In a 1983 AKC Gazette column titled, “Whose Breed Standard Is It, Anyway,” Poodle columnist and popular all-round judge Dr. Jacklyn Hungerland wrote, “As a member of the breed standard committee that produced the current standard for the Poodle (in 1978), I am well aware of the difficulties encountered in trying to describe explicitly in words what we want the eye to see.” Through her thoughtful comments, the esteemed judge and breeder of DeRussy Standard Poodles acknowledged that just as the perfect dog will never exist, neither will the perfect breed standard ever be written.
The truth of Dr. Hungerland’s observation, however, certainly hasn’t prevented breed standard committees, and the AKC, from attempting to perfect the language that idealizes every recognized breed of dog.
Well, most breeds, anyway.
In 1987, the American Kennel Club established a common format for breed standards, and by the early 1990s approximately two-thirds of the parent clubs had brought their breeds’ standards in line with the new guidelines. Of those clubs that opted out of the process, the decision to maintain an existing standard was within their right as official custodians of both their breed and its written standard.
One of the clubs that chose to stay the course, as it were, was the Greyhound Club of America. Founded in 1907, the club that supports the interests of the archetypal sighthound decided to hold onto its existing standard.
By contrast, the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association, formed in 1926, revised its breed standard in 1994 in accordance with the new format. Although always lengthy, its current incarnation is one of the longest – if not the longest – standard of all AKC-recognized breeds.
For every dozen or so words used to define English Springer Spaniel breed type, the Greyhound standard uses only one.
This disparity in the length of AKC breed standards poses an interesting question: Does a standard’s length – or its brevity – have any impact on one’s ability to understand a breed, or on the quality of its breeding or judging?
Perhaps only a numbers nerd, with the help of an anatomist, could ever design a formula for analyzing the true effects of a breed standard to answer that question. Nonetheless, it is interesting to itemize the contrast between these two standards and ponder their potential impacts on decisions made in the whelping box and in the show ring.
The Short Form: The Greyhound
The AKC-approved standard for the Greyhound efficiently describes the form that enables the breed to function at top speed. Originally a courser of deer, the Greyhound is capable of attaining speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour.
The Greyhound arrived in the American colonies by the 18th century and was recognized by the AKC in 1884. Breeders and judges in this country have been guided ever since by a standard that is fewer than 200 words in length.
The complete list of features defined by the AKC standard for the Greyhound are: head, ears, eyes, neck, shoulders, forelegs, chest, back, loins, hindquarters, feet, tail, coat, color and weight. The standard has no section for general appearance, nor do descriptions appear, as they do in many standards, for size, proportion, substance, gait or temperament.”
The standard lists no faults and no disqualifications.
The Greyhound’s most fully defined feature is the head. Thirty-five words are used to describe this hunting breed’s headpiece, and the language used includes such modifiers as “fairly wide” and “scarcely perceptible.”
Hindquarters are defined in 26 words. Sixteen words are used to define the ears, 14 for the forequarters and 12 for the neck. The Greyhound’s eyes are described through five words and the back with three. Color in the breed is limited to the single word: “immaterial.”
A scale of points – once common to most, if not all, breed standards – is used to prioritize features and define ideal Greyhound type.
The sparingly written format by which the Greyhound is defined has a poetic precedent. An oft quoted rhyme, attributed to Dame Juliana Berners and written in 1486, characterizes the breed in fewer words than even the breed standard: “A Greyhound shold be heeded lyke a snake and neckyd lyke a drake, backed lyke a beam, syded lyke a bream, footed lyke a catte, taylld lyke a ratte.”
The Long Form: The English Springer Spaniel
The English Springer Spaniel breed standard, at more than 2,000 words, describes in detail an attractive sporting dog capable of performing tirelessly under difficult hunting conditions. The breed is well-known for its fine nose in the field and its beauty on the bench.
A little more than a decade after its 1910 recognition in the U.S., the “Springer” was quickly becoming a favorite hunting companion and show dog. Its early written standard provided a great deal of detail for a breed capable of achieving the highest level of success in either arena. The current standard specifies each aspect of the breed’s physical and mental characteristics in a manner that follows the AKC format.
The Springer’s AKC-approved breed standard includes the following sections: General Appearance; Size, Proportion, Substance; Head; Neck, Topline, Body; Forequarters; Hindquarters; Coat; Color; Gait; and Temperament.
The lengthiest part of the Springer standard is the section on the head. At 542 words, no detail of the breed’s skull, muzzle, stop, eyes, ears, nose, teeth or bite is examined without considerable description. Eye characteristics alone are expressed in 142 words.
Characteristics of the breed’s conformation are defined with an extensive word count, including coat, 217; neck, topline, body, 203; gait, 182; size, proportion, substance, 170. Forequarters are described in 154 words and hindquarters in 116.
One hundred thirty-seven words are even devoted to summarize the evaluation of the Springer’s conformation, behavior and movement in the show ring.
Since its earliest appearance on this side of the Atlantic, the English Springer Spaniel has challenged all other breeds at the highest competitive levels. The breed’s extensive written description – that seems to leave nothing to chance – has successfully guided enthusiasts in the U.S. for more than a century.
Breed Standards and Illustrated Elaborations
The efforts of conscientious breeders to produce Greyhounds and Springers of correct type have been guided by breed standards either short or long. Although field varieties exist in both breeds, the most exceptional show lines demonstrate by their success that quality is not defined by word count. Though limited in its ability to describe the essence of the breeds we love, the written word remains an essential tool that enhances our understanding of correct type.
The Greyhound Club of America’s “The Greyhound: Form Follows Function” picks up where the breed’s official standard leaves off. This document provides clarification of the standard’s concise language, and directs breeders and judges in their decision making by providing expanded definitions, while acknowledging personal preferences.
The English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association has also produced an illustrated standard to complement the official version. “An Illustrated Discussion of the Standard for the English Springer Spaniel,” which includes multiple renderings, is less an expansion of the already detailed standard for the breed and more of a simplification. In this document, essential elements of correct type are reduced to a minimum of words, not unlike those used in the Greyhound’s official breed standard.
For some parent clubs, the decision to revise a breed standard is made in an effort to bring clarity or to right a wrong. Critics, however, claim that any revision to a breed standard is simply an attempt to make the standard conform to the current dogs, instead of requiring breeders to adhere to the existing standard.
An “illustrated standard,” on the other hand, gives parent clubs an opportunity to preserve a breed standard while enumerating – through word and picture – a breed’s finer points that may not be stated explicitly in the standard.
Dr. Hungerland was right, of course, when she wrote of the limitation imposed by using words to describe an ideal state of perfection. Although restrictive, breed standards and illustrated elaborations are the best tools available to the student wishing to enhance his or her education.
The only better teacher is experience.