What The Standard Doesn’t Tell You
Semi-confined during our Covid-19 pandemic, I spent some time surfing the web for interesting doggy stuff. I happened to stumble onto a tribute to a Dan Belkin, Ph.D., a name unfamiliar to me, but whose fascinating background caught my eye.
Dr. Belkin’s story revolved around a serious dedication to coursing animals, primarily Salukis, and interested me on several levels, not the least of which was my own involvement with a coursing breed — Afghans. He’d had a long-running interest in falconry before he transitioned to coursing dogs. As people familiar with the breed know, Afghans were routinely partnered with falcons in their native lands, and since Salukis and Afghans are of similar, if not the same, origins way back when, for this article I submit that what applies to one could reasonably apply to the other. Both breeds were used to hunt small, and not so small, prey in Middle Eastern terrain.
I won’t reprint the complete article. It was in the form of a lengthy tribute. Instead, I’ve taken a few of Dr. Belkin’s findings to create the spine of “What the Standard Doesn’t Tell You.” But I highly recommend you pull up and read the whole thing. For any exhibitor, breeder, judge and/or Sighthound person, it’s a really informative look into coursing hounds and their mental, as well as their physical, makeup. Well worth the time. You can find it at https://www.lenstreephotography.com/belkin.html.
Dr. Belkin compared the Saluki standard, point by point, against how function can be a far cry from appearance as it is officially described. Basically, he offers evidence that what a coursing dog looked like often had nothing to do with how all the parts work together in the field. So, I pose a question: Can the “form” we see in the show ring actually function as it is supposed to? And can we tell? Or do we, of necessity and for reasons of expediency, merely give in to what we have formulated in our heads based solely on the written word, accepting the standard as complete and total gospel? It makes for a conundrum. The truth is, given the limitations of time and show-ring procedure, there is little other choice. Another truth is: What works in the ring doesn’t necessarily work in the field.
Dr. Belkin was an evolutionary biologist specializing in physiological and ethological ecology whose interest in the Saluki, as I said, shifted from his experience in falconry. He began flying hawks in 1947 and flew passage peregrines from 1956 to 1970. He had a lifelong interest in predator/prey ethology and in 1971 abandoned his scientific career in order to course Salukis under the Bayt Shahin prefix, which he and his wife, Laura, did until 1985. He was active as a judge and continued to observe coursing breeds with what could only be characterized as rapt dedication. A seminar he gave at the Saluki Club of America National Specialty in June 1993 was taped, transcribed and edited by Vicky Clarke and posted as a memorial to him on the web page I noted above. The lessons he learned and the conclusions he drew came from a hands-on, in-the-field education. In the seminar he compared what he saw happen (function) to what was written (form). Or, what was not written. There were compelling contradictions.
Dr. Belkin died of an inoperable brain tumor in April 1998.
First, Dr. Belkin’s idea of “pure bred” is generally different than ours. We think of our AKC breeds as being “pure.” To us as breeders, it means we accept that most breeds (actually all – since dogs originated from some form of Pleistocene wolf that lived 20,000 to 40,000 years ago) are combinations of other breeds developed by humans to serve a specific purpose. We have subsequently “purely” bred them. No genes from other breeds muddying the waters. We do our damnedest to satisfy, as best we can, what our standards tells us to do. In the case of coursing dogs this, according to Dr. Belkin, can be a problematic fly in the ointment. My two cents: There is also the matter of semantics.
Here’s what he says: “To a biologist, the idea of dogs being ‘pure bred’ is absurd. Most dog breeds are as diverse genetically as are full species of other animals. Genetic diversity is beneficial. It contributes to both species and individual adaptability and vigor. The only mammals that approach a genetic uniformity that might qualify them for being called pure bred are certain strains of laboratory mice and rats, and perhaps cheetahs.” (Why cheetahs? Dr. Belkin explains that not too long ago the world population was reduced to a very small number. So, when those numbers interbred, genetically they became close to being clones of one another.)
Here's another quote from the presentation, the notion of which, in and of itself, is intriguing. It makes me think. He says, “I want you to leave here [the seminar] with this idea: things you cannot see are more important than things you can.” As this relates to the way our animals are compared, sorted and awarded ribbons, it means that a judge can’t see and can’t feel — what? The answer: Functionality. Which means, according to Dr. Belkin, “the standard may preserve appearance, but that’s all it preserves.” He goes on to say, “… Standards (he’s referring to Sighthound standards) were written describing the appearance of the breed, implying that its appearance is the cause of the function. Wrong! The function led to the appearance. If we want to try to preserve the abilities for which a breed was originally created, we cannot do it by just looking at the dog, because what it looks like doesn’t tell us what it can do.” Again, this pertains to Sighthounds. Exceptions: breeds created as “lap” dogs, for example.
Dr. Belkin continues: “People who have coursed dogs for any length of time learn that all their preconceived correlations between form and function have a lot of exceptions. Additionally,” he says, “a mistake has crept into dog standards. The people who originally wrote them were small groups who didn’t necessarily [my word added] know any more about dogs than we do.” I say “necessarily” because it’s possible some of them, in fact, did. “They needed a form to follow so they seem to have looked at horse standards.” Note: Dr. Belkin does concede that even after years of documentation some of his conclusions are theory and/or conjecture, even though they are based on what he, himself, has seen over and over again in the field.
As good as the Afghan standard is — and, in my opinion, very good compared to some others — it is still open to wide and sometimes disparate interpretations. As in all things, the same words mean different things to different people. For instance, the standard calls for the overall appearance to be “exotic,” “eastern in expression.” What is exotic to me may not be exotic to you. “Tail set not too high”: How high is too high? Or “head is of good length”: How good is good? And so on. Semantics. Degrees.
The only characteristic NOT a matter of semantics and not open to interpretation, however, is height: “Dogs, 27 inches, plus or minus one inch; bitches, 25 inches, plus or minus one inch.” It’s something you can physically measure. However, in actual practice, in terms of the show ring, how many Afghan judges do? Or even consider doing, myself included? (Note: It’s not a disqualification.) And yet it is ironic that, more often than not, correct size ends up being low man on the totem pole to most judges. Even though the standard is unequivocal. The majority of Afghans in the show ring are bigger than the standard allows. Why? Bigger is better. Bigger is easier to win with. How big is big? Sometimes WAY big! Likewise, coat. How much coat? More, not less. Coat and size and a little razzle-dazzle routinely walk away with a lion’s share of ribbons. Don’t take my word for it. Watch Afghan judging. (A digression. Sorry.) Would that we could also compare the same entry of the same dogs at the same show against one another in the field. You and I both know that’s not happening.
As a specific, consider Dr. Belkin’s comments on heads. I site the Afghan headpiece according to the standard. (Because the description is lengthy, I paraphrase it.) It says: Both the length of muzzle and refinement should be good. (Beating that dead horse, how good is good?) It speaks to the balance of the head, noting the occipital bone, calling for profuse topknot, pointing out nose shape (“slightly Roman” — how slight is slightly?), foreface, jaws, mouth (meaning teeth) level — neither overshot nor undershot. A level bite is preferred, but “this is a difficult mouth to breed.” (Aside: Level bites are practically non-existent. They are typically a tight scissors over.) It speaks of the ears, ear-leather length, eyes — shape and color, all in more detail than here. Also lists faults. All in all, pretty comprehensive.
But according to Dr. Belkin: “The standard says nothing whatsoever about the most important aspect of the head: what’s inside it.” Think about that for a minute and what it means in a coursing breed — an animal whose highly complex brain is made up of many factors, all of which affect its abilities, i.e., its function — desire, logic, a thing called “running cunning,” the ability to think ahead of the prey, ahead of the curve. Out of the box. None of this we find even hinted at in the standard, but clearly is key to how the dog functions — virtually impossible to evaluate in the dog-show format. To a degree, you can observe a certain amount of “running cunning” in agility and/or obedience. To a degree. Agility and obedience are mostly about training.
There might be flashes here and there in the ring that suggest Afghans’ ability to think for themselves — the operative word being “might.” I can attest to one possible example. It happened a long time ago at a national specialty where I was showing a young bitch in the Bred-By class. We were in the first leg of the individual “down and back” and were about halfway down when a flock of blackbirds, about 10 or 15 as I remember, landed in the ring obliquely ahead of us about 25 feet. The bitch zeroed in on the birds as if they were her last meal, her main and only purpose in life. She broke the trot that she had been well trained to do, veered toward them, and crouched stealthily with her head down, stalking. At this point I was entirely irrelevant and knew it. I allowed her the full length of a loose lead and ran behind. She charged the birds, and the flock flew off in a flurry. The ringside applauded. She smiled and wagged as if she had done something special. Maybe she had.
Was this a demonstration of her ability to think out of the box? That she was more than what the standard said she was? More than what ring procedure could measure? Maybe. Even so, how can a judge factor functional intelligence into an evaluation that’s supposed to gel in — what? — three minutes? It’s not possible. No allusion to running cunning in the standard. It’s pretty important.
Another element of the standard that raises questions for me after reading Dr. Belkin’s seminar: front assembly. A hot-button topic with many definite opinions. Here’s what the standard says: Shoulders have plenty of angulation so that the legs are set well underneath the dog. Too much straightness of shoulder causes the dog to break down in the pasterns …
And here are Dr. Belkin’s findings: “Dogs who have shoulders set very far forward seem to turn better than those with shoulder set far back. Dog with upright shoulders can usually run faster than those with sloping shoulders, at a gallop they appear to have more reach than do those with more shoulder angulation. There are no bone-to-bone attachments of the shoulder girdle to the rest of the skeleton. It’s only attached by ligaments and muscles, so it can be set almost anywhere.”
As to Dr. Belkin’s own dogs, he’d had a number who had lived 15 years or so. Some had upright shoulders. Some had highly angulated shoulders. All had been coursed almost daily for years, often on hard ground. Aside from minor arthritis, none had broken down, a fact he attributes to the premise that they were, and should be, bred to gallop, not trot — the only gait we see in the ring. His determination: Upright shoulders cause more stress in trotting, not galloping. Also, that forces imposed by large size were more influential in predisposing dogs to injury than the minor concussion they might receive from trotting on excessively upright forelimbs. Larger, heavier running dogs were more likely to break down than small, light ones. Could this be why there is technically little wiggle room as to size according to the standard? Could be.
The rest of Dr. Belkin’s observations, which examine point by point each element of the standard, I leave to you as your homework, hoping the few examples here have piqued your interest. And I sign off with a dog-show story from long ago that relates somehow (I’m not entirely sure how) to “What the Standard Doesn’t Tell You.” It was a brief moment in dog-world time that’s been stuck in my craw. I need to unstick it. And, well, it’s my column, so I’m allowed. Make of it what you will.
Years ago, I watched a highly respected all-rounder do the Afghan national — someone whose gynormous reputation preceded her. “She has such great hands on a dog!” (Yes, it was a woman. But, sorry. That’s as much as I’ll say, except that she has long since left us.) To my surprise (and disappointment) in Best of Breed judging she systematically dismissed in a fairly imperious way many, if not most, of the dogs who had, in my opinion, the best type of the lot and gave the breed to a nice, what I considered “middle of the road perfect” dog.
This is not what I need to unstick. I later overheard her respond to a question asked in a very pleasant and non-confrontive, non-critical way by a casual spectator. Quizzically he said, “Just curious. Why him for the breed?” The answer — terse, brief and, I might add, knowing this particular judge’s high opinion of her omniscience on all things dog world related, a touch condescending: With her head tilted pontificatingly back, she looked down her nose (she was very tall) through her half-lens glasses and gruffed, “He had the best shoulders.” Period. End of story.
Unfortunate that the question hadn’t come from Dr. Belkin. I would have loved to have heard his response.