About breed standards

'Maintaining the Breed' - an article by Frank Kane

In January 2009, after securing agreement from vets and breed experts, The Kennel Club published the results of its review of each of the breed standards for its recognised breeds of pedigree dogs.

Many of the breed standards date back a long time but are continually reviewed to ensure that they evolve with the breeds that they describe. But what are these breed standards? Why are they important in the show ring? How do judges use them to decide on a winning dog? And how are they relevant to dog enthusiasts today?

What is a breed standard?

Essentially, the breed standard is the picture in words for how a breed should look and also details the temperament of a breed. It is what lies behind the 222 different types of pedigree dog that we know and love today. A breed standard is the pattern used by breeders in their attempts to breed typical specimens of the breed, and it is the tool of the judge in assessing dogs in the show ring.

What is the value of a breed standard?

The pedigree breeds we have today are our legacy from the breeders of the past, when dogs were bred to perform different jobs, from hunting and guarding to fishing and sledding.

In order to ensure that dogs could do these jobs, they needed to have certain physical characteristics and the appropriate temperaments. Dogs were bred to perform such a wide variety of functions, which has given us a diverse range of dogs - from the small to the tall, from energetic breeds to the laid back. Although many dogs may not perform the same functions today, it is those physical attributes laid down in the standards and the 'look' of a breed and/or its temperament which makes the person decide 'I want a dog like that', 'I love Pugs' or 'I must have a Whippet'.

The big advantage of buying a well-bred pedigree puppy is that you are usually guaranteed that it will grow up with the appearance and temperament which first attracted you to the breed. With a crossbred puppy, how tall it will grow, what sort of coat it will develop, and what kind of temperament it will have are all unknown factors.

This in turn helps individuals and families to make educated and responsible decisions about which breed is best for their lifestyle. They can factor in the amount of time they can dedicate to grooming, how much exercise they are able to give their dog, the size of their home and how their dog will be around children. This means they're more likely to choose the right dog and not end up with the heartbreaking situation where the dog has to be rehomed.

History of the breed standards

The earliest breed standards date back to the 19th century, when different 'types' or breeds of dog were being developed. The early breeders were interested in defining characteristics of their dogs and they met to discuss and describe what they thought were desirable features in their breeds.

It is important to remember that in those days all dogs were bred with a function in mind, i.e.:

  • Terriers were bred to go to ground, to flush out game or kill vermin
  • The hounds hunted game by scent or sight, the shorter legged ones hunted by ground scent which was encased by their long pendulous ears. The sight hounds were longer legged and built for the chase, while the arched loins of Greyhound, Deerhound, Wolfhound and Whippet equipped them with galloping power and their deep ribcage provided good lungs for stamina
  • The gundogs were another group of breeds which helped their masters put food on the table and again they were bred for varying functions in the field. The spaniels, with the shortest legs of the gundog breeds, could be used to go into undergrowth and thick cover to flush out game; the setters and pointers, longer legged and faster, could cover a lot of ground and then mark the whereabouts of game by going on 'set' or 'point', their high head carriage and open nostrils helped them in their work. The retrievers, as their name suggests, were sent to retrieve the dead or wounded game
  • Pastoral breeds were developed to help man to herd his livestock, and they needed agility, stamina and natural herding instincts. Their coats needed to be functional to equip them to cope with climate and terrain. Note the difference between the Border Collie, bred to work on the expansive fells, and the smaller Shetland Sheepdogs, more compact to work on the less expansive areas of the Shetland Isles. The Corgis, bred with their shorter legs, were ideally suited to work as heelers, rounding in livestock by nipping at their heels
  • The working breeds were primarily used for guarding and search and rescue. The guarding dogs are exemplified by the Bullmastiff or Mastiff, whose size and substance would be a very effective deterrent to any would-be poachers or thieves
  • Utility dogs were bred for a range of jobs not included in the sporting and working groups
  • Toy dogs were bred primarily as companion animals. The miniaturisation of existing breeds, when the runt of a litter might be given to the lady or children of the house as a companion dog, led to the development of the toy breeds; small, dainty and light enough to be carried around by their owners. Hence we have the Cavalier King Charles and the King Charles Spaniels, which can trace their roots to the sporting spaniel breeds, and so on

So form and function were inter-related: the shape, size and temperament of a dog equipped them for their role in life.

Breed standards today

The foundation of The Kennel Club in 1873 saw the centralisation of all canine matters, with the club taking ownership of the breed standards which had been drafted by the early breeders. Since these days, the standards have been reviewed and revised, sometimes as breeds evolved and developed, or sometimes to address a specific feature.

The society which founded and developed these breeds was a very different one to that which most of us live in today. Modern urban society has little need for vermin-catching dogs. We do not need to go hunting to put food on the table. Few of us live the pastoral life where we need herding dogs. Hence social change has meant that dogs are no longer needed for their working abilities, but fortunately most are still valued as household companions. From earliest times, the relationship between man and dog has been a valued one, and long may that remain.

But, despite the change in society, and the change in the role of dogs, the breed standards still reflect the reasons why the breed came into being. Form, function and fitness for purpose are key features in 'breed standard speak'. The wording in some standards reminds us of the origins and functions of the breeds and of a very different lifestyle. Words like 'hardy', 'sturdy', 'workmanlike', 'active', 'speed' and 'courage' still litter the standards and they demonstrate the heritage and origins of the breeds, and the same desire for fitness of purpose still exists today: 'fit for function: fit for life'.

With The Kennel Club taking ownership of the breed standards, it had some control of the breeds and their development. Since that time, some breeds have changed very little and the breed standards are very close to the original. In some, there have been refinements to make descriptions more accurate or detailed. There have also been new breeds recognised.

Today the guardianship of the breed standards is entrusted to the breed standards and stud book sub-committee, comprised of experts from each of the seven groups (hounds, toys, pastoral, utility, terriers, working and gundogs) and a veterinary surgeon with canine specialism. The work entails the reviewing of existing standards, often at the request of breed clubs, as well as the writing of breed standards for breeds newly recognised in this country, and they also consider applications for breeds which are not recognised in the UK from people who have imported them.

Today when people seek recognition for a new breed from abroad, they are subject to rigorous checks, such as: the health of the breed and its freedom from hereditary defects; its establishment and population in the country of origin; the extent of the gene pool; as well as the temperament of the breed and its suitability for today's society. It is a very thorough check and many applicants are disappointed.

The breed standards committee works closely with the dog health group, which is made up of eminent and independent veterinary and genetic experts. The committee will consider breed features in regard to health issues, sometimes calling in representatives of breed clubs to discuss the health and welfare of the breed.

In 2009, all of the breed standards were reviewed to ensure that no standard demands any feature which could prevent a dog from breathing, walking and seeing freely. Breed health and welfare is a driving force of The Kennel Club and so any feature described in a breed standard which might threaten the well-being and quality of life of a dog is eschewed. Above all, dogs of all breeds should be able to live healthy, comfortable lives. Most pedigree dogs are bred as family pets and companions, so health and soundness must come first.

In the recent review it is heartening to see that the majority of breed standards required little or no change - evidence that breed standards have been written with health in mind and that many breeds are sound and without exaggeration. In a few breeds, more radical changes have been sought and there is still work to be done.

Judging to the breed standard at dog shows

If the breed standard 'moulds' the breed, then it is the job of the judge of the breed to award those dogs which fit it most closely. Of course, there is the danger that exhibitors and breeders might be prone to exaggerate some features of their stock to display more of a breed feature, a case of 'nothing succeeds like excess'. Here the judge has the duty to penalise any such exaggerations. Training seminars for judges emphasise the importance of health and welfare. To this end, the following paragraph is the preface to every breed standard:

A breed standard is the guideline which describes the ideal characteristics, temperament and appearance of a breed and ensures that the breed is fit for function. Absolute soundness is essential. Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to The Kennel Club website for details of any such current issues. If a feature or quality is desirable it should only be present in the right measure.

Again, the stress is on those key words 'health, welfare and soundness'. An adjunct to this guideline is the wording on the Kennel Club challenge certificate, the highest award in the breed show ring and an award which contributes to a dog becoming a champion. The judge must sign the certificate which states:

Having assessed the dogs and penalised any features or exaggerations which I consider detrimental to their soundness, health or welfare, I am clearly of the opinion that (name of dog) is of such outstanding merit as to be worthy of the title of champion.

Health first and then breed qualities. The Kennel Club has also put in place a breed monitoring scheme where a Kennel Club appointed official observes judges to ensure that they are promoting healthy, sound dogs in their judging. It is important to balance breed type with health and soundness. And this is where the work of the two subgroups of the dog health group - the breed standards and conformation subgroup and the genetics and health screening subgroup - work well together.

Why show dogs?

The primary reason that people show their dogs is quite simple; because they enjoy it and because their dogs enjoy it. It is a chance for dogs and their owners to spend time together and not just in the show ring; they will spend a lot of time together attending training classes before they even enter the show. This helps to cement this bond, as well as helping people to fulfill their role as responsible dog owners.

And although nobody can ask dogs whether they enjoy it, it is easy to see if you attend a show. Temperament and deportment are important in the show ring; and a dog that looks unhappy or ill at ease will not move well or carry itself well and so will not be successful. That is why you can visit dog shows and see the dogs enjoying themselves, taking obvious interest and enjoyment in the proceedings, happy in the environment and taking pleasure in strutting their stuff.

But beyond the pleasure that is gained on an individual level by dogs and their owners, the show ring can also help to improve the health of our breeds today. In his independent review into dog breeding which was published in January 2010, Professor Patrick Bateson recognised that dog shows could be a positive lever for change; as it is only through the show ring that we are able to monitor how our breeds are developing. Moreover, it is a place where healthy dogs go home with prizes and therefore helps to encourage the breeding of healthy dogs.

It is also the people who show their dogs who do the most outside of the show ring to help improve the health of dogs. Showing is an expensive hobby with very little in the way of financial reward, so people who pursue it do so because they love their dogs, care about the breed, and they use the best and the healthiest dogs in their breeding programmes. It is the only way to progress and to succeed.

Many breeds have their own health screening schemes which require breeding stock to be screened for any hereditary defects which might occur in the breed - and they do occur in dogs just as they occur in all forms of livestock. This allows breeders to exchange ideas on health issues, the best bloodlines etc. Having a health scheme in place for a breed is a sign, paradoxically, not of an unhealthy breed but of a breed where breeders are working for the health of the breed.

The breeds we have today not only have a rich heritage but also a legacy which carries responsibility for today's breeders and The Kennel Club of today. The breed standards are one aspect of that responsibility and The Kennel Club will always keep the health and welfare of every breed as its primary concern.