Best In Show: The World of Show Dogs and Dog Shows

An excerpt from Bo Bengtson's new book.

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Bo Bengtson has been breeding dogs since 1959, starting out with an Afghan Hound when he was a teenager. He got his first Whippet in 1961, and since then, more than 100 Whippet champions worldwide have proudly carried his “Bohem” prefix, along with a dozen Greyhound champions.

Although his dogs have won many ribbons and cups, in all those years he’s barely bred a litter a year. But the knowledge he’s gained since stepping into the show-dog ring has grown at a much more prolific rate.

Now, the co-founder of Dogs in Review magazine shares the wealth in his latest book, "Best in Show: The World of Show Dogs and Dog Shows," published in December by Kennel Club Books, a division of BowTie Inc., publisher of DOG FANCY magazine. Here’s just a glimpse that helps explain the purpose of the “breed standards,” often mentioned in these pages.

Framing the standards
Who wrote these breed standards, and why do they matter? The first ones were written centuries ago, long before anything resembling today’s dog shows were imagined. ... The dowager Empress of China Cixi (Tzu Hsi) wrote (or caused to be written) a detailed, supremely poetic description of the Pekingese even before the first specimens had been looted from the Summer Palace and brought to England in 1860. The empress decreed that the Pekingese should be small (so it is easy to carry) and that it should have an abundant coat around its chest and on the tail (described as a “swelling cape of dignity around its neck” and “the billowing standard of pomp above its back”). “Let its face be black; let its forefront be shaggy; let its forehead be straight and low”; the empress also specified that the eyes should be “large and luminous,” its ears “set like the sails of a war junk,” and its forelegs “bent so that it shall not desire to wander far, or leave the Imperial Precincts.”

Barring the poetry, this isn’t far from the modern Pekingese standard, which was obviously based on descriptions of the early imperial imports, if not on the empress’s own description. The empress, as if knowing what would come, also wanted the Pekingese to immediately bite the foreign devils.” That didn’t make it to the modern breed standard, but it remains a typical breed trait that the Pekingese displays a certain arrogance toward strangers.

How standards evolved
Most breed standards, of course, are more recent and less fancifully worded, but almost all are based on a combination of tradition and function. They were written when most dogs were still used primarily for the activities for which they had been developed.

Dogs that excelled in their particular activities were designated as the ideal, and their most outstanding characteristics were those that breeders sought to preserve for future generations.

Often these characteristics are vital to the dog’s function: most good Greyhound judges today would agree, for instance, that legs, feet, and muscle development are far more important characteristics in this breed than color, eye shape, or ear carriage.

A Bloodhound must follow a scent and so is not expected to carry its head high, while an Afghan Hound must do so because it hunts by sighting its prey from afar.

A Dachshund and some terriers must be short legged to go underground; a toy dog needs simply to be pleasing to the eye and have an affectionate temperament.

The Bulldog, to take an extreme historical example, needed to have a nose pushed up into its muzzle so it could breathe even while hanging on to a bull. It also needed to be heavier in front than in the rear for the same reason.

There has been no bullbaiting with dogs for at least 150 years now, so the anatomical distinctions are more a cultural heritage than an actual necessity. Even seemingly insignificant details in the breed standards often prove to have a rational explanation if you dig back far enough into breed history.

Over the past century, old standards have been revised and modernized, often by decree of the various national kennel clubs in well-meant, but often self-defeating, attempts to clarify the original meaning. In the process, the reason that certain characteristics were
included is forgotten, and the hallowed breed standard of old may slowly deteriorate, becoming just a description of what “this year’s model” of a breed should resemble.

Sometimes the changes describe a dog that looks very different from the original breed; sometimes it has even been necessary to call in veterinary expertise to determine if a standard’s requirements are in fact not conducive to the breed’s physical and mental health.


For more great dog information, pick up the January 2008 issue of DOG FANCY today, or subscribe to get 12 months of articles just like this.

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