In the world of mammals, the domestic dog— Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of the gray wolf— reigns as the most morphologically diverse. Consider, for example, the extremes represented by the 155- pound South Russian Ovcharka and the seven-pound Silky Terrier. This incredible variety can be attributed in part to the dog’s basic template, which can be customized by the manipulation of a very small number of genes.
For instance, 95 percent of all five canine fur textures and lengths (the Afghan Hound and Curly-Coated Retriever curiously excepted) is orchestrated by three genes. Further, just six or seven locations in the canine genome account for nearly 80 percent of dogs’ vast size and weight differences. (In humans, these genes number in the hundreds, if not thousands). A single mutation, shared by 14 diminutive breeds, determines that a dog will be small, and another is responsible for the long-bodied, short-legged nature of numerous dwarf breeds.
Clearly, the dog’s random morphology isn’t quite as arbitrary as we thought, and breeds aren’t quite as unique. Furthermore, canine traits come in packages. Flip a switch to make the legs more slender, and the skull will narrow as well. Turn down the volume on pigment and the chance of deafness increases.
Those who bred dogs had long known that traits were related, but there was little understanding of how those relationships worked; nor was there much concern. Dogs were bred for skills useful in a practical world. Once breed exhibition became a fashionable pastime and working dogs were awarded championships based strictly on appearance, however, all this changed.
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In 1866, John Henry Walsh (writing under the pseudonym “Stonehenge”), editor of The Field, the most influential hunting and kennel journal in England, was the first to describe a breed’s physical characteristics with phrases that he believed were equivalent to its field ability. A bird dog judged perfect to a well-written breed standard would, by the logic of the day, perform perfectly in the field.
At the time, horsemen and sportsmen were the dog-fancy glitterati (women became active later), and many of the arcane descriptions in breed standards are borrowed from those arenas. For example, the Poodle’s “straight-forward springy trot” describes the dog’s ability to retrieve and carry a bird. The phrase “stand like a cleverly made hunter” references ideal anatomical construction and proportion in the German Shorthaired Pointer.
Today, breed standards serve three purposes: assessment in competition; delineation of unique qualities in different breeds, some very much alike; and maintenance of breed similarity throughout the world.
The question is, what happens to purebred dogs when language, intrinsically fluid and inexact, is used to suspend change in morphology and behavior? In the late 1990s, as a doctoral student in linguistics at Claremont Graduate University, I conducted a study to find out. Part of the research included interviews with experienced American Kennel Club (AKC) breeders, specialty judges and breed historians. What I heard from them provides some insight into specific ways that a standardized lexicon can influence change in pedigreed dogs far beyond what is intended.
Dogs in Translation For some breeds, international politics played a role. At the first Canine Congress in 1886, the Germans were opposed to the Swiss-type Saint Bernard, favoring the bulkier English type. Nothing was resolved until 1887, when the Swiss dog was finally approved as the international type. The United States club, with its strong ties to England, adopted the international standard in words, but in practice, bred to the English type.
During an interview, as three Saints gnawed on bones nearby, an experienced breeder and specialty judge offered his opinion: “This changed the morphology of the American Saint, most noticeably in the head. The Saint Bernard standard was translated, with some errors, from German to English in 1888. For instance, ‘when in action’ should have read ‘when excited or alert.’ The phrase, ‘the horizontal axis of the head’ should have read ‘the long axis of the head.’” More than a century later, the club had still not made corrections, perhaps because, as linguists argue, translation of a lexicon from one language to another can never be exact.
Translations are more like corrections or clarifications. When standards are clarified, they usually get longer and, consequently, more exclusive. A standard that calls for feet to be “round, compact, catlike, standing well upon the toe pads,” is more restrictive than one that says feet must be “close, round and firm.” Revisionists tread cautiously because an imprecisely rephrased standard can have an impact on a breed’s genetic diversity.
Amending a standard for any reason is controversial for those entrenched in a time-honored tradition devoted to blueblood history (albeit a fanciful history, since geneticists tell us that very few breeds are as old as they were once touted). As one Greyhound breeder observed, “The torch handed to us was the perfect coursing dog. Our standard is taken word for word from what Stonehenge wrote in the 1860s. If we added more words to make it more explicit, it may end up being a Greyhound different than the one each one of us has in our head.”
But progress necessitates change. A handful of words differentiate an apple, an orange or a pear, but 13 varieties of apples require a larger lexicon. In his 1576 treatise, Of Englishe Dogges: The Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties, cynologist John Caius described the generic land Spaniel in 58 words: “The most part of their skins are white and if they be marked with any spots, they are commonly red, and somewhat great therewithal, the hairs not growing in such thickness but that the mixture of them may easily be perceived. Other some of them be reddish and blackish, but of that sort there be but a few.” Today, Caius’s dog has morphed into 13 f lushing Spaniel breeds. The Field Spaniel standard uses 973 words, short in comparison to the English Springer Spaniel standard, a 2,040 word descriptor.
Occasionally, words are added to explain what something is not. As one breed standard committee member noted, “There were lots of questions from judges about the preferred shape of the eye opening. So we said it’s acceptable as long as it’s not this, that or the other thing.” And at a California dog show, pointing to Mastiffs benched only a few feet from his St. Bernards, an exhibitor told me, “Sometimes breed clubs have to lengthen standards to differentiate their breeds from others so similar that, if marked differently, could be shown as Saints.”
When Words Fail Dressed in formal attire appropriate for the straitlaced Madison Avenue cocktail party that precedes every Westminster dog show, AKC VIPs sipped their drinks and talked candidly about breed standards.
A Doberman breeder, specialty and all-breed judge opined, “I’m not sure that the standard hasn’t been what’s wrong with some of the breeds, in that by naming and describing the criteria with which the animal is to be judged, the words lack exactness. When people bred to the standard, the animal changed and became what the words described. Also, some groups wrote the standard and have not been able to breed to that ideal, so now, they change the nuance of the words to fit the breed ideal. Making the dogs fit the words, and not vice-versa, is wrong.”
For instance, a standard that establishes criteria to develop the best muzzle shouldn’t include terms that are subjective or indefinite. Or as one judge said, “If the standard calls for a short muzzle, judges select dogs based on the shortest muzzles in the ring. The breed’s muzzle gets shorter and shorter. So you have to ask, ‘Shorter than what?’”
Another said, “Our standard calls for the ear, when pulled forward, to reach the eye. You see so many dogs in the ring now with longer ears. We always say, well, which eye is it supposed to reach, and is it pulled under the muzzle or over it? I have never seen a Golden Retriever with ears too short.”
Some breeders get so fixated on one attribute of the traditional standard that they are willing to sacrifice something more important. “For example, they may create a broad head but are willing to accept shorter legs and a longer back in order to do so,” another judge observed.
Breed standards, like all nomenclature, are subject to the rules of language. Like the dog it describes, vocabulary is deceptively capricious and unexpectedly fluid. A good example is size. Big breeds are getting bigger. As I was told by a breed historian in reference to St. Bernards, “What was bred to be powerful and strong in 1900 would not be considered powerful and strong today. Like an automobile in 1915, it was powerful then but not compared to now.” If a standard describes a breed as strong and powerful, the ideal dog gets bigger.
Rather than hack away at standards, some breed clubs hold seminars for judges in which contemporary nuances of an indefinite vocabulary are refined. Others reluctantly reword phrases to accommodate inexperienced newcomers (currently, the average length of interest and activity in the dog fancy is five years or less). A Golden Retriever breeder told me, “People who wrote the original standard were horse people, and this is where the phrase, ‘deep through the heart’ came from. It had two meanings, deep through the chest and courageous. The original meaning and nuance of the old words is often lost on today’s breeders, or is interpreted to mean something else.” After years of debate, the phrase was reluctantly changed to “deep through the chest.” Some clubs don’t revise words, but instead, reinterpret their meanings. Take English Bulldogs, for example. As an owner of one of these stocky dogs remarked, “The interpretation of words has changed. The Victorian [Bull]dog was a transition dog, less bulky, less massive, taller, leaner, and is now thicker and more compact.” Another handler observed that “one of the issues in the standard is weight. It calls for 45 to 50 pounds. But it has no height restriction, so a higher-station dog might be thinner.” The 1910 dog was a much taller and leaner dog compared to today’s stout fireplug variety, but both are considered to have been bred correctly to the standard.
A German Shepherd breeder and specialty judge who chairs the club’s standard committee told me that “you can have the same words in several standards, but they don’t mean the same thing. We use the word ‘almondshaped’ in our standard. But if you look at other breed standards, both the Collie and American Cocker call for almond-shaped eyes. The Collie has a small triangular eye and the Cocker’s is a goggle-eye [the eye protrudes from the skull].”
Judges Play a Role A specialty judge is an experienced breeder and expert on a particular breed. An all-breed judge is a generalist qualified to judge several breeds. The specialty judge brings meaning to the words in the standard, and the allbreed judge makes sure the words mean what they say.
A specialty judge who also works as an all-breed judge explained that the interpretation of complex descriptions, such as the angle of the hock, is more difficult for a generalist all-breed judge to measure. “Because it’s easier to see a proper bite than a proper angulation, the bite may be given more significance than something more important, such as angulation of the hindquarters.” On the other hand, the all-breed judge tests the words. “If the breed club thinks the all-breed judge is misinterpreting the standard, then they need to rewrite it. The judge shouldn’t choose the dog that he thinks they mean.”
War of Words The AKC considers itself a club of clubs. Owners intent on breed registration must first demonstrate that a majority of breeders are interested in establishing a national breed club. Who gets to be in that club is at the heart of a mounting number of controversies.
In 1994, the AKC Labrador Retriever standard was revised to exclude dogs less than 22 inches at the withers (or 21 inches for bitches). Some breeders whose dogs no longer met the standard were part of an $11 million class-action suit against the AKC Labrador Retriever Parent Club (the national organization designated by AKC to represent the breed), claiming that height restrictions excluding shorter dogs no longer described the Labrador Retriever: if you make a bigger dog, you make a different dog. A litigant told me, “It’s perfectly reasonable to change a breed, but the dog should have a different name.” They tried and failed to trademark the name Labrador Retriever; the judge sided with the AKC parent club. The Border Collie war began in 1988, when the American Border Collie Association and others heard rumblings that some wanted to register the breed for conformation showing, which requires a breed standard. This idea didn’t go over well with herding trial enthusiasts; a Border Collie is what it does, not what it looks like. Any dog can enter an open sheepdog trial. There are no age, size, color, shape or breed restrictions, and registration is not required. Unlike registered purebreds, whose lineage must be proven in ancient studbooks, many Border Collie champions are registered on merit (ROM). In theory, a Pomeranian who could prove its worth at a sheepdog trial could, by performance, be called a Border Collie.
In the minds of many, AKC conformation specifications threatened 200 years of breeding for performance, not looks. Led by Donald McCaig, who retold the tale in his book The Dog Wars (2007, Outrun Press), the group prepared for battle: “Hands off the Border Collie! We own Border Collies. Our dogs are companion dogs, obedience dogs and livestock-herding dogs. For hundreds of years, Border Collies have been bred to strict performance standards and today they’re the soundest, most trainable dogs in the world. The AKC wants to push them out of the Miscellaneous Class and into the show ring. They seek a conformation standard [appearance standard] for the breed. We, the officers of every single legitimate national, regional and state Border Collie association, reject conformation breeding. Too often, the show ring fattens the puppy mills and creates unsound dogs. We will not permit the AKC to ruin our dogs.”
They filed to legally trademark the name but, like the Lab litigants, lost in court. In 1997, the first Border Collie was shown in conformation at Westminster. I was there that year and interviewed a handler/owner who had been instrumental in getting the breed registered and in writing the standard. I asked her how she did her research. “This dog is shown in Australia, the British Isles and New Zealand. So I read their standards and asked them what they would do differently if they could. I tried to emphasize movement and gait. The standard shouldn’t describe a still dog. The Border Collie is almost a vision of movement even when it is standing still … always poised on the brink of action. The head drops for a reason. It is common knowledge among Border Collie people. That’s why I didn’t include a description of the head in the standard. I thought everybody would know that.”
In the benching area, surrounded by panting dogs crowded into crates and standing patiently while being primped on grooming tables, the woman sat in a folding chair, visibly distraught. Tearyeyed, she continued: “Right before you got here, a prominent breeder came by and said he will breed a dog with the head held higher. The head has to do with movement in the field, in making eye contact with the sheep, the pattern of behavior that has evolved from two centuries of work. Now I regret having fought so hard for this. The standard should not threaten the dog as a working animal, but I believe it now will.” About the same time the Border Collie war was raging, AKC enthusiasts saw an opportunity to register the Jack Russell Terrier (JRT), an irascible, independent dog with an intense work ethic, extremely diverse genome and phenotype as dissimilar as that of the Border Collie. Many Jack Russell Terrier breeders vehemently opposed the action, claiming that the breed’s physical and working characteristics would be jeopardized by this move. Nevertheless, the splinter group formed the requisite national breed club, named itself the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA) and gained AKC recognition in 2001.
A lawsuit ensued. After an expensive court battle, the name Jack Russell Terrier was awarded to the working phenotype and the AKC changed the conformation dog’s name to Parson Russell Terrier. The AKC parent club is now the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America.
Writer Alston Chase, who includes the story of the breakup of the breed in his book We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear (2008, Transaction Publishers), told me, “The Jack Russell Terrier is a feisty, very aggressive, very tough dog. But middle-class urbanites don’t really want that kind of dog. They want a dog that will be a good pet.” Chase, who lives in rural Montana, has bred the working terrier since the 1970s.
The public took notice of the rather obscure breed when it became a media darling in the 1980s. Chase said, “The overbreeding followed the popularity driven by the media, not by the dog itself.” Aggressive and difficult in a pet environment, the breed was misrepresented as a mischievous lap dog on shows like the NBC sitcom Frasier. Surprised and disappointed by their dogs’ ornery personalities and exercise requirements, urban pet owners abandoned JRTs at shelters in record numbers.
According to Chase, one of only a handful of people in the U.S. continuing to breed the old-fashioned dog, “We’re doing what we can to prevent extinction of the original breed, but people aren’t in love with the value of diversity in the dog. They want dogs that look alike.”
Geneticist Jasper Rine, in a letter to the AKC supporting the Border Collie anti-conformation campaign (included in the appendix of McCaig’s 2007 book), predicted what was to come. “It may be nearly impossible to breed for a particular behavior based on heterozygous advantage and still achieve a homogenous conformation.” Breeding dogs for fixed conformation means breeding for homozygosis (the formation of genetically identical gametes) of the genes that contribute to appearance. In doing so, genetic linkage (the tendency of genes located in proximity to each other on a chromosome to be inherited together during meiosis, or cell division) may result in genes near those controlling conformation becoming homozygous as well. Unfortunately, chance determines which genes are swept up. By breeding for conformation, breeders may be breeding away from desirable behavior, even putting alleles (forms of a gene) at risk for extinction.
So, what has happened to the Labrador Retriever, Border Collie and Jack Russell Terrier over the last 15 years?
The shorter-legged, more compact field-bred Lab continues to be shown in Canada, the UK and other countries that don’t disqualify individuals based on size. In the U.S., conformation and companion Labs are getting increasingly larger. Will diseases linked to large size compromise the American line? Time will tell.
As a consequence of the acrimonious Border Collie war, few working dog breeders had a desire to become specialty judges, so the fate of the conformation dog was left in the hands of generalist judges who lacked sheepdogtrial experience. As predicted, the standard created a split type: working dogs continue to be a rag-tag group, dissimilar in shape, size and color, but the same in their relentless determination to move sheep from one place to another. In contrast, AKC dogs look very similar, but their ability to herd sheep is open to question. Are both types called Border Collies? Formally, yes, but the AKC dog is widely, popularly and even affectionately known as the “Barbie Collie” by some: pretty as a picture, but, according to the member-owned American Border Collie Association and others, as blandly attractive and vacuous as the doll from which the name derives.
The working Border Collie is safe for now, but the old-fashioned Jack Russell Terrier can hardly be found. Like the Old English Bulldog who faded away with the passage of the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act and the Wolfhound who died out with the demise of the wolf in the British Isles, the pre-AKC JRT will likely disappear as well. Eventually, sentimental breeders may attempt to recreate the breed when they realize what they’ve lost, and they may perhaps have some success in replicating the way the dog appeared. But the breed’s signature obstreperous temperament is something people will only read about in books.
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Of the 400 breeds recognized worldwide today, more than two-thirds were created in the last 150 years. There’s no doubt that conformation exhibition and its requisite breed standard played a big part in subdividing breeds, closing studbooks, shrinking gene pools and diminishing genetic diversity.
It would seem, then, that words are indeed powerful. To say that the lexicon used to describe a purebred dog, or even name one, will not affect the way we engineer the animal contradicts the language-relativity hypothesis, which holds that the vernacular we use to frame our perceptions influences the way we regard, understand, interpret and reinvent them. As a tool, language plays an important role by which innovation—in this case, of a sentient human-made domestic animal—is further developed. Or, as the AKC says, refined.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? If you’re talking about dog breeds, that’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is no.