Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Holy Grail Fantasy

How often have you heard or read the Holy Grail statement from a dog breeder?

A breed standard is a word description of what the ideal dog of that breed looks like. It is an attempt to describe "perfection."

And the phrase that keeps it relevant... "The perfect dog has never been bred"?

Is there enough purpose to breeding if your dogs don't perform any function? All that time and money wasted on ... nothing? Effort, determination and expense must be justified by something. Nature abhors a vacuum. If there is no purpose to be found, a Holy Grail can be substituted.

In the article The Functional Saluki, Dan Belkin stated "So, I must add that not only is a Saluki a dog that looks like a Saluki, but also a dog that works like a Saluki".

You can, of course, substitute any dog breed for 'Saluki' in that statement. Mr. Belkin's article deconstructs the myth that a standard will describe the dog that works best. Indeed, at most a standard can only describe the dog that "looks" best.

So here's the question. When the original creators of a breeds' standardwrote their description of their breed, were they really trying to describe the "ideal" specimen of that breed? Or were they merely putting enough description to paper to distinguish their creation from their neighbors creation on the next farm?

Mr Belkin opined that standard drafters looked at a lot of dogs doing a certain task, and said "this is what a dog doing this job should look like". In other words, a general description of the features that could identify a "good" working dog for whatever purpose.

If a standard was really created to describe the ideal speciman, and the "perfect dog" has never been bred, why do standards change? Are the breeders admitting defeat? Or are they proving the theory of the Holy Grail... Looks are always subject to fashion and fashion changes; the Holy Grail must remain desireable therefore, the descriptions of the perfect dog must change to meet the fashions?


  1. The concept of the Breed Standard becomes even more suspect when you start to research your breed and the changes made to the standard over the years. I have Afghan hounds. The standard was last changed in 1948, to add preference for a level bite, and that white markings, especially on the head, are undesirable. This becomes interesting when you find out one of the bigwigs on the standard committee had dogs with level bites (a level bite is stupid, the incisors wear down very quickly and the bite is more likely to 'go off' as the dogs grows, depending on how the teeth come in), and that there were some dogs with white markings that were doing some big winning around that time. Stooopid.

    Love your blog, BTW.

  2. Look into the history of dog breed standards. There is one man who created a huge number of them -- John Henry Walsh (aka "Stonehenge"), a man who himself did not own or work almost any of the the dogs he describes. He was basically an editor at Field who wrote a dog catalogue. The notion that "standards" are written by people who know the dog and work the dog is laughable. So too is the standard itself.

    Here's a parlor trick -- give 10 folks the breed standards for five dogs chosen at radom, and remove the name of the breed. Ask them what breed it is! See how well they do.


  3. Interesting post. Though I agree with most of your argument, especially as it pertains to how a dog works being a huge part of the breed standard, I would argue that some breed standards definitely deserve a change. One of my patients is a top Akita. He is aggressive. This is considered part of the breed standard for his breed. That means his grumblings and growls in and out of the show ring are considered acceptable (according to his owner and handler). IMO, that's one breed standard that deserves to change.