In the dog fancy, a breed standard is a written guideline that outlines the blueprint of a specific breed for the function for which it was bred, such as herding and hunting. The guideline describes the ideal and defining characteristics of a breed, its temperament, structure, appearance, and its fitness for function. It defines the essence of a breed.
Some breed standards took form in the nineteenth century, when some breeds were being developed for specific functions. Function and form were not to be separated: a dog’s role and function in life determined its appearance, shape, size, and temperament. A dog bred to hunt vermin, for example, needs to be low to the ground. Via breed standards, early breeders sought to define, capture, and preserve desirable qualities for a specific breed and its function in life.
Today, few of us need to hunt vermin, hunt for our daily food, or tend to livestock. However, breed standards endure and are used as a tool by:
Breeders as they strive to breed specimens that are typical of their breed and as close to the described ideal as possible, as they strive to continually improve their breeding program
Judges to assess specimens in the conformation ring
Not for Newbies!
A breed standard is likely to be the first tool or starting place for the novice breeder and fancier. However, a breed standard isn’t very “novice friendly”. In fact, according to the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), the Aussie breed standard “is not intended to be a breeding manual for the novice”. Nannette L. Newbury states that a breed standard is “not designed to be understood by novices”.
Why is it that a breed standard might not be newbie friendly? For starters:
It’s a brief, concise document
It describes the ideal, in mostly positive and sometimes imprecise statements
It’s not meant to be exhaustive and complete
The ideal, in its many individual and abstract parts and in the whole, can be hard to grasp, especially when language is open to interpretation and when the novice lacks the experience to recognize balance, type, and quality in flesh and fur instead of words.
According to Newbury, a breed standard is “not intended to stand alone, but to be complemented by continuing education and knowledge based on experiences.” Some aspects, such as proportion and overall balance, require “an educated eye”. States Newbury, the ability to apply a breed standard to an individual specimen “takes study, mentoring and a great deal of experience”.
The Problem with Faults
It may be easier for the novice to focus on faults as a starting point (“mismarks”, for example). However, the Aussie breed standard isn’t intended to be a compendium of faults and disqualifications. To complicate matters, the Aussie breed standard clearly calls out some faults but not all, and in the end all faults are implied: “In describing the ideal, it was thought redundant to list all faults as they are implied as being contrary to the ideal. It is also implicit that variation from the ideal is to be faulted according to the extent of deviation.”
The problem is that “implied” and “implicit” take experience to grasp, and by definition a novice lacks experience and may not have access to quality mentorship and guidance.
Focusing on faults may have undesirable effects, such as encouraging the novice breeder to focus on parts of the dog, rather than develop a nuanced understanding that a dog and a breed standard are more than the sum of their parts. Selecting a puppy that is free of obvious faults and minor imperfections may not equate to keeping the “best” puppy in a litter. The absence of faults doesn’t indicate the presence of soundness, type, balance, and excellence.
Focusing on faults may also encourage fault-based judging in the breed ring. As per the late W.R. Polley, fault judging is where a judge tries to find a winner “by comparing the faults of one dog to another…arriving at a decision on faults possessed by the dogs, disregarding among other things the required virtues and qualities of the dogs relative to the standard”. You could say that each and every dog will have a fault or faults; it might be easy to find faults, but harder for the fault finder to determine whether a fault is serious or less serious, cosmetic or functional. As Polley states, “It is the lack of through (sic) knowledge and understanding of the breed that prevents a person seeing the virtues of type, balance, soundness, and quality to the same degree as they do the faults. With knowledge comes the ability to see a dog as a whole unit with virtues as well as faults - all in balanced proportions.”
So, What’s a Novice to Do?
Beginners sometimes complain that the ASCA breed standard provides insufficient guidance. As an experiment, I recently asked 5 individuals with varying breed experience – from novice to seasoned handlers, to an experienced breeder – to identify the stated faults in the breed standard. The result was consistent variation across individuals in terms of identifying faults and some degree of unsureness about wording. One person, for instance, felt that “The hairline of a white collar does not exceed the point at the withers” denotes a Disqualification (interpreting this as a “white body splash”) while another identified this exceedance as a fault.
Sounds like we might have a chicken-and-egg situation: novices need to start somewhere, and a breed standard seems like a good place to start – yet novices lack the “great deal of experience” to fully understand and apply a breed standard.
There isn't a quick fix. Breed standards take a great deal of collective effort and time to revise and sometimes proposed revisions aren’t accepted by the membership. Human beings learn by study and experience, over time. Obtaining an “eye for a dog” and a deep and nuanced understanding of a breed and a breed standard require an investment of years, in all of the following:
continuing education, via seminars and workshops
networking and quality, meaningful mentorship
observing and handling Aussies in the breed ring
observing and participating in performance activities for which the Australian Shepherd was bred, in order to observe the inter-relationship of function and form in action
experience breeding and evaluating litters and puppies
Perhaps the most appropriate place to start is with the most basic of “basics”:
dog terminology, which is the language of a breed standard and fancy
canine structure and anatomy, which is a dog’s foundation
function in action, which is seeing and understanding the standard in theory and principle
The novice handler’s or novice breeder’s first and best friend may well be a classic book on canine terminology and structure.
A breed standard is a tool, one of many available to both the novice and the seasoned and those in between. Like many tools, it may have limitations and imperfections, and may be interpreted and applied differently by different individuals in different situations.
Understanding and applying the Aussie breed standard as it applies to the whole dog, to the whole of its many parts, takes effort, time, experience, and quality mentorship. With experience and guidance, we learn over time to see and assess a dog as more than a collection of faults or virtues. Guidance can be difficult to obtain, but that is a topic for another time.
K-9 Structure & Terminology, by Edward Gilbert Jr., Thelma Brown
Dog Locomotion and Gait Analysis, by Curtis M. Brown
© 2016 Valerie Yates