Fri, 04/29/2022 - 11:15am

And While We’re Still on the Subject …

… of the Afghan standard, that is

There is always more to say, if only re-arranging thoughts, re-stating the obvious, or reiterating what’s already been said a hundred times. Why? Because Afghans are a complicated breed. Discussing them can be a challenge. Why? Words, by their very nature, are pliable. And conversations about the Afghan standard can be like walking through the Hall of Mirrors at the fun house — stretching or shrinking, lengthening or widening, rationalizing or convoluting a word or group of words to make, or break, a point of view.

Sometimes I think if I hear, “The standard says …” one more time, I’ll tear my hair out. It’s like hearing “like” as every other word in a Valley girl conversation. Or, like, listening to a parrot. Or, like, sounding like one. Virtually a no-win situation that, at best, ends in a draw, the parties agreeing to disagree. Or, on the other hand, thinking to yourself or maybe even saying, “You don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about!” Does anyone learn anything new about the breed when arguing the standard? I doubt it. It’s like politics. Or religion.

In the semi-dotage of what’s left of my days, my patience often wears thin for the old “the standard says” schtick when what the standard says is cherry-picked. Say what you will, clearly, it means different things to different people. How many times have you been part of a conversation where “But the standard says” is used to validate or negate this or that dog? You don’t have enough fingers and toes to count them. The fact of the matter is that you can pick any — repeat, any — point of the standard to affirm the virtues of a dog, or on the flip side, to show that same dog to be deficient somewhere, somehow. Detractors of top winners, for example — “How can judges put up a dog like that when the standard clearly says …?” And fans of the same dog — “Sooo correct! A perfect example of the standard.” Who’s right? Maybe on some level and to some degree — both. Or neither.

Cherry-picking. It’s called cherry-picking. The standard and/or pieces thereof can be quoted ad infinitum to validate or vilify any dog.

My primary experience is with the Afghan Hound standard. To drive the point of this article home from a more secular angle, think for a moment about that other well-known standard — the much longer, more intense and likewise often misused, Good Book, i.e., the Bible, (to which I mean no disrespect). It, too, lends itself — no, falls prey — to cherry-picking. You can quote Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John, etc., to validate or condemn any mortal behavior you want —like (there’s that word again) the dog standard. Only on a cosmic scale with a lot more fire and brimstone and a lot more at stake — Heaven or eternal damnation. “The Bible says, blah, blah, blah …”

(You’re thinking, “How does such an irreverent guy get off referring to the Bible?” Answer: I grew up with a Nazarene fundamentalist grandmother who built three churches in my lifetime, so I come from a place of some experience on this. She, God love her, took the Bible literally: Moses really did part the Red Sea, and the earth was definitely created in six days. God rested on the seventh. Note: I fled all pews when I discovered that her particular church frowned on dancing and going to the movies. And that women shouldn’t wear lipstick. Really? Really. All instruments of the Devil. I digress too much. Apologies.)

So, what if we try to take the Afghan standard literally? The answer is: We can’t. It’s like the Bible. Semantics. Degrees. And like the bigger Bible, opinions and conclusions revolve around interpretation and priorities. Period.

I’m not diminishing the Afghan standard we’ve been given. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ours is a very good one. But. Degrees. Semantics. Both are facts of life.

So, what’s the answer? After you’ve committed to memory all the details of the standard, sorting out the intricacies, ending up with the best dog/bitch (in the ring or whelping box) depends on three things and three things only: Concept. Then priorities. And more important than anything, a good eye. (And, folks, I’m here to tell you, you either have a good eye or you don’t — with one redeeming caveat: An eye for a dog can in some cases be developed. Operative words: in some cases.)

I think we can all agree: How effectively breeders breed, how accurately judges judge, and to some extent, how exhibitors exhibit, depend on how they conceptualize the whole dog — of any breed. Here’s my advice: Resist picking that cherry. You’re breeding/judging/exhibiting the entire package. “He’s a head judge.” “She’s a shoulder judge.” A “this” judge. A “that” breeder. My advice again: Don’t find yourself stuck in a this or that category. And remember — we look for the perfect. We work with the imperfect. Bea Godsol hit the nail on the head when she said, “All dogs have faults. The great ones wear them well.” Clearly, what she meant is that the whole dog should be considered. This would, by extension, include all those other dogs down the line. The good-but-perhaps-less-than-great ones. That’s accurate judging.

Recently I had the task of ringside-mentoring a young woman who was working toward her approval for Afghans. She already did other breeds and knew what was required. She was well informed about the particulars of the standard and could quote what it said about this or that part of the dog. Attentive. Conscientious. An apt student.

So, being the devious person I am, I tried to throw her a little curve ball, just to test the extent of her knowledge. Discussing the eye as we watched a class go around the ring, I said, “The standard says (here the phrase is appropriate) the eye should be small, dark and almond shaped. Right?” To which she added, “Almost triangular.” Good for her. She was into the details. She caught the curve. This was all good. Book learning is important — to a point. After that, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

I’m thinking to myself, “I wonder how will she sort all of this book knowledge out when the curtain comes up? How will her general concept come together? What will her priorities be? How will she sum up and sort out what she thinks in two and a half minutes per dog? Or is it three? What notions might she adjust along the way? Will she have a good eye from the start? Or develop one over time?” Or never have an eye for an Afghan at all and just fumble around justifying what she does with, “Well, the standard says…”?

If I gave her a blank sheet of paper and pencil and asked her to draw her ideal Afghan, what would it look like? For that matter, if I asked you to do the same, what would your ideal Afghan look like? Or mine? Dollars to donuts they’d all look a little different.

I keep scanning the horizons for emerging and/or existing non-breeder judges who may have the potential to enter the pantheon of those past judges who had a natural understanding for this and other breeds. All had a good eye. Alva Rosenberg, the Van Courts, Major and Bea Godsol, the Stevensons, Sabella, Ellsworth Gamble, etc. I know they’re out there. Would my ringside protégé rank with them? Fingers crossed.

I gave her the best advice I could think of in the brief time we had — my beating a dead horse pitch: Research the history of the breed. Look at the original imports and compare what they were then to what they are now, knowing full well that she would unlikely find anything that bears much resemblance to the originals. This is, in and of itself, a challenging assignment, since only here and there does the breed currently come even vaguely close to what it was way back then. “And while you’re at it,” I said, “you might read my columns. There’s a bit of history in them, too.”

Throwing my pupil one more curve on the Afghan eye color, I related my conversation with Juliette de Bairacli Levy (see my last article, “The Eyes Have It”) and the English standard. (For those who missed it—it refers to the human factions and the compromises that were made when the written standard was adopted and later modified.) At the very end of our conversation Juliette had said prophetically: “The English decided the eye. Not the Arabs.” (To today’s reader familiar with the Afghan standard and the breed history: Who do you think was right? The English? Or the Arabs? It’s one of a number of possible conundrums, no? The English took a handful of Afghans to England and wrote a standard. The Arabs stayed in their native habitat and hunted with them.)

No matter. Whether you breed or judge, or, to some extent what you choose to step into the ring with, it’s all going to be about your priorities. How high is not too high for the tail set; how steep is not too steep for the croup; how arched is slightly arched for the Roman nose; how much coat is too much? Too little, etc.? The standard lays all this out for you in very relatable terms except it doesn’t — it can’t — tell you how or what to prioritize. How to put it all together. That’s on you. And how you do this will determine what ends up in the whelping box and/or what ends up with the ribbons. That’s the test. And while we’re still on the subject, as a breeder/exhibitor or judge, or all three, new or well-seasoned, what grade will you be giving yourself?

Parting words: Think carefully before you state with resolute, absolute certainty what “the standard says.” And how many variables might live in there.



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