giants with rubber-band joints. Judges have seen enough exceptional examples that they know how to credit proper movement in the breed. On the other hand, they often fall to the temptation of valuing how long they can hold their ears up. I think the quality dogs in many breeds may not have changed, but the average entry has.”
I think that is a very accurate and important statement that deserves to be repeated: “… the quality dogs in many breeds may not have changed but the average entry has.”
A breeder-judge of Whippets thinks “… the breed has greatly improved in several areas. Fronts are much better now. Better shoulder angulation. The bodies are longer with more length of loin. In the ’70s and early ’80s, shorter loins usually ended up with drop-off in croup as well as lack of rear drive. Whippets are supposed to be fairly wide between the ears, and now, for the most part, [breeders] are achieving that. Eyes are bigger and darker than they were then. … [Many] did not have as much substance as they do now. … too much emphasis is put on baiting and stacking now. It’s not a push-button breed – and never was. Elegant with good reach and drive is much better today than [it was] then.”
A breeder-judge of Flat-Coated Retrievers, correctly, I think, sees a natural ebb and flow in breed quality. “I can’t say that I’ve perceived many changes in the breed over the past 30 to 35 years, although, that said, I do think breed quality does seem to ebb and flow over the years. I might be tempted to say that increased importing of dogs from Europe and other countries has led to better or more consistent breed type, but I don’t think I can. I’ve seen some of the same assets and issues with imported Flat-Coats as among domestically bred dogs. I do think that grooming has become a bit more ‘fancy,’ or stylish. The standard simply calls for the tidying of ears, feet, underline and tip of tail, which is really minimal, but we’re seeing more sculpting and greater use of ‘products’ affecting the coat in terms of appearance and texture. Although the standard specifically calls for penalizing any shaving or barbering of the head, neck or body, I do occasionally see this and feel judges should in fact penalize this trend. Finally, our standard allows for a wide range insofar as size goes and doesn’t specify a weight range, but although perhaps not a ‘new’ trend, I do see many which are devoid of substance. Many ‘tall’ exhibits don’t carry adequate bone to go along with their height, and many smaller exhibits also lack adequate rib spring and substance.”
A very successful breeder-owner-handler in Irish Setters sees some changes – especially when looking at “Group dogs.” “… big change … is the size. Bitches should be 25 inches and dogs should be 27 inches … variance beyond an inch up or down is to be discouraged. I am seeing bitches closer to 27” or so and dogs at least two inches above that. Yet, of course, the overall balance is what is most important, but I feel there is definitely a change in breeding taller animals. One hears the old adage, ‘Oh, that is a Group bitch,’ meaning she can hold her own in the Group and not look small and insignificant – especially when the Irish is the tallest of the Setters.
“Another change that I see and totally am for, is the top line of body from withers to tail should be firm and incline slightly downward without sharp drop at the croup. It is quite evident in the older pictures of Irish Setter, that the tail sets were low and the croup rounded, thus breaking up that line from shoulder to croup. Breeders are striving to get a slightly sloping, strong top line with no dips and a continued line from shoulders to hips to tail.
“… the most obvious difference is in coat length and grooming. The standard reads ‘All trimming is to preserve the natural appearance of the dog.’ Well, straight shears to the underline is not how any dog’s natural appearance would look. Yet, to leave the coat minimally trimmed, that dog would appear more unkempt as compared to others in the ring. Handlers know how to trim an underline so that a shorter-loined dog can appear longer and a straighter rear can appear more angled. ‘Back in the day,’ there was barely enough hair to trim out any undesirable traits.”
I agree with most of this, but not all. Bitches may be somewhat bigger now, but there were also quite a few big Irish males in the ’70s-’80s. A couple of significant winners were at least 30” tall. (No, I did not measure them.) All breeds have those who think a dog must be bigger to win in the Group ring, and, if more and more people feel this way, group judges will see only big dogs in the group ring – so from what do they have to choose?
I absolutely agree that coat and presentation are significantly different and better. Addressing coat, the standard talks about “moderate length. Feathering long and silky on ears; on back of forelegs and thighs long and fine, with a pleasing fringe of hair on belly and brisket extending onto the chest. Fringe on tail moderately long and tapering. … Excess feathering is removed to show the natural outline of the foot. All trimming is done to preserve the natural appearance of the dog.”
Moderate length? Natural appearance? Really? It’s kind of like the Cocker Spaniel standard, which calls for … “Excessive coat or curly or cottony textured coat shall be severely penalized.”
An international Irish Setter breeder-judge points out many areas that could apply to almost any breed: “Breeders have forgotten the primary function of all breeds and have focused on how to make them look attractive and elegant. Even the rustic breeds such as the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, which must appear naturally tousled – now we see an over-groomed, cute, glamorous dog [despite that] the standard clearly states the contrary.”
This judge questions whether many breeds could perform their original function because of manmade changes. “Such as the particular coat Corgis must have, the characteristics of their unique coat should serve a function: To protect the dog that has to herd the cattle all day long in the Welsh pastures under the weather inclemencies. [Some] breeders nowadays focus their attention in presenting a pretty Corgi.”
Speaking specifically about Irish Setters, she sees “so many faulty structures, lacking chest depth, sickle hocks, very short upper arms, scapulae so high … Those dogs will not be able to perform their job as they are supposed to. We see in every breed that the evolution [is] not necessarily for the best. Many have lost the essence that defined them, including the Toy breeds. Toys must possess sound temperament – that characteristic is of utmost importance, structure as well. They need to be the companion of a child, a family or an elder person. They must be sound Toy dogs, not deformed, not bad tempered or nervous, frightened creatures. I love to see merry Toy breeds, amicable Toy breeds that last a long, healthy life for their owners.
“… coat has become a cosmetic quality, not a natural one. Soundness is just basic for every breed. I have judged Boxers with no muscular or bone substance. [Some] Dobermans [are] so refined that make me think of Bambi. Evolution? Or involution? When someone expresses that they ‘breed to improve a breed or they breed for the betterment of the breed,’ [it] makes me wonder: How will they do that, what exactly do they think they can do? Would love to hear the formula.”
A Saluki breeder stresses that lack of balance has become a problem. “Our standard is not at all long or extremely descriptive, but what is does say is very important. General Appearance states ‘should give an impression of grace and symmetry.’ It goes further to say ‘strength … to enable it to kill gazelle or other quarry over deep sand or rocky mountains.’ And earlier in the standard it talks about forelegs, ‘Straight and long from the elbow to the knee.’ So, with keeping those phrases in mind, I envision an athlete able to do what the standard describes, in a balanced animal. Not long and low, meaning the lacking of length of leg.”
A Samoyed breeder-judge also seems to agree with what I see when she says, “Flashy side gait is emphasized over balance and proportions today. Many dogs are long and low instead of the correct leg length. We see many dogs that exceed the top (height) of our standard. Thirty years ago, many breeders bred to the standard – not so much today. I find this discouraging as the opportunities for education (nationals and regionals), seminars (Orlando and Houston) along with kennel visits are more prevalent. But I find the judging average.”
A Chesapeake Bay Retriever breeder says, “This breed is the largest and strongest of the retrievers, and I might add, most misunderstood when being judged in the conformation ring. There are a variety of styles, coats, sizes when looking at a Chesapeake, and the breeders have done a pretty good job of maintaining breed type. Temperaments have improved greatly over the years. I like to describe the Chesapeake as the ‘blue-collar worker’ of the retrievers – not given to flash, but function. The breed standard states they should be strong, powerful animals capable of working in adverse weather conditions all day. As this breed is judged, one must keep in mind the job they perform.
“The areas of concern that I see in the rings are the awarding of lack of balance, misunderstood coats and heads. Balance issues – too much or too little bend of stifle; straight or more likely, exaggerated fronts – a prominent post sternum is not mentioned in the breed standard; too long of body causing a dip or sway in the topline; too short on leg – all these hinder the smooth, efficient movement that is needed for these dogs to work all day in the field.
“Coats are extremely important and, quite often, misunderstood by judges. The predominate and defining feature of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever is the distinctive, oily double coat. My pet peeve is coats that have been shampooed, blown out, brushed and trimmed for the show ring. This practice is all wrong and will be permanently damaging to the coat.
“There is a trend that is leaning toward large, wide block heads, with excessive stops. The Chesapeake has a longer muzzle length, the stop is not as pronounced – length of muzzle and thin lips are important for retrieving birds. The amount of length of muzzle, proper stop and rounding from ear to ear over the skull contributes to breed head type that distinguishes the Chesapeake from the other retrievers. The head should not look like a Labrador!”
A long-time Labrador Retriever breeder says that some of the changes we see in her breed were caused by changes in the standard about 25 years ago. I would add that it appears to me that we have two styles of Labradors – those that lean towards the British style (wider, fuller chests, shorter legs) and those that are more American-bred (somewhat slimmer, longer muzzle, longer legs and appearing to be more athletic and agile). I also find it very incorrect for any retriever to have loose, very wet lips since these would be very damaging to the feathers of the retrieved bird.
There has been recent talk – mostly by little minds on the social media (that automatically makes the user an expert) – about judges measuring, withholding points (me), and disqualifying a dog who growls and lunges. Maybe we should just not worry about a 16-inch Beagle, or dogs with no breed characteristics, or even a Doberman with no teeth. Or a judge could just excuse a lunging dog so that he may bite the next judge or a child, so he can continue to be used in a breeding program. Maybe rather than have judges who exhibit breed knowledge, caring and integrity, we should just have human PEZ dispensers in the middle of the ring handing out ribbons and points. Or, to save time, we could just mail the ribbons and championship certificates every time someone pays an entry fee. Let’s just completely forget that we are supposed to be judging breeding stock.
What do you think?