A Measure of Excellence

Those of us who devote a substantial amount of our time to breeding and showing dogs often find ourselves in discussions ringside about the dogs we see.  We point to faults we can view from the front row and feel disheartened by wins that seem scripted or worse, set up.  But, if you discover somebody you can really talk dogs with, the conversation inevitably ends up with a discussion about how closely a given dog fits the standard and thus how perfect an example of its breed it is.  

It is the general belief that producing an animal that possesses a high degree of adherence to the breed standard is the ultimate goal and determination of perfection a breeder should strive to achieve.  Breeding to produce the perfect dog, anatomically, is the goal of many breeders.   Contrary to what some of us think we see, the one generalization you can make about the dogs in the ring today is that they are better made than dogs of forty or even twenty years ago.  It is rare in Kerries to see cow-hocked dogs, or exhibits with weak rears.  Just conforming to a standard does not, by itself, signify excellence or perfection as a whole.  Most breed standards are purposely flexible leaving interpretation open to skilled breeders and not so skilled judges. 

Another belief of ringside pundits, and breeders at all levels, is the identification of faults as the sole determiner between the exceptional exhibits and the less valuable,  or sometimes worthless, dogs. Many breed standards specifically list faults as disqualifications while others mention faults that are only to be severely penalized.  Using the adherence to the standard theory, the dog must possess a specific departure from the standard, in a given area, to be considered faulty.  

If you have ever bred, or aspired to breed, a litter, and if you are a true student of your breed, you know you hold in your head, an invisible ideal, a “vision” of perfection, which is far more specific and detailed than what is described in the written standard.   Judges carry a “vision” in their minds, too. This is what should makes their opinion a valuable assessment.  It is this thinking which supports the idea of breeder judges – those who are most likely to have in-depth knowledge of a breed.  We count on these judges to have clearly envisioned the ultimate, superior animal.   However, experience in a breed is needed for an individual to understand how to properly weigh departures from this vision. The continuing refinement, and clarification, of this breed “vision” is part of what makes a truly successful breeder or judge.

Just meeting the physical description of a breed is not enough for most serious exhibitors to consider a particular dog exceptional or extreme.  Those who have an expert’s knowledge of a breed will tend to agree on what these exceptional attributes look like.  Their vision is usually based on historical perspective and experience.  I know as I have sat ringside, evaluating the heads of our two breeds, I can see the majority of dogs fit the standard for heads acceptably.  But on a few occasions, I have seen the heads of a few dogs which were far superior to the basic requirements.  These few were strikingly beautiful.   Both the acceptable and the superior type of heads meet the standard but the latter type are what might be considered virtuous.

Meeting any standard can be technically defined as “faultless”.  But, there is obviously a difference between being faultless and possessing virtue. If a dog exhibits the absence of a particular fault, it does not necessarily exhibit the presence of the corresponding virtue.  Just because it isn’t technically wrong doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s ideal.  

So then how do we breed the dogs that possess such strength of virtue. No one with even basic knowledge would breed two dogs with bad fronts together with an expectation of producing good fronts.  Most of us breed dogs with the idea that a stud dog  should complement our bitch’s deficiencies and vice versa.  Following this line of thought, for the bitch with the poor head, a stud dog with a good headpiece would be used in the hope some of the puppies will have the sire’s virtuous head.  This process uses phenotypical attributes to determine the genetic consequences. Breeders make assumptions about what a dog is likely to produce based on how he appears. Isn’t this the whole basis for dog shows?  If examining a dog provided no insight into how he would produce, the point of dog shows would not be the judging of breeding stock, but the celebration of individual show dogs themselves. This seems to be the perspective of those exhibitors, and judges, who tolerate or participate in the cosmetic or surgical alteration of dogs they choose to show.

The challenge of producing a dog that embodies your vision,  employs two kinds of methodologies. The first is to breed away from faults.  If this process is consistently followed, the eventual outcome would be dogs possessing few faults as defined by the standard, but these animals would likely be considered “common,”  or mediocre. 
The second approach, perhaps more “risky”, is to search for the strength of virtues.  This means selecting a stud dog based on the fact that he is extreme or exceptional.  He may have a gorgeous head, or great side gait, but may not be a standout in any other way.  Using this methodology, the breeder is seeking something beyond the minimum adherence to the standard.  These forward thinkers know,  just meeting a baseline is not the path to reach any degree of consistent success or personal satisfaction.  These breeders strive for something that exceeds the ordinary, something that is better than the rest. 

Using this more risky approach, a breeder can find himself needing to determine if a dog of extreme virtue and extreme fault can be leveraged in a breeding program successfully.  It really takes considerable confidence and experience to accurately assess if the risk is worth the potential value.  Given the right opportunity by the breeder, who somehow has the ability to understand when these controversial dogs are useful, they typically make profound influences on their breed.  Likely also is the criticism and praise of these types of dogs, leaving the breeder standing alone among his peers.    

In the end, the ideal scenario is to obtain a high proportion of superior characteristics with no faults.  In reality, dogs that are very exceptional in some aspect are sometimes also saddled with faults.  In this situation breeders without vision, who breed for lack of faults, would send such an animal to a pet home.  Breeders who are striving for that ideal carried in their minds, would hesitate and determine whether the dog, overall, was worth using despite the faults.  A simple question to resolve this conundrum is often posed, “Can I obtain these great virtues elsewhere, in a less faulty dog?”  If the answer is yes, the dog in question can be discarded from the breeding program.  If the answer is no, then failing to use such an animal will ensure those exceptional traits will never be bred to such a high standard again in your line.  For the judge, the question is much the same, “Have I seen such strength of virtue exhibited in this breed before?”  If not, then he must consider the value that dog has in a breeding program before deciding its placement among its competitors before him.  Could this be why sometimes the “wrong” dog seems to win?
It is strength of virtue – intelligently recognized and patiently utilized – which moves a breed forward, not a mad race for faultlessness.  Judging by faults is far easier also, but far less beneficial to those who respect a judge’s evaluation.  All this is not to say that a characteristic carried to extreme is always virtuous!  But I do believe as a breeder approaches what they consider perfection, the horizon never gets closer and the concept of perfection continually changes.  Without the recognition and judicious use of these rare exceptions to the standard, momentum is lost and great opportunities for breed advancement along with it.

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