Beginnings of the AKC: Breed Standard Pains

The formation of the American Kennel Club.


Charles Mason also influenced the dog scene in America by introducing numerous breeds to this country, including the first Airedale ever shown in the U.S. As a dog broker he brought in many breeds that were not of the sporting variety, and as an editor and a contributor to several sporting publications he was partly responsible for growing public interest in these and other purebred dogs.

Unsuccessful attempts to convince clubs to use the same breed standards was a tremendous roadblock to dog show credibility. Originally, the accepted practice was to use standards from the third edition of Dogs of the British Isles, an idea supported by both Westminster and NAKC. However, clubs ran their shows to please their members and attract entries. “There was no recognized standard of perfection for each of the many breeds. Breeders here and there went their own way in the development of strains which met their own fancies.” (The Modern Dog Encyclopedia)

Breeds were definitely changing, thanks to dog shows. Although improving breeds was the original intention, it became hard to overlook the fact that some of these transformations resulted from personal preference and ghastly judging. Without the authority of a national organization, specialty clubs provided the means to create and promote uniformity for their breeds. In 1881 Watson helped found the American Spaniel Club, America’s first specialty club. This breed already showed signs of splitting at the seams, and the group dived headlong into the standard dilemma.

One letter on the subject: “In the last issue a correspondent seemed to think there is little chance of a standard being framed to judge Cocker Spaniels at future shows. With this I agree, but cannot accept his reasons. I fear that if a standard is required to suit each breeder’s kennel it will never be satisfactory. For one, I have no objection to Stonehenge; he is considered a good authority in such matters. The fault is not so much in the standard as in the judge. To give a curly coated dog with a topknot a prize in Cocker Spaniels is perhaps worse than awarding it to a half King Charles blind in one eye. Many people enter dogs in shows and no standard or judge will suit them. You will find their only standard is their own opinion. Signed, Shamrock.” (Chicago Field, Jan. 29, 1881)

In the spring of 1881 the formation of a Cocker Spaniel Club was announced. They quickly formulated a standard that was used for the first time at Westminster, resulting in two disqualifications. Within weeks the dog press was inundated with complaints. Watson was ready. “As to the threat of Mr. McKoon not to send his $2 unless he has his way entirely, I certainly for one will not grieve over his decision, as thereby we may secure the much-to-be-desired harmony in this club. James Watson” (American Field, June 4, 1881) Mr. McKoon did not send his $2 but he did found another Cocker club and in no time at all three groups promoted Cocker Spaniel breed standards, a practice that became distressingly common as breeds proliferated.

Always the lawyer, Burges likened standards to legal codes in a rather idealistic assessment of both. “The same judges do not preside in all courts, but all are bound to decide by the same law and hence the general uniformity of decisions. Different judges may act at different shows, but if acting under one standard, their awards will coincide closely, having the effect of authoritative decree. Shows are supposed to use Stonehenge even when it is not expressly stated but evidence proves that standards are greatly neglected and judges have been influenced fully by fashion as much as law. By fashion, I mean concessions to certain dogs, which has prevented their seeing the superiority of new aspirants for honors. Arnold Burges” (American Field, July 23, 1881)

To illustrate the points of his front page editorial, Burges provided a blow-by-blow description of his friend Taylor’s recent (thoroughly botched) Setter judging at Westminster. “Even in those days the question of judging created considerable talk.” (AKC Gazette)

Formulating standards inevitably led to questions about the conduct of judges. Burges promoted the idea that uniform standards would reform judging, but it wasn’t quite that simple. No system existed to approve judges or direct their conduct at shows. They were free to decide if and when to weigh, measure or disqualify dogs or to completely revise the classes. “The action of Dr. Twaddle, who judged Beagles at the last Pittsburgh show, in making separate classes and awarding prizes to dogs as ‘Maryland Bench Legged Beagles,’ has aroused some criticism.” (Chicago Field, March 19, 1881)

Arbiters not only exhibited at shows where they judged, they used it as a business opportunity. “When Dr. Gordon Stables judged at New York there appeared ten days before the show opened a leader in Forest and Stream, which was evidently inspired by the Doctor, for it stated that although Dr. Gordon Stables had sold off his kennels, he was still prepared to supply Americans with a string of breeds enumerated, which embraced pretty nearly every kind of dog.” (American Field, Aug. 16, 1884)

By far the majority of complaints surrounded judging qualifications. Watson presented a candid picture of 1880s judging, implying that the number of dog shows was outpacing those qualified to judge them. “It was my experience to be one of many called upon to decide specials at a show held a few years ago, when owing to the lack of all around knowledge on the part of the majority, specials for the best dog, best brace, best owned by a lady, and best local exhibit went very much astray. The result was that I advocated in the kennel press that special judging of this nature should be given to the best all around judge on the staff of the show.” (The Dog Book)

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