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Photo by Jessica Bolander

Survival of the Prettiest?

When people ask me how to judge my breed — and they do — my advice is NOT to look for the prettiest dog in the ring. That gets them every time: "What, not put up the prettiest dog? Isn't that what dog shows are for?"

No, not necessarily, at least not if you agree that dog shows should be more than a superficial exercise is who's the cutest, who is the flashiest, whom does the novice spectator's eye go to firsst? If that is what you think dog shows should be — and there are lots of people who obviously do — then read no further; you will find your views amply supported by many judges coming soon to a local dog show near you.

If you think, however, that dog shows are meant to provide an opportunity for judges to select the dogs possessing the most outstanding characteristics of their breed, then, like me, you probably have a problem with much of what you see at today's shows.

It can be almost any breed, since most breeds seem to be afflicted by the same disease: a few characteristics that are apparently inherently pleasing to the average spectator seem to have become the gauge by which show dog "greatness" is measured, regardless of whether these traits are really desirable for that breed or not. It has even been suggested that we might soon have a new breed simply called "The American Show Dog," whose only outstanding features would be that it runs around the ring like a bat out of hell and never, ever stops baiting …

A "SHOW" — OR AN EXHIBITION?

Part of the problem could be that we call it a dog SHOW, which seems to imply that there is a certain amount of organized entertainment involved. There's absolutely nothing wrong with dog shows being enjoyable for the general public, but unless the carnival atmosphere is accompanied by solid knowledge among the judges of all the fine points of each breed for which they adjudicate, then what's the point of a breeder trying to produce dogs with these characteristics? There's a difference between a "show" and an "exhibition," which indicates less entertainment and more emphasis on the uniqueness of whatever is exhibited.

Practically all judges appreciate showmanship, glamour and good presentation; most also have a pretty solid knowledge of basic anatomy, but I submit that very few have the specialized knowledge required to recognize all the desirable traits in all the breeds they are officially approved to judge. And that, of course, means that they tend to instead emphasize easily discerned characteristics such as showmanship, "cosmetic" qualities, etc. at the expense of breed type. Perhaps, with the current show system, that is all we can ask for, but is it really good enough if we want to maintain an internationally high standard within our breeds?

It wouldn't be fair to put too much blame on the judges. Most of them do the best they can, and they are almost as much a victim of AKC's overblown show system as the exhibitors are. There are now so many small- to medium-size shows in this country that the average judge, in order to for his or her expenses to be covered, must be prepared to take on 20 to 30 different breeds in a weekend's assignment. No wonder that it sometimes seems to be mostly a question of getting 'em in and getting 'em out again as soon as possible, with little effort on the judge's part to demonstrate true appreciation for each breed. And even when the judge DOES have specialized knowledge, how much of a statement can you make when the average entry at AKC all-breed shows these days is less than 10 dogs per breed?*

BEAUTY FROM FUNCTION

Like many of the other Sighthounds, Whippets are a breed that historically does not fit into the current mold for the "American Show Dog." Its beauty has always stemmed mostly from the gentle harmony and grace of its long, sweeping body curves and angles, from the subtle balance between elegance and strength, from its basic, workmanlike qualities and smooth, low-cutting movement — not from a cute face, tremendous glamour or a dynamic show temperament. Not that there's anything wrong with any of these characteristics, but it's depressing to find how often they take precedence over major considerations — sometimes to such a degree that, in effect, there's no cake left, just the icing.

I'm sure you can find a parallel situation in many other breeds. How often do the true purists, those who have devoted many years, perhaps a lifetime, to striving for perfection in their chosen breeds, find that the very characteristics they worked so hard to establish are overlooked, perhaps even penalized, by judges who simply added this breed to their list so that they "can judge the Group." (And, intriguingly, how often do these purists then slip from their pedestals once they become judges and start branching out into other breeds than their own …?)

Briefly, in the Sighthound group, I'd say that the situation in Greyhounds seems to be almost identical to that in Whippets: a disregard for the classic, functional qualities that have guaranteed the breed to remain virtually unchanged for thousands of years, in order to achieve purely cosmetic effect. How many correct Salukis are actually penalized for NOT having Afghan Hound heads, hind quarters and movement? How many Italian Greyhounds are faulted because of their proper "high-stepping and free" movement, so different from almost anything else you see at a dog show? How often do Borzoi judges even comment on the bladed bone? When did you last see an Afghan Hound judge actually check for the typical big feet? How long before Ibizan and Pharaoh Hounds begin to be faulted for their "light eyes"? Is it just my imagination, or are the Deerhound and Wolfhound people better about educating judges about their breeds' history than the rest of us? (Well, maybe in the 1990s they were … but a commentator in 2019 would be excused for feeling that these breeds are simply judged "by the pound" …)

A BATTLE AGAINST "LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR"

Fortunately, there are many caring, knowledgeable judges of these as well as most other breeds out there, individuals who recognize the unique traits that make each breed distinctive, different from any other. Unless they win the battle against the "lowest common denominator" we may lose the very characteristics that were the reason we got involved in our respective breeds in the first place.

*In 2018 there were 1,653 AKC all-breed shows with a combined 1,279,087 dogs entered, an average of 773 dogs per show. 

There are now 193 AKC registerable breeds, which means an average breed entry is just over four dogs. 

Twenty-five years ago there were fewer shows, more entries and also fewer recognized AKC breeds, so the average breed entry then was approx. 8.5 dogs.

Photos by Jessica Bolander

This article was originally written for Sighthound Review in the 1990s but still has relevance. "The more things change, the more they stay the same…" Or don't they? We'd love to hear your feedback. Please e-mail contact@sighthoundreview.com.

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