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Breeders, judges and historians talk about breed standards—why they work and when they don’t
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Saint Bernard current and past
Saint Bernard current and past

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.

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.

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