The Balancing Act

two wheatens Returning from Montgomery with empty pockets, no ribbons but plenty of ideas, we contemplate breeding a bitch in the Spring.  After seeing 75+ dogs of our breed for four days I am now very clear about one thing:  I know very little about breeding dogs.  Sure, I know the theories, I know the pedigrees, I have eyes in my head, and with the aid of bifocals, can see very well, but I don’t understand what I see.

The buzz word in dogs right now seems to be “balance”.  What does that really mean?  When dogs enter the ring to be evaluated, the judge first looks at the overall outline of the dog.  Do the parts seem to match?  Before, or after gaiting the exhibit, he goes over the dog trying to determine the structure of the animal.   Again does what he sees and what he feels match?  After a few more times around the ring he makes his decision.  While you have probably not gone over the dogs in the ring yourself, you can still gain a lot of knowledge about each exhibit by watching the judge.  Where he puts his hands, his measurements of the head, neck and legs all tells you volumns.  Watching the dogs move around the ring will fill in the gaps between what you saw standing and what clues you gained from the judge. 

Skillful handling and grooming can camoflauge a multitude of sins, but with a trained eye,  and experience, you can make your own determination as to the dogs’ quality.  But does what you see in the ring fit the standard or do the parts merely match?  Judges must adjudicate what’s presented to them on the day.  As breeders, we can take our time and find dogs that fit the standard and our vision of it.  Or can we?

Every person who has ever bred a dog has his or her own vision of what the ideal is.  What if that ideal is pleasing to you but not competitive in the show ring?  Certainly grooming trends change.  With so much of winning based on perception and judgement, not changing a dog’s grooming is short sighted.  If a judge wants to see more coat on dogs, or likes a tighter trim, you would be foolhearty not to comply.  Hair grows back and styles change.

There is another point to consider.  Like the judge who must judge what he sees on the day, when you anticipate breeding a bitch, do you wait for what you desire, or work with what you have?   If you wait for your ideal stud dog you risk never finding him.  A kind of canine Mr. Right vs Mr. Right Now.  What about anatomical changes?  If dogs who currently seem to be winners have the structure contrary to your intrepretation of the standard, will you make those changes?  Or will you continue to breed the  type of dogs you like, believe fit the standard, and just wait for the judging to catch up with you?  How badly do you want to win?  How badly do you care about your breed?

Dogs with matching parts, i.e. a matching front and rear, form a more pleasing picture in the ring.  What if the matching parts don’t match the written standard?  Can a dog that moves acceptably because both his front and rear are straight be considered for your breeding program on the basis that his parts match even though your standard calls for well laid back shoulders and well angulated rears?ab5573a  These are the decisions that face every breeder that sits ringside truly looking at what’s in front of them. 

Our breed has been through several trends in just the past eight or nine years.  Our breed is a square one in outline, measured from the point of the shoulder to the pin bones.  Furthermore, the measurement of the leg from the ground to the elbow plus the length of the leg from the elbow to the withers should be equal,  and should equal the length of the body.  Anatomically speaking, the back of  a dog is measured from the withers to the hip bones.  In our breed this should be short.  

With the tremendous success in the ring of a certain show dog, many breeders rushed to use him.  Being an outcross himself, he was unable to pass on the physical and intangible qualities that brought him such success.  Those that used him on their bitches were also unable to afford his superb handler no matter the quality of the progeny. The legacy of this dog was far reaching.  Breeders became obsessed with producing ultra short backed dogs with an upright head carriage.  They were largely successful, but as a consequence, fronts lost their reach and rears lost the drive.  Ewe necks began to appear and dogs moved with a bouncing topline at speed.

The shape of wild canines, i.e. wolves, coyotes, dingos, is more rectangular than square.  This shape allows for more effecient movement.  Moving with heads outstretched, they employ this aerodynamic design to cover miles and miles hunting for food and establishing territory.  Modern domestic canines don’t have these concerns.  To the human eye, the square shape is more pleasing than the rectangular so the dichotomy between the natural structure and the man-made anatomy are evident in the purebred dog.  A square dog, moving around the ring with his head up and ears erect, makes a wonderful picture.  For a dog of this design to be able to move efficiently the length of the front and rear strides is necessarily shortened to accomodate the new body shape. This means shorter upper arms.  The shoulders become more straight and the rears follow to maintain a functional balance.  Sometimes, the front and rear doesn’t match and you get an overdrive from the rear and a lifting front.  Year after year, dogs with matching anatomical flaws enter the rings and win in defiance of the standard.  Breeders seeking to establish their lines and a winning tradition breed dogs of this design over and over.  You hear many times that this or that dog is a good one because he has good balance.  But what they are really saying is that even though there may be little reflection of the standard in this animal, the fact that he presents a nice outline in the ring proves his worth. 

It is human nature to try to build a better mouse trap.  To that end there are more imported dogs in the ring now than at any time since our breed was first recognized by the AKC in 1922.  Because some oveseas kennels invest in elaborate websites and publish every win abroad, it is natural to think they are excellent examples of the breed.  Perhaps some are.  At first, there was a kind of strangeness about these dogs and their progeny.  You could easily pick them out.  With time, and careful choices, some American breeders have successfully incorporated these lines into theirs and truly bred better dogs.  Certainly these dogs have lovely outlines and nice balance when viewed from ringside.    

caper_finished[1]I was pleasantly surprised to see at our National the dogs have moved away from the caracatures of a few years ago.  There are less extremes in the breed, overall. Dogs are more moderate in size and while the fronts and rears are straighter than I care for, and the movement is far from powerful or ground covering, it seems that our course is being righted. This undoubtedly is the result of breeders working with what they have in front of them and making it work.  

The dogs that received awards on our biggest day in the breed reflected the efforts of their breeders to breed a better dog.  Most had earned their places in the final standings.  But a close look revealed that just as many were there on balance and appearance,  not close adherance to our standard.   I am hopeful that there will be a renewed interest among breeders in producing a more correct dog that is still very competitive in the show ring.  From what I saw at the National this year there is a firm foundation in place.

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