A Thumbprint of Influence
By Cindy Vogels
Great breeders never compromise the essentials of the standard. they strive to
contribute no more than the merest thumbprints of influence.
Like winemaking, dog breeding is a creative process. Breeders produce dogs that
embody their vision of a standard of excellence; vintners create wines based
on the traditional characteristics of grape varieties. This leaves room for interpretation,
but according to Bryce Jones, president of the well-known California winery Sonoma-Cutrer, "The
wine maker's contribution should be no more than a thumbprint." Similarly, every
dog breeder's vision should be a unique interpretation of the standard, yet must
remain true to that standard if the dogs are to be true representatives of that
What Are the Absolutes?
There are certain elements of every breed standard that are absolute and should
not be modified. These are the characteristics that create the essence of the
breed type. Although such qualities vary from breed to breed, they generally
include function, outline, head type, movement, temperament, and sometimes coat
For instance, the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier standard mandates a "medium-sized,
hardy, well-balanced sporting terrier, square in outline. ... distinguished by
his soft, silky, gently waving coat of warm wheaten color and his particularly
steady disposition. ... moderation both in structure and presentation, and any
exaggerations are to be shunned. ... A dog shall be 18 to 19 inches at the withers.
... A bitch shall be 17 to 18 inches at the withers." The head is "rectangular
in appearance; moderately long. ... Ears ... breaking level with the skull ...
pointing to the ground ... Skull and foreface of equal length. ... Body compact." Legs
are "well boned." A Wheaten should cover ground with "good reach in front and
strong drive behind. Front and rear feet turn neither in nor out," although legs
will tend to converge as speed increases.
If we look at the Brittany, we find that most of the essential elements of the
standard relate to the breed's intended work. "A compact, closely knit dog of
medium size, a leggy dog having the appearance, as well as the agility, of a
great ground coverer. Strong, vigorous, energetic and quick of movement. Ruggedness
without clumsiness ... tailless or has a tail docked to approximately four inches.
... Any Brittany measuring under 171/2 inches or over 201/2 inches shall be disqualified.
..." Eyes are "well protected from briers by a heavy, expressive eyebrow. ...
Skull well chiseled under the eyes, so that the lower lid is not pulled back
to form a pocket or haw that would catch seeds, dirt and weed dust." Ears are "set
high ... short and triangular." Skull is "medium length ... very slightly wedge-shaped.
..." Muzzle is "about two thirds the length of the skull ... should taper gradually
in both horizontal and vertical dimensions ... Nostrils well open to permit deep
breathing of air and adequate scenting. ... A black nose is a disqualification." Lips
are "tight" and "dry." Chest is "deep ... Ribs well sprung." Back is "short and
straight." Loins are "short and strong ... One must look for substance and suppleness.
... At the shoulders the Brittany is slightly higher than at the rump. ... A
Brittany should not be condemned for straight stifle until the judge has checked
the dog in motion from the side." Coat is "dense, flat or wavy ... some feathering,
but too little is definitely preferable to too much." Skin should be "fine and
fairly loose." A Brittany may be "orange and white or liver and white ... Tri-colors
are allowed but not preferred. ... Black is a disqualification. ... When at the
trot the Brittany's hind foot should step into or beyond the print left by the
Although each standard addresses the essentials of type, each leaves room for
interpretation of the nuances of the breed. For instance, in the Wheaten standard,
a few measurements like length of neck and back are described as "moderate," which
allows for variations in balance. The standard allows a range of eye color and
size, as well as some latitude in ear size. Correct degrees of coat and color
are also listed. The Brittany standard is quite detailed, but there are still
areas that are open to interpretation. Because no differentiation in size is
made between dogs and bitches, there can be substantial variation within the
same sex. The moderate amount of bone described allows for dogs with different
degrees of substance, and thus dogs of different balance, particularly considering
the 3-inch height range. The medium-length skull and muzzle also leave room for
interpretation. Likewise, different interpretations of a "medium" length of neck
can lead to different overall balance.
Some standards are much less detailed. The Lhasa Apso standard, for example,
leaves lots of room for variation. It states that size is "variable," and dictates
that dogs should be longer than they are tall, but it does not detail how much
longer. The head description is vague, and the standard does not address shoulders,
angulation or movement. It is not surprising that in breeds such as this one,
there is much more variation in type than in breeds with more detailed standards.
The perfect dog would be the sum of perfect parts. Realistically, as breeders
work toward producing that perfect specimen, they prioritize the essentials of
the standard. Sometimes this is based on personal preference. One breeder, for
example, will never compromise working characteristics, while another is unwilling
to sacrifice coat quality or color. Often a breeder's priorities change as a
breeding program progresses. Having solidified one aspect of type, a breeder
can move on, striving to consistently produce a different attribute. Breeders
must always balance the elements of type without sacrificing the essence of the
Let's go back to our wine analogy. In finely crafted wine, subtle qualities create
nuances of individuality. While it should be easy to identify the grape varieties
of great wines, an outstanding wine exhibits a unique character. Great dog breeders
never compromise the absolutes of their breed standards, but vary subtle points
to produce outstanding individuals. It is not our job as breeders to create new
breeds. It is our duty to preserve the integrity of our breeds' standards. If
we believe a section of a standard is incorrect or unrealistic, we should work
to have it modified. We must strive to understand the essence of our breeds,
and then explore the smallest details, to ensure we contribute only the thumbprints
of our influence.
Cindy Vogels is a breeder-judge from Littleton, Colo. She has bred Soft Coated
Wheaten Terriers, Kerry Blue Terriers, Welsh Terriers and other breeds for almost
30 years, and she judges 18 terrier breeds.
AKC GAZETTE articles are selected for their general interest and entertainment values. Authors' views do not necessarily represent the policies of the American Kennel
Club, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement by the AKC.