The accidental poetry of American Kennel Club breed standards (PHOTOS).

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Feb. 14 2011 7:09 AM

"Eyes Gazing Into the Distance As If in Memory of Ages Past"

The accidental poetry of American Kennel Club breed standards.

Also in Slate, Martin Kihn asks if the American Kennel Club can survive PETA protestors and disinterested dog owners.

A Neapolitan mastiff. Click image to expand.
A Neapolitan mastiff

Last fall, I attended an event at Manhattan's Javits Convention Center called Meet the Breeds, which, among other things, suggested that Best in Show is a rather mild satire of the dog fancier. The purpose of the event, co-hosted by the American Kennel Club, was to introduce the public to the wide variety of AKC-recognized breeds and to the people who raise them. Among the latter group was a breeder of Neapolitan mastiffs who explained to me, unbidden and in vivid detail, the importance of swabbing between the dog's distinctive folds to prevent infection and odor and the elderly basset hound enthusiast whose distant stare and unresponsiveness to direct address suggested that caring for this wonderful but willful breed had long since claimed his sanity. At one point, I overheard an attendee ask a gentleman exhibiting a different type of mastiff how much the large dogs eat. "Oh, only about one kid a day," he deadpanned. The small child petting the mastiff took a brisk step back.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

It occurred to me that day that dog people are not always the best ambassadors for their beloved creatures. Should this week's Westminster Dog Show inspire you to shop around for a purebred, this dog lover recommends another way to meet the breeds: Spend some quality time on the AKC Web site. For each of 170 breeds, you'll find a page featuring an illustration, a brief history, and a short paragraph on how to decide if this particular dog is right for your household. Read these items if you like, but the real highlight is what follows below them: the breed standard.

Slide Show: The Accidental Poetry of Breed Standards. Click image to launch.

The breed standard describes a Platonic ideal—here is what a perfect German shepherd, or Siberian husky, or Finnish spitz would look like. And act like: In addition to listing physical attributes, the standard also describes the breed's personality. The result is a delightful hybrid, part eugenicist's handbook and part love poem. Characterizing the gaze of the pugpar excellence, for instance, the authors of its breed standard write: "The eyes are dark in color, very large, bold and prominent, globular in shape, soft and solicitous in expression, very lustrous, and, when excited, full of fire." (All italics in the original.) Though ostensibly written without literary aspiration, the best breed standards belong alongside Thomas Mann's Herr Und Hund, Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows, and this Tony Hale sketch in the canon of works that truly capture the special relationship between man and his most loyal companion.

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Because the AKC's guides are written largely for breeders and judges of conformation shows—events, like Westminster, in which dogs are evaluated on how closely they conform to the standard—breed standards are typically heavy on physical description. Each standard is composed by committees convened by the individual AKC clubs—the Samoyed by the Samoyed people, the Petit basset griffon vendéen by the Petit basset griffon vendéen people—and different clubs take somewhat different approaches. While some standards are quite concise, none more so than that of the airedale ("Lips: Should be tight. Nose: Should be black and not too small"), most describe exemplary characteristics in comically minute detail. The Labrador retriever is one of the most basic dog breeds—it has nothing resembling the Rastafarian coat of the puli, or the complicated ear structure of the puffin-hunting Norwegian lundehund. Yet even something as seemingly simple as the Labrador's tail is described with more precision than a lay observer of tails might think possible:

The tail is a distinguishing feature of the breed. It should be very thick at the base, gradually tapering toward the tip, of medium length, and extending no longer than to the hock. The tail should be free from feathering and clothed thickly all around with the Labrador's short, dense coat, thus having that peculiar rounded appearance that has been described as the "otter" tail. The tail should follow the topline in repose or when in motion. It may be carried gaily, but should not curl over the back. Extremely short tails or long thin tails are serious faults.

It goes on from there.

As this description suggests, it's often necessary to consult the AKC's glossary when reading a breed standard. Indeed, part of the pleasure of these texts is their strange lexicon, a mixture of anatomical terms, phrasing borrowed from the equestrian tradition, and folksy inventions peculiar to the world of canines. The long hair on a dog's chest is known as the apron. The apron of the schipperke is called a jabot. A bossy dog is not one who's inclined to lord over its owner; it is a canine whose shoulder muscles are overdeveloped. Belge is an accepted color of the Brussels griffon, sedge an accepted color of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, and Isabella an accepted color of Doberman pinschers. A flesh-colored nose is called a Dudley nose. A long tail is a pump handle.

The authors of breed standards thus have a rich language to describe exemplary dogs. Frequently, however, they opt to define perfection by enumerating imperfections. A Boston terrier should never have a Dudley nose. A pug's noggin, we're told, is to be round, but never "apple-headed." Its muzzle is to be "short, blunt, square," but never "upfaced." The authors of the Weimaraner entry conclude with a litany of "Major Faults" that conjures in the reader's mind a rogue's gallery of flawed dogs—skid row as imagined by William Wegman:

Doggy bitches. Bitchy dogs. Improper muscular condition. Badly affected teeth. More than four teeth missing. Back too long or too short. Faulty coat. Neck too short, thick or throaty. Low-set tail. Elbows in or out. Feet east and west. Poor gait. Poor feet. Cowhocks. Faulty backs, either roached or sway. Badly overshot, or undershot bite. Snipy muzzle. Short ears.

Breed standards are not uncontroversial. In 2009, Britain's Kennel Club changed many of its standards out of concern that breeders were favoring attributes that compromised canine health, like excessive size and wrinkles that inhibit breathing. The revised KC chow chow standard added a line noting that the dogs "must not have so much coat as to impede activity or cause distress in hot weather."

An Afghan hound. Click image to expand.
An Afghan hound

Despite the hullaballoo over the descriptions of physical characteristics, this dog fancier tends to linger over the standards' attempts to capture a dog's personality. The British are reserved in this regard, limiting their remarks to a few words (the shih tzu is "friendly and independent"; the Maltese is "sweet-tempered"). AKC standards expound at greater length on the issue of temperament. In the process, these write-ups betray the vanities and insecurities of the breeds' enthusiasts. Consider, for example, the opening of the Afghan hound entry: