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Words We Say: Breed Standard Language

Have you checked your dogs’ trumpets recently? Are their couples wide enough, even to raggedness? Are their shoulders perhaps a little too bossy, are their horns really strong, and does their bark sound like a broken bell?

Welcome to the wonderful world of breed standards, complete with expressions you’ve never heard before, many of which are difficult to understand. Until I wrote something a few weeks ago about the many more or less peculiar dog show terms we use – and frequently misuse – I didn’t think many people still cared much about language, grammar, spelling or the finer points of written communication. The general feeling was that “writing is dead,” at least when it’s anything more than a heavily abbreviated text message. That couldn’t have been more wrong, judging by the strong response I got to that article. It was gratifying to find that so many dog fanciers of every possible age and background are as fascinated by the written word as I am.

The head of the Weimaraner is described by its AKC breed standard as featuring “trumpets.” Photo by Dan Sayers.

This week I thought it would be interesting to focus on the specific terms – some of them distinctly odd – that are used in the official breed standards. If you care at all about show dogs, judging and the characteristics that distinguish one breed from all others, the breed standards are key. How can you judge or breed dogs according to a standard unless everyone involved agrees on what every sentence in that standard means? Yet there’s a lot of confusion, even disagreement, about how to interpret some key expressions.

The breed standards vary in age from about a hundred years to just a few months, and they are inevitably reflections of their own time. On the one hand, a breed standard should preferably be permanent – it’s difficult, if not impossible, to breed show dogs successfully if the ideal you’re aiming for changes from one year to the next. On the other hand, when the phrases used to describe a breed are so old that they are hard to understand for a modern reader, it’s probably time to update the language. Since even the gentlest and most well-intended change in the wording may alter the meaning at least a little, this can be a very sensitive subject.

For the purpose of clarity, let me emphasize that what we’re talking about in the following are only terms used in the AKC standards. These breed standards quite frequently differ from those in, for example, Canada, England, Australia and the FCI member countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, so what’s correct for a breed in America may be totally unacceptable for the same breed in other countries. It’s unfortunate that breed fanciers and kennel clubs so seldom agree on the same ideal worldwide, but perhaps it’s inevitable. That’s the subject for a whole other article, however.

The AKC breed standard for Dachshunds allows the coats of the Smooth and Longhaired varieties to have “light-colored areas contrasting with the darker base color,” known as “dapple.” Photo by Dan Sayers.

A Clear Word Picture
Reading a breed standard and understanding what it actually means are crucial for anyone who wants to learn about a breed. At its best, a standard draws a word picture of the breed in question that’s so clear you can almost see the dog in front of you, but there are also cases when, if someone were asked to draw a breed he or she had never seen before based only on the directives in the breed standard, the result wouldn’t look much like anything resembling that breed. The parent club for each breed is responsible for its standard, but it’s the American Kennel Club that then adopts, approves and publishes these breed standards.

You shouldn’t need any particularly specialized knowledge to understand most of the standards. Some terms that are not unique to the dog world are so commonly used that you need to know what they mean, for example: perpendicular, oblique, lateral, longitudinal and lobular. However, you may need a fairly thorough knowledge of anatomy to understand the words for the dog’s body parts. If it all sounds like Greek to you it’s probably because the words mostly are, if not Greek, at least Latin: occipital protuberance, zygomatic arch, scapula, humerus, vertebrae, thorax, sternum, sacrum, tibia… I’m not going to deal with the translations here; the meanings are clear and specific, and if you need to consult a book on anatomy to learn the name of the bones mentioned in your breed’s standard, go ahead. (Or just Google “dog skeleton.”)

Some terms are frankly so vague they could mean almost anything. If, for instance, a part of the dog’s body is described as being “as wide as a man’s closed hand” you have to wonder: What man’s hand? What size? Is there a “normal” sized hand? Some terms mean different things to different people. “Houndy,” for instance, is a prime example: the breeds in the Hound Group vary greatly in type and conformation, from Dachshunds to Greyhounds, so which type of Hound does the word referred to? I’ve heard people throw this term around for decades, and whenever I ask them to explain just what they mean, I get answers that usually contradict each other, even from established Hound specialists.

The AKC breed standard for English Foxhounds such as Ch. Whipperin’s Virgil J contains several very curious words and phrases. Photo by Booth.

‘Couples Wide, Even to Raggedness’
Speaking of Hounds, what about the English Foxhound standard’s requirement that the “couples must be wide, even to raggedness?” I asked an AKC rep, and she couldn’t explain it. The “couples” must be the loin (but why plural?), and I would think “rugged” might have been better than “ragged” – but I sent off an email asking for clarifications from Foxhound specialist and AKC multi-Group judge Polly Smith, who responded to my inquiry as follows: “I have always taken this to mean wide, strong loins without any tuck-up. The American Foxhound has tuck-up (some have too much), but the English Foxhound does not. In “The Foxhound Quarterly” from July, 1911 I found under loins that it says the muscles extend gradually, tapering towards the loin, over which it extends in the form of sinewy sheets, and meeting in the large gluteal muscles of the rump. It is largely on these muscles’ support in this region that the dog’s action, pace and power depend. The hound that has strong loin muscles will be better able to compete at hard work and endurance.” The English Foxhound breed standard is one of the oldest and most colorful; for instance, one statement that I particularly love states that “Every Master of Foxhounds insists on legs as straight as a post, and as strong…”

There are other odd phrases: What’s a “closely knit” dog? One with a short distance from the last rib to the hindquarters; identical to “close coupled.” What’s the difference between a hare foot and a cat foot? The former is oval, the latter nearly round. Exactly what’s meant by “dash,” which the Pointer is expected to possess? I have not found a definite explanation, but imagine it must indicate speed and agility.

The Clumber Spaniel’s AKC breed standard calls for a nose that’s “large, square and colored shades of brown, which include beige, rose and cherry. Photo by Dan Sayers.

The “burr” is the inside of the ear, and “button ears” are those that have a single flap folding forward, as opposed to, for example, a “rose” ear, which folds over and back to reveal the burr when lying flat along the neck. The “chops” are the jowly, pendulous skin under the chin. “China” and “wall” eyes are pretty similar: the former is described as a blue, white or nearly white eye with or without spots, while the latter is a blue eye, or an eye with a nearly white iris. And the Clumber Spaniel’s “cherry” nose, also called a “dudley” nose, is one that’s flesh-colored – not exactly what you would think of as a real cherry color. The term “dudley,” by the way, is more than a hundred years old and supposedly began to be used because dogs with such noses were common around the town of Dudley in the West Midlands of England.

Do you have any idea what the “trumpets” are as applied to dogs? I didn’t, but after some research found that it is used to refer to the slight depression just behind the eye socket in e.g. the Weimaraner – what would be the temple in a human.

Anyone who is familiar with sheep will know what a “ewe” neck is, and you don’t need to have seen an otter at work to know what a Labrador Retriever’s “otter tail” looks like – strong, not too long, without feathering and with a rounded tip.

Ever thought about the difference between “back” and “topline?” The former really refers only to the area from the withers to the loin, while the second covers the whole area from the withers to the tail-set, including the loin and croup.

The AKC breed standard for the Pug describes this Toy dog as “multum in parvo,” at left, and the Miniature Pinscher’s standard requires a “hackney-like action.” Photos by Dan Sayers.

Are the Shoulders Too Bossy?
“Bossy shoulders” is an expression that may sound funny, but simply means that the shoulders are heavy, overloaded with bulky muscle.

One of my least favorite terms is “sickle hocks,” because I’m never sure just what people mean when they use it. Some feel it simply means hindquarters that are over-angulated at the hock, others say it has nothing to do with angulation per se, but indicates that the hock bone is bent and shaped like a sickle, yet others feel it means the hock joint is “locked,” so the dog cannot flex it properly backwards when trotting. I would be happy to accept any of these definitions, but it would be nice if we could reach some consensus of what the actual meaning is, especially since the term is so widely and indiscriminately tossed around.

And speaking of hocks, what exactly are “spread hocks?” I would imagine it means the hocks are not parallel but point outwards – the opposite of cow hocks.

When you refer to a “keel,” you’re not talking about a boat, of course but a strong, somewhat protruding forechest, as in a Dachshund.

Do you know what “horns” are? Not easy to guess, but the term is actually used to indicate the toenails, again in the English Foxhound standard.

“Belton” is the name given by the AKC breed standard for the English Setter’s mottled coat color. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Exactly what is “hackney” gait, as described in e.g. the Miniature Pinscher breed standard? Everyone knew in the days of the horse and buggy; today you need to go to a horse show to see the high-stepping gait, with great flexing at the wrist, of a Hackney pony or horse.

Colors can be confusing. Let’s just mention “roan,” the mottled coat color of many breeds not only of dogs, but also of horses, cattle and other domestic animals, and the even more interesting “belton” pattern, which as far as I know is so named only in English Setters and indicates white ground color mingled with darker hairs. The term comes from the English village of Belton in Lincolnshire. And “dappled” of course means a mottled color pattern, similar to “merle.” In fact, as far as I can see, there’s no real difference in the colors themselves, although the terms are used for different breeds. (Dachshunds can be dappled, Collies, merle… never the other way around.)

The color “buff,” as mentioned in the Cocker Spaniel’s AKC breed standard, is defined by one source as ranging “from Irish Setter red to light cream.” Photo by Dan Sayers.

Sand-Colored from White to Black!
I always assumed that “buff” (as in, for example, Cocker Spaniels) invariably referred to a light yellowish color, but the definition I’ve found is “from Irish Setter red to light cream.” While we’re at it, what about “sand-colored” as a description? We all think we know what color sand is, but sand of course can be anything from pure white to dead black!

Finally, you wouldn’t think you would have to be able to speak foreign languages to understand the AKC breed standards. In general you don’t, of course, but there are a couple of exceptions. For instance, the ideal Pug is officially described as being “multum in parvo,” which is Latin and literally means “a lot in a small space,” indicating that the dog should be cobby, compact and well muscled.

The Old English Sheepdog is described by its AKC breed standard as possessing a bark with “a distinct ‘pot-casse’ ring to it.” Photo by Dan Sayers.

Another foreign term that’s distinctly odd in more respects than one is the Old English Sheepdog’s breed standard request, under General Appearance, that “His bark is loud, with a distinct ‘pot-casse’ ring to it.” Are judges supposed to test the dog’s barking in the ring? Probably not, but even if they did, would they know what “pot-casse” means? It’s French and supposedly means “broken bell,” which of course raises the question of just what a broken bell sounds like…

My French is a little rusty; I think “pot” actually means “pot,” but since “cassé” (with an acute accent) means “broken” the general idea may be correct, however strange. Part of the beauty of the breed standards is that they are sometimes wonderfully weird, and in their own way the oddities are so charming it would be a pity to straighten them out – even if a lot of us can hardly make head or tail of them!

The above, of course, is just a superficial skimming of the breed standards: there are many other peculiar – more or less difficult to understand – words and phrases that you can find when you study breed standards. I’m sure I’ll hear from readers with additional suggestions…

Written by

Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as the U.S. national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.
  • Mary Beth McManus July 10, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    Very interesting and agree with you that terms mean different things to different people. I always find myself reconciling my image of jaunty versus lively &/or smooth-flowing when I read the maltese standard: “The Maltese moves with a jaunty, smooth, flowing gait” …and dictionary meaning for jaunty is expressing a lively, cheerful, self confident manner…; perhaps in a puppy sure. I see too many adult maltese strung up where front feet don’t touch the ground and top knots poofed so far forward that it can give a scowling look (front view) to know whether that maltese is in a cheerful mood &/or whether it’s gait is jaunty enough ….JMO. Thanks for the forum.

  • Molly Ehmann July 10, 2013 at 8:11 PM

    In CKC standards for Dachshunds under Minor faults: Swan neck. Trying to picture that. and Hind feet: Four compactly-closed and beautifully arched toes.

  • Kevin Shupenia July 11, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    I read with interest Bo’s description of unusual terms in standards….especially interested as the English Foxhound is one of my breeds. Beagles and Harriers the other. I stopped suddenly when Bo described the ‘Horn” of the English’s foot as toenails. That’s not what I understood!! I quickly dashed an email off to Bo, saying no no no, you have it all wrong…it’s the pads of the feet…the horny callus that develops in a working dog……that enables him to travel 40-50 miles without getting bloody feet!

    Well….this started an 12 hour adventure of phone calls, googlemania, and research. Talking to fellow breeders – the comment was “of course it’s the pads…who cares about toenails in a working dog? “ I called a friend who is an huntsman of a pack of English Foxhounds – he’s never heard of the term “horn”, but agrees, the pad is utmost importance….he can recall times he’s hunted dogs that have pulled toenails and they run fine……a good hoof on a horse and pads on a dog for a huntsman.

    So…here’s what the research shows – it’s a bit cloudy……but hopefully we can shed some light on the issue….

    1867 – an author by the name of John Henry Walsh (aka Stonehenge) wrote a description of an English Foxhound and a point system. He wrote:

    “The bone cannot be too large, and the feet in all cases should be round and catlike, with well–developed knuckles and strong horn, which last is of the greatest importance.”

    Later in 1878 he wrote In the Modern Field Spaniel :

    “The feet are round and cat-like, well clothed with hair between the toes, and the pads furnished with very thick horn.”

    I think we can conclude by inference that he was referring to the same “horn” of foot in the field spaniel as the foxhound.

    John Henry Walsh also wrote the basis for two other documents (maybe more)….the AKC Beagle and AKC Eng. Foxhound standard. It’s from his writings that I find that all Eng. Foxhound standards (Kennel Club, UKC, CKC, AKC, etc etc) seem to derive from.

    Interesting to note though as well, the Kennel Club altered there standard in the 2000’s to modernize the language…they changed the words “horn” to “toenails”

    The United Kennel club (admitted EFH in 1905, 4 years earlier than the AKC) also modernized their standard in 2009. The changed the terminology of “horn” to “pads”

    To me, the icing on the cake is the quote, “ strong horn, which last is of the greatest importance.” I simply can not bring myself to understand how that could reference toenails. When I think of pads – it instantly makes sense to me.

    Long ago, I was taught on a harrier and Eng. Foxhound, a good judge will lift the foot and inspect the pads…..nice soft pink pads means the specimen being examined is not a working dog and wouldn’t hold up on a hunt. A hard “horny” pad would mean that the dogs would endure keeping up and surpassing the horses.

    No hoof – no horse
    No foot – no hound……

    A hunting parable…

    Yours respectfully,

    Kevin Shupenia
    Jackpot & Kingsbury Hounds
    Eng. Foxhounds, Harriers and Beagles

  • Bo Bengtson July 11, 2013 at 10:06 AM

    Thanks for that, Kevin. This is what it’s about: learning more from breed specialists who have done their homework! The AKC glossary that I consulted, published in the 19th edition of AKC’s “The Complete Dog Book,” actually defines “horn” as “toenail,” but you make a very convincing case, and at least in the case of the Foxhound I’m sure you’re right. As you say, the pads are much more important in this breed than the toenails, so most likely the original standard was referring to pads. I’m not sure where AKC got their definition, but it would probably have helped if the standard used a term such as e.g. “horny footpads” or something similar.

  • Sandra Johnson June 17, 2014 at 6:17 PM

    Having had Old English Sheepdogs since 1967, the OES has a loud, bark that says “pay attention to me!” I have always been told that their pot-casse ring means “clanging pots.” If one has ever dropped a cooking pan in the kitchen, that is how their bark scares you – and definitely steals one’s attention no matter what they are doing. It comes on with no warning and lets everyone know that a dog, and a fairly big one, is in attendance!

    Generally, I have seen few OES bark while herding. I rather imagine that they know their bark is loud and that the heart of sheep is basically timid so they work them in silence

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