When Allen Odom was an (excellent) conformation field representative for the American Kennel Club, part of his job was to interview judges applying for new breeds. One of his questions always was, “Make believe I have never seen [XXX breed]. Describe the breed for me so I can picture it.”
I thought that was an excellent request. Essentially, he was asking for the wannabe judge to discuss what I call the hallmarks of the breed. Perhaps another word for hallmarks would be nuances. These are the characteristics that absolutely must exist for an Irish Setter to be an Irish Setter, or for any breed to be true to its standard. When a new judge is being interviewed by an AKC representative, any discussion of a breed should include the “hallmarks” of that breed, because if a judge does not know that, he does not know that breed.
What do you consider the absolute hallmark of your breed – without which this is not your breed? Google describes a hallmark as a mark put on an article to indicate origin, purity or genuineness: a distinguishing characteristic, trait or feature. Breed-specific characteristics, also known as breed traits, are inherited, and purebred animals pass such traits from generation to generation. Essentially, they are what make a breed a breed.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “breed” as a group of usually domesticated animals or plants with identifiable characteristics that distinguish them from other members of their species — especially a group whose characteristics are preserved by controlled mating or propagating. “Breed hallmarks” define purebred dogs. It’s in the details that the pedigreed dog is measured, and it’s those unique hallmarks that should be accentuated (and understood) by every exhibitor.
What are some examples of these breed hallmarks – those very fine points that differentiate a breed? A simple example is that an Irish Setter is a red dog. But a true nuance is the “delicate chiseling along the muzzle, around and below the eyes, and along the cheeks.” The chiseling may seem to be a minor thing, but it adds that extra-special touch that makes it a true Irish Setter.
For the Flat-Coated Retriever, the hallmarks are the silhouette (both moving and standing) and “power without lumber and raciness without weediness.” (No, it is NOT the head – this is not a “head breed.”)
For the Afghan Hound it might be the exotic expression combined with the “peculiar coat pattern, very prominent hipbones, large feet, and the impression of a somewhat exaggerated bend in the stifle due to profuse trouserings … giving the Afghan Hound the appearance of what he is, a king of dogs, that has held true to tradition throughout the ages”. I would also add a springy, elegant gait to those breed nuances.
Certainly, for the Whippet the hallmark is the smooth, elegant curves without exaggeration. The English Cocker Spaniel should be a sturdy gun dog with strong second thighs as befits a dog that works in heavy cover to flush birds, and he certainly should be “cobby” rather than “settery.”
What are the hallmarks of your breed?
As a friend correctly pointed out, “For many breeds, movement style is a hallmark of the breed, related to function and, for the Sighthounds, the terrain they hunted on. For Sporting dogs, similarly, the terrain, vegetation and game they hunted.”
When it comes to judging, it is often an understanding of breed hallmarks – or lack thereof – that differentiates a judge who is judging your breed properly or a judge of generic dogs. You would expect – and hope – that a “breed specialist” would give a lot of weight to breed hallmarks, but that is not to say that multi-group judges cannot also be in tune with your breed. Are there differences in what a breed specialist or a multi-group judge is looking for?
Some judges are called “head judges” or “head hunters,” and some are known as “movement judges.” Shouldn’t we all just be known as good breed judges? I have often said that I don’t believe one person can be an expert in all breeds, but when we judge Best in Show, we should certainly look for the hallmarks of the breeds in front of us.
How do you know what judges are looking for? Watch the judges as they judge many breeds and watch them objectively. Forget who is at the end of the lead, because whether you want to admit it or not, a professional handler might very well have the best dog in the ring – then again, maybe not. Consider if the judge is being true to the breed. Of course, in order for you to do this, you have to know your standard – objectively.
Keep a record of what you think of the judge’s decisions, and use this information to determine whether you want to show your dog to that judge. Does your dog fit what it appears the judge is looking for? If not, you may want to skip that show. Or you may want to show your dog anyway, because both of you can use the practice, or you may live in an area where shows are far apart, and so you show at local shows no matter what. Or you just may enjoy showing your dog – and that is great. But at least you will have a better understanding of what is going on. Many professional handlers keep a book on judges’ likes and dislikes, and it helps them determine which dogs they want to show to a specific judge. You may only have one dog to show, so do that for the enjoyment of working with your dog. If there is no pressure, maybe you will even show better.
How do judges learn these hallmarks or nuances of a breed? Obviously, if this was their breed or the judge grew up with it, you would hope he “feels” them. If the judge has worked with the breed – in the field or a performance venue – that should help the judge get a feel for the breed. If the judge is sincere in his study of a new breed – and doesn’t just want to check boxes to get a pass – he can also learn what is important about your breed. A sincere judge who picks strong mentors and checks with them even after being approved is one to whom I would want to show my breed. Experience – and time judging a breed – also help, although we have to be careful of the judge who does the same thing over and over and does it wrong. It is certainly possible to have judged a breed generically for a long time. That doesn’t make for a good judge of breed hallmarks.
As a friend told me, “Frank Sabella told those of us attending an early AKC institute that you should decide on five hallmarks for a breed. At your first permit assignment, concentrate on one ‘hallmark’ in your decisions. At your second, add a second hallmark, so that by your fifth assignment you are confidently considering all five of your must-haves in your placements. It really helped me grow in my judging.”
Let me also be clear about this: I am NOT saying that breed hallmarks are the ONLY thing that should determine a judge’s decision. We still need to require soundness in our breeds – soundness in structure, movement and temperament as befits that breed. I do not believe that TYPE and SOUNDNESS can be separated – they go hand in hand. It is in weighing these two characteristics that a lot of judging is decided – and it is the hallmarks of the breed that elevate the best dog.
The silhouette is an important piece in determining how a dog adheres to its breed type and often is one of the hallmarks of a breed. To a somewhat lesser extent, grooming becomes part of the picture. Grooming should never be the reason a dog wins or loses, but proper grooming can help emphasize a dog’s strengths or minimize weaknesses. However, if a dog is groomed in direct opposition to the standard – such as trimming on a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel or shaving or barbering the neck, head or body on a Flat-Coated Retriever – that dog needs to be placed at the end of the line and should not be a winner. Yes, grooming is a manmade thing, and there may be a good dog under the grooming, but defying the standard should not be rewarded.
As another friend said, “People who don’t come from coated breeds often in my opinion can be fooled by a good silhouette per se that is the product of skillful grooming. If a dog does not move as he stands, then you should ‘use your hands to look again.’ Coated breeds warrant more than the cursory exam too often seen in the ring.”
What do you think?