Denmark in 2014, with my 12-month-old fawn BISS Danish Danehouse’s Wega (Dane Garden’s Swan The One For Me x Grand Fergo’s Equinoxe) & my best male in fawn & brindle, Ch. Blaaholm’s Nesco (Highesteem Keep’ Em Talking x Multi-Ch. Maxidan’s Jump The Queue).
…is a singularly non-informative expression. It says absolutely nothing about the dog it refers to. It expresses personal taste. It’s alright if said by breeders about dogs they are thinking of using in their breeding program, because said individual Danes happen to express the qualities these breeders seek to improve upon. But the right dog for a particular breeding program or mating combination or even signature kennel style is not necessarily the best dog overall. So it’s not alright when that expression is used by judges about dogs they are expected to assess or have assessed, or said about dogs in general in an evaluating context.
It’s a let down because it demonstrates that the person has failed to grasp or refused to come to terms with what it is that conformation judges are supposed to do: which is to find the absolute best dogs regardless of style – the dogs that come closest to the standard, irrespective of personal preferences.
They are not supposed to use judging to promote their preferred style over others that are equally typical. They are not supposed to view different styles as inferior. They are not supposed to use judging to make sure the style they prefer becomes the prevalent one, so that their own dogs in turn find it easier to win or place. They are not supposed to favor styles when they judge – they are supposed to go against their own style preference to serve the breed and serve diversity within the standard type. I take my tea with milk but that’s not the only valid option in tea-drinking. By definition a breed style does not cover the whole range of a breed type. What we prefer is influenced by perception and culture and what we grow accustomed to in our own small part of the world. Some of us strive to keep an international perspective of the breed, while others are only exposed to what’s happening on a single continent or even a single country, and perhaps not interested to see beyond that; yet the breed in a global entity and most importantly, its gene pool is spread thin all over the world. So what we like in our homes and in our breeding programs is not what should define us and make us predictable when we judge, as that doesn’t quite serve the breed in its entirety.
We are supposed to develop a broad perspective of the breed as a whole before we step into a ring to judge; a deep knowledge of what its strengths and weaknesses are at any given point; a perspective of its origins and history; an understanding of its original function; an ability to gauge its overall level of quality, in order to be able to keep it on the straight and narrow, penalizing undesirable trends that are becoming common and being less severe with minor imperfections that are not affecting functionality, i.e. are purely aesthetic and not widespread. All this prioritized information should form the basis of our assessments and qualify our judgement.
When we all started we thought our own dogs were wonderful and the best in the world; we are supposed to grow out of that immature thinking; we are supposed to look outside our own back yard, and learn to appreciate good dogs no matter where they come from, and develop an internationally informed opinion, since our breed is a global breed; inability to objectively assess other styles than one’s own is exactly how fashions and trends are created and how entries reflecting the judge help these trends get established beyond control, creating population ‘pockets’ that evolve arbitrarily – like the hypertype trend in regions of Europe – resulting in deviations from the standard and from normal canine structure and morphology.
Judges are not supposed to go through an entry looking for dogs that only appeal to their aesthetics or satisfy their personal tastes. They are not supposed to select only the dogs they would like to have in their kennels. They are not supposed to take their personal preferences in the ring with them. The question “did you find anything you’d like to take home?” leaves out the bigger picture – because it is perfectly valid to ‘put up’ a dog that one wouldn’t personally call one’s ‘cup of tea’, but happens to be not just the best of that entry but also one that satisfies the priority of conforming to the standard in an exemplary degree – i.e., a thoroughly good, typical, sound Dane.
No, judges are not supposed to exclusively appreciate what they themselves strive to breed and just and only that: because what everyone breeds is only a fraction of the Breed Type range. In the ring, judges are supposed to appreciate and appraise and like the breed, the whole breed and nothing but the breed – nothing that falls outside that breed range, that is. Of course they are supposed to like other breeds – in fact I wouldn’t entirely trust a judge who did not take an interest and study other breeds also, because such a judge would be too blinkered to detect faults that have become accepted as the norm within his or her single breed (SV GSD judges are a good example) – yet we are supposed to know where our breed ends and another one begins – we aren’t supposed to confuse our Danes with our mastiffs or with our greyhounds…
Appraisal of dogs is generally understood to be a matter of opinion. It’s a widely accepted notion that exhibitors pay the entry fees to get the various judges’ personal opinions about their dogs. And that this collection of judges’ opinions is the summary of a dog’s merit.
Wrong. Exhibitors shouldn’t give a damn about the judge’s personal opinion. That’s the person’s own business, not for when the person is adjudicating in the ring. It’s for a different time and a different place, to strike a conversation and learn from each other, in a relaxed atmosphere, maybe with a glass or cuppa in hand, to fill in any gaps in our education and pick each other’s brains, exchange views and get to know how other people see things and what they “look for” in dogs (that’s another manner of speech that potentially confuses the issue, disregarding the holistic approach we are supposed to inform our opinions by, favoring a narrow-minded, shortchanging approach: what we ‘look for’ in dogs is supposed to be everything that’s in the breed standard – the grand total, not just parts, not bits that we pick and choose from it; not just the bits we lack in our own lot or the bits our dogs have too much off, either!).
I am guilty of having used these expressions and regretted it when I came to think about them, what they really mean and how they are usually interpreted. We tend to pick expressions up and use them as we go along because they are the norm in our social groups, before we actually apply some critical thought onto them. But when we know better we are supposed to do better; be more informative and discerning with our manner of speech because that’s the way we pass on useful or useless information, especially when talking with newcomers and answering their questions; lazy expressions can lead to misunderstandings and set the wrong examples.
Still these expressions may be used – with the caveat that the person adds how a dog satisfies the standard and how his or her type of Dane is the standard type of Dane. To use them meaning that x favored dog fits the person’s favorite style and therefore is superior to all other acceptable and correct and typical styles within the breed is very, very, wrong, arrogant, biased and incorrect. It’s one breed, one breed type and includes a variety of perfectly fine and typical styles within it. People who think that only their style is correct are not doing the breed any favors and do not understand the standard. Furthermore this idea shows a misunderstanding of how genetics work. I’m not a geneticist so I have a huge deficit of in depth knowledge in the subject but I have tried and studied and study incessantly in order to improve; so thus far I have managed to grasp the fundamentals – and the most basic thing among them is that life requires diversity and that’s why we have variety in the little building blocks that make up every living thing.
Standard descriptions can be vague – because they couldn’t possibly contain everything that makes a dog and they should not contain absolute numerical values about every possible measurement either. I had an exchange in a facebook group the other week with someone in Dobermanns who thought that every dog over 72 cm should not be used in breeding; that breed is experiencing a genetic bottleneck and although dogs that are above the limit should not win at shows, it would be harmful to exclude them from breeding on height alone, in the current desperate situation. So I don’t think absolutism serves breeds well. Ours is a giant breed yet we now have a 90 cm height limit in the FCI standard. It should be taken as a showring guideline (to reign in the ‘bigger is better’ extremism) and not as a guillotine to exclude good dogs from breeding, because in that case it becomes harmful extremism itself. The more ‘open’ a breed standard is the richer the breed it serves. Breeds are ranges within the canine spectrum allowing selection and development. If breed type was a tiny pin prick of a dot there wouldn’t be anything to select for or against and nothing to improve.
There’s no perfect dog – no perfect being – and all dogs differ. So the little colored glasses grading eye color, for example, just make me laugh – because they are ridiculous attempts to quantify merit: they are aesthetically dogmatic and meaningless, when it comes to assessing real dogs with real merit and real shortcomings. A dog with a slightly lighter eye and every other quality expressed to a satisfactory degree is a much better dog that a dark-eyed mediocrity, and equally, a mediocrity that is fit for purpose is a much better dog than a fabulous contraption put together by blind trolls from outstanding yet mismatched spare bits that don’t quite fit together well and so the dog falls apart with every step. And yet, although the latter shouldn’t win in the show ring, all these have their use in breeding – with moderation. Those who think they possess the absolute truth and the whole & only truth are dangerously conceited delusional fools that shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a show ring – or a whelping box, for that matter. Unless they are actually capable of learning and changing their views when new facts are presented to them.
The breed survey charts and the point scores are a very good idea in theory but poorly served by human nature (that’s why point systems were dropped by practically every standard that used to include them – like ours), because again it’s impossible to quantify everything and apply accurate scores on all the fields without leaving room for abuse, corruption or simple inadequacy. I have publicly said that the only perfect solution is to develop computer programs to assess dogs, feed them the breed standards and let them at it. And I wasn’t jesting. We rely on computers in everything on our daily lives – they drive our cars and fly our planes so we do trust them with our lives. At least we know they will apply the same criteria every time and that they won’t be subjective, fictitious, biased, bigoted, unreasonable, ignorant, self-serving or downright unfair. Scientific and accurate assessment by computers wouldn’t affect our personal breeding selections, but would remove a lot of the negative side of human nature from dog shows – so, why not? Yes, I know the answer to that, sadly…
What the exhibitor pays for is a true expert’s proper, educated, qualified, exact and objective assessment of a dog against the breed standard. It shouldn’t be flippant and irresponsible, thinking oh well, this is what I fancy, let them go under another judge another day for another fanciful subjective opinion or a better look. What the exhibitors are entitled to get for their money is an efficient application of the breed standard – to the best of the judge’s ability (and if’s the job of the governing bodies to ensure that the judges are adequate, educated, qualified and fair). That’s the yardstick. The breed standard, in its entirety. What’s not in the standard because it’s sine qua non of normal dog anatomy & physiology and breed specific history and breed-appropriate function is also fundamentally necessary as a field of study to form the background whereupon our understanding of the standard and our ability to appreciate type, i.e. form shaped by function, and soundness, is based. The judge’s duty is to apply the ruler fairly and intelligently and to a degree of accuracy that is discernible and justifiable. Fluffing it won’t do.
When one of my dogs won BOB at a show and I was eager to inquire afterwards about bits that naturally the judge left out of the written critique, as critiques can’t possibly include everything, asking in order to learn both about my dog and about the judge’s ability, only to hear that my dog won because he had a bigger head and more lips than the competition, I immediately lost respect for that particular judge; because what his answer demonstrated perfectly was a) that he was an idiot who was also taking me for an idiot, b) that he was putting bits and bobs above the whole dog and c) that he had zero knowledge of or respect for the standard and shouldn’t have been judging my breed. The judge is in the center of the ring to assess dogs against the detailed description of the breed’s ideal specimen. Against a blueprint that is very precise and comprehensible to anyone with two brain cells to rub together, in a language that presumably the judge understands, and fully applicable. If the dog doesn’t fit, no amount of personal taste, opinion and preference can make a square peg fit a round hole.
“My kind of Dane” implies that it’s an option, that we have a choice to apply the standard or to apply our own personal standards that differ from what’s written down as the tool we should all be using. It implies that everyone and anyone can justify anything by just saying “this is what I like” or this is “my kind of Dane”. That’s a very slippery slope. What matters is the breed standard’s kind of Dane. That’s why I support written critiques for every exhibit on the spot – but I appreciate that’s not a panacea either, for many reasons that can be visited in another post. And if we think that the standard is wrong in some respect or that it has been changed arbitrarily in a way that is harmful to the dogs, we should get involved and use consensus and the democratic process to draw attention to the facts and make the necessary changes happen. We should encourage open discussion about the problems in our breed and put forward ways to tackle them.
When we judge dogs though we are supposed to all use the same yardstick – and that’s the standard as it stands; we are supposed to put every word of it into good use. Our job is to find the dogs that come closer to the written description. Even if these dogs don’t particularly set us alight. We may hate the fact that it’s mostly fawns that are winning top accolades, if that applies to where we live and we happen to breed other colors. But if that’s where the quality is to be found, it wouldn’t be fair to put colors up unjustifiably. What matters is what’s most typical, sound and correct. Our subjective preference might be for blue dogs or for elegant dogs or for stylish pretty bitches with swan necks or for very solid males dripping with substance and bone or for medium sized dogs or for lightly marked harlequins or for broken masks or for dark brindles or attitude or whatever. This is just a fraction of what is correct and typical according to the breed standard; or it might even be outside of what’s typical and correct, at any given period, when fashions have been allowed to become the norm that influences opinion. If we apply our own personal preference instead of the standard in each and every occasion, on each and every dog, we would be excluding exhibits that are perfectly typical and within the standard and worthy of winning, and that would be totally wrong and unfair to them and to the breed. The breed is not solely based and should not be based mostly on champions or popular studs but on all dogs that are worthy to contribute to its present and future with their valuable genes.
So the most important consistency I expect from a judge is to find and place the best dogs in each class according to their individual merit as measured against the standard – not to place them in the order of personal taste creating a line up that fits the judge’s preferred style and looks ‘neat’. I expect the judge to place very tall dogs and smaller dogs, very strong dogs and elegant dogs, dogs very different between them in style – but typical and correct nevertheless, according to their proximity to the standard’s ideal description and not according to the judge’s aesthetic taste. Because that’s what you normally get: classes with a mixed bag of styles. And you are expected to place them not according to style, but according to merit. Big difference.
So yes, when a dog comes along that doesn’t quite fit our personal preferences, but happens to be the most fitting to the standard , that dog should be our winner even if it doesn’t please our subjective taste entirely. That’s what we’re hired to do. The fact that we apply extra criteria, on top of what is found in the standard, is the subjective, or even frivolous bit – we should leave that at the door and not take it with us in the ring. That’s baggage we don’t need and we should constantly strive to free ourselves from when judging. What we look for in a stud dog or a brood bitch is not the same as what should win in the showring, for example: brood bitches are not required to be ultra feminine – but the standard calls for feminine bitches, so if we happen to have to choose between two bitches of equal merit, with the only thing separating them being that one is feminine and the other isn’t, we would not be, all other things being equal, applying the standard if we chose the doggy bitch. When we enter the ring to judge we are supposed to apply the standard – and nothing else. Nothing else, and certainly nothing personal, should be allowed enter our thinking process.
The breed standard is a set of priorities. It starts with the fact that it is a dog we are about to assess and continues with a general description of what kind of dog it is and the detailed parameters that typify it. So we are supposed to apply these priorities in the order they are given by the standard and not re-arrange them to suit ourselves. We are not allowed to reach a subjective conclusion like, for example, that perfect markings are more important than everything else or that a showy performance is more important than sound eyes or that a gorgeous head is more important than efficient structure and movement. It’s a dog. It’s therefore an apex predator species. It’s supposed to be able to function. It’s supposed to have teeth in its mouth and not be a nervous wreck. We are not supposed to put handling efficiency above the dog itself. We are not supposed to put the part above the whole. We are not supposed to be head-hunting and turn our breed into a head breed – it’s good to remember, “they don’t walk on their heads”. A stunning head is the crowing glory, not the foundation of the building. We are supposed to follow the standard’s logic and not arbitrary thinking. We are supposed to know the standard’s logic, we are supposed to understand it and be able to apply it in a rational organized manner. We are not supposed to step into the ring before we are able to do so. We are supposed to know morphology in general, we are supposed to know normal canine anatomy, structure and locomotion, we are supposed to understand basic canine biomechanics; we are supposed to know specific breed structure and movement and type and character – and we are supposed to apply all this knowledge and ask for all these criteria to be satisfied without exception in all the exhibits. Assessment is a tool that should be used to serve the breed, not a perfumed oil massage to rub human egos with.
We are supposed to be able to take in the whole dog, and to analyze its parts, balance its shortcomings against its merits, and do the maths: if the merits are more than the faults, it’s a typical specimen – if the faults are more than the merits, it isn’t. It’s a pet – not a show dog. We are supposed to be able to discern every detail, dissect and then synthesize again the whole picture. Dogs are not perfect – so the overall picture counts. We are supposed to avoid exaggeration, serve soundness of body and mind, put the welfare of the dogs above all else; sober as a judge, meticulous as a supreme court chief justice, wise as Solomon and incorruptible as the Untouchables. We are supposed to grasp the general description that comes first in the standard, recognize and understand it fully and thoroughly, as it is the essentials of the breed in a nutshell. We are also supposed to grasp the phrase “any departure from the above should be considered a fault” and the degree of the deviation is something we are supposed to be able to weigh and scrutinize correctly, exactly and efficiently. It’s not easy – and we shouldn’t care to please anyone but the breed itself. So it requires a certain type of character and a lot of self-criticism and constant self-doubt and seriousness and responsibility.
Breed standards don’t leave room for interpretation – they leave room for application of the content into cerebral choices; so the application must never be arbitrary, biased, subjective, irrational, unfounded, unprincipled and contrary to the letter and the spirit of the standard. When the standard says for example that the Great Dane is the Apollo of dogs – or that elegance of outline and grace of form is most essential, these are very precise instructions: they don’t give us the liberty to presume or interpret these phrases in a way that goes against the intentions of the written word. We are supposed to know what Apollo means and what power, elegance and grace means – as these instructions were put in the standard in the first place to exclude individuals that are not typical of the breed from winning and becoming accepted as valid representatives and desirable goals in breeding. We are not therefore justified to say “ah but I prefer substantial dogs and have no time for elegant dogs” because that would be incorrect according to the wording of every Great Dane standard. We are not justified to say ” huh, I like elegant dogs and have no time for substantial dogs” because that would be equally unjustifiable. The Great Dane is supposed to combine strength and elegance in the ideal degree and measure. It’s supposed to be a functional unit. It’s supposed to be fit for purpose.
We are supposed to look for that balance and functionality – not just for aesthetics or flashy and fashionable. We are supposed to look for muscle, not fat. We are supposed to look for strength of jaw, not fluttering lips. We are supposed to look for good coordinated angles and bone lengths – not sweeping second thighs that span two counties and will cause our dogs to fall apart on the move and break down from arthritis before their time. We are supposed to look for the timeless and not for the flavor of the month. What matters is the breed and the challenge to do right by it and the dogs on the day, in good conscience; and always be able to explain why adequately and honestly. Judging dogs offers a great deal of pleasure, it’s a superb intellectual challenge and gives satisfaction if done well and for the right reasons. Poorly done can collectively bring about a breed’s downfall.
It’s always healthy to question oneself after and feel anxious before a judging assignment: it means the judge takes the duty seriously and with great respect for all involved. It’s not okay to make mistakes but to err is human and what’s important is to learn from them and be self-critical. What matters is to know that what’s done is for the right reasons and not to further one’s career (that’s another expression that irks me: it’s not an effing career! it’s a service. People who promote career judges and politics to get favors have a lot to answer for. Makes one want to take winning out of dog shows because it’s the single most poisonous aspect of it – together with bad sportsmanship, as they go hand in hand). We should question why we want to judge: if it is to promote our breeding and gain influence, it’s absolutely the wrong reasons.
We are supposed to base our judgement on the standard and if we apply it thoroughly and objectively we never have a problem selecting the best dogs in any given entry. When it comes down to a few select individuals that express the standard requirements well, choosing the main winners is again easy applying every word and every meaning & nuance within the written description thoroughly, fairly, objectively and efficiently. Splitting hairs never really occurs. There is always any amount of detail that one dog is better (i.e., closer to the ideal) than the next. What should not happen if the judge is objective, knowledgeable and able to use his / her eye, is the unfounded favoritism towards one minor thing over a bigger thing. For example, suppose we have two excellent dogs; one of them has a slight skirt distracting from its underline and the other one has a perfect outline but is loaded in shoulder. It would be wrong to place the the second dog over the first as the loaded shoulder is a more serious fault than the ‘skirt’. Suppose one has a superior head but the other is superior overall – not compared to each other, but the standard. Simplified examples but the same reasoning can be applied in every other due consideration and should be applied with the correct set of priorities – typical form, soundness of mind and body, avoidance of exaggeration, fitness for function over cosmetic imperfections, health and well-being of the dogs: that is the safe set of tools that helps to make the correct decision every time.
So I don’t have any appreciation for the phrase ‘my kind of Dane’ and I don’t think it’s educational or informative. I think it has no place in the process of intelligent, knowledgeable and objective assessment of dogs. I consider it a lazy cop-out and an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. The way I understand evaluation, we are supposed to apply the standard and not just reward the style of dogs we personally prefer. And yes, this is an opinion piece – and food for thought.