Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

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Flavor of the Month

Avoiding the fickle finger of show ring fashion

by C.A. Sharp

First published in Double Helix Network News, Fall 2013


“The Australian Shepherd is…of medium size and bone…Slightly longer than tall…coat of moderate length…the topskull length…equal to the muzzle…Lips are close fitting…The ears lift…one quarter (1/4) to one-half (1/2)…break forward or slightly to the side…”
                             Breed Standard, Australian Shepherd Club of America

 “The Australian shepherd is…slightly longer than tall, of medium size and bone, has a coat of moderate length…Head is…dry…muzzle is equal in length or slightly shorter than the back skull…The Ears…break forward…or to the side…”
                                            Breed Standard, American Kennel Club

                      (Emphasis above the author’s.)

 “Long and low!”
“Gobs of bone!”
“Dripping with coat!”
                                  (names withheld to protect the guilty)

  Breed standards are the template breeders use to guide their selection of physical traits.  Ideally, the dog as described should have the physical attributes necessary to perform whatever its original task might have been.   Ideally, the big winners in conformation events should be stellar exemplars of their breed standards.  Ideally.

  We humans find the novel irresistible.  We are fascinated by what’s new or different.  We crave what’s “hot.”  This is true not only of clothing trends and electronic gizmos, but also our dogs.  There are breeds or types of dogs that have been “in” because something – frequently a popular movie or television program – presents them to the public at large in an appealing manner.  While we who are “in dogs” generally cringe when our favorite breed shows up in a major entertainment vehicle, we are no less prone to flights of doggy fashion than the average person sitting in a theater or on the couch.

 Media-driven breed popularity surges are largely beyond our control.  Despite the best efforts of clubs, rescue groups, and concerned fanciers, there are always plenty of unscrupulous commercial breeders, large and small, who are willing to produce volumes of “product” to meet consumer demand leaving us to pick up the pieces.  But we also have our own fashion cycles that we need to beware.

 Subject and History

 I’m using my own breed, the Australian Shepherd, to illustrate my thesis not because it is the most blatant example (it’s not) but because it is the breed I know best.  Look at your own breed – its standard, what’s winning today, and what won in times past – and you can probably find your own examples.

The Australian Shepherd is a recently developed breed.  First studbook registration was in 1957.  The dogs derived largely from indigenous ranch dogs of the American West in the early to mid-20th century.  These dogs frequently exhibited blue merle coloration and bobbed tails.  The smooth-faced variety of the Pyrenean Shepherd and herding dogs of unspecified breed but of generic collie type from Australia have been documented as contributing to the breed.  The breed has about 300 founders – far more than many breeds – and for most of these dogs there is no known background, they were simply useful ranch dogs with duties including guarding and varmint control as well as moving livestock.

Type was highly variable in the mid-20th century as to size, coat, color and earsets, but the majority would conform with modern breed standards.  The Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) standard developed in the mid-1970s is the ancestor of all standards in use today.  The quotes above from the current ASCA and AKC standards conform very closely to that original document, with one exception which will be discussed later.  The development of that ancestral standard and the booming popularity of a show bloodline that closely met that standard lead to a more uniform appearance across the breed.  Even breeders of working and trial dogs, whose main concern was performance traits, were less prone to breed those dogs that varied most widely from the standard.  

 Setting an Example

Fashions in appearance tend not to plague working and performance dog breeders.  Their focus is elsewhere.  The conformation ring, however, puts primary focus on how the dog looks.  Movement is important, but the dog must first look right; a dog that moved like an Aussie but looked like an oversized Sheltie would not (and should not) win in any show with competition.  The nature of any competition is to identify the individuals that are better than others.  And once you’ve found those, the next batch need to be “more better.”

Since appearance is key, there is a tendency to exaggerate any trait that is considered desirable:  Size, coat, bone, muzzles, ears, even movement.  Biggest, smallest, longest, shortest, highest, lowest, densest, curliest, or whatever – any “–est” can become the focus of the siren song of show ring fashion.  As a result breed appearance can change.  Look at photographs of the top dogs in your breed of the 19th century, the 1920s or 30s, and today.  In most breeds you will see marked differences between those early “greats” and current quality dogs.  My breed doesn’t’ have such a long history, but even in the Aussie’s short span you can see a difference.  The first dog to win an ASCA National Specialty was a blue-merle male named Wildhagen’s Dutchman of Flintridge.  He was used by Dog World Magazine as their exemplar of the Australian Shepherd standard in the 1970s.  He still conforms well with the standard but the breed fashion has changed and he would no longer outdistance his competition as he did in his day.

Most Aussies, particularly those that are shown in conformation, meet the standards.  However, fashion trends do occur and some fly in the face of what the breed standards describe.  A current favorite in some circles is “long and low.”  A dog that is distinctly longer than tall due to a somewhat shorter leg than is proper.  The standards are very clear in stating the Aussie should be slightly longer than tall.  The look has been around for at least twenty years but of late it has gained popularity even though it does not meet the standard. 

With very few exceptions, dog breeds developed to move groups of livestock in more-or-less open terrain are slightly longer than tall and have sufficient leg to move quickly and efficiently over distances, across rough ground, and possess the physical dexterity for maneuvering around potentially dangerous stock.  For this reason the ASCA standard states:  “The point of the elbow is set under the withers and is equidistant from the withers to the ground.”   

Fashions arise because some dog or line of dogs with a particular look does a lot of winning, or wins a major event.  Everybody else wants to win, too, so they try to breed dogs that look like the big winner, generally by breeding to it or its relatives.  

Smoke and Mirrors

Fashion sometimes can lead to skullduggery in order to meet it.  The taping and gluing of ears to achieve a particular set is clearly artificial but not sufficiently so to spur action by those who administer the rules.  There are unscrupulous individuals, however, who will resort to surgery if less draconian measures don’t work.  This is blatantly against the rules though the perpetrators generally won’t get caught.

Australian Shepherds are supposed to have moderate sized ears that break forward or to the side (rose ear.)  The ASCA standard specifies that the break should be a quarter to a half along the length from the base.  The AKC standard only notes that they break.  Very high-breaking ears are not considered desirable so aren’t an issue.  However, the rose ear – totally acceptable under both standards – is also generally disliked, hence the taping, gluing, and occasional skullduggery.

The problem with all this dedicated effort to get what is considered the prettier earset is that if significant numbers of people are altering whatever Nature gave the dog, it becomes impossible to breed for the preferred set.   

Window dressing

Some might ask whether it really matters if people’s preferences change the look of a breed.  It’s all cosmetic, and if someone likes one look over another, why shouldn’t she breed for it?  Obviously, there is nothing stopping people from doing just that if they want to because it has been going on for a long time; probably from the time people first started showing dogs.  But every breed has its own unique history and traditions, and the physical appearance of the dogs is part of that tradition.  People are attracted to a breed for what it is, not what they can turn it into.  In theory, anyway.  But some changes have more than cosmetic impact on the dog and on its owner.  Sometimes they may even impact health and soundness.

In years past the Australian Shepherd was not particularly prone to over- or undershot bites.  They happened, but not with great frequency.  The Aussie’s muzzle is traditionally tapered and approximately the length of the back skull.  This allowed for the full set of teeth in classic canine orientation necessary in any function-bred dog that uses its mouth in the course of its business.  A number of years back a fashion for shorter, blocker muzzles arose.  The AKC breed standard reflects this new preference, stating that the “muzzle is equal to or slightly shorter than the back skull.”  While this muzzle type isn’t by any means universal, it’s still frequent enough that someone unfamiliar with the breed historically might think it normal.  Because a relative few generations of dogs have been selected for this look this fashion trend may have impacted the frequency of bad bites in the breed.  The Australians Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute’s breed health survey, completed in 2010, found that 3% of the dogs were reported as having bad bites.  

In the worst case, the pursuit of fashion can result in significant health and other issues for the dog.  Your breed may find itself painted into a corner that is difficult to impossible to get out of.  If you doubt me, locate photographs of Bulldogs from the mid-19th century then consider the Bulldog today.

 The conservative approach

Another problem with fashions is that they can change.  What’s hot today may not be a few years down the line.  The wise breeder will choose a conservative path, studying the standard and selecting for traits that don’t push the boundaries.  Where variety is allowed, as with earsets in Aussies, she will breed for what she wants and keep the dogs that fit her criteria rather than cosmetically improving those that don’t.

Breed standards exist to guide breeders and judges in selecting the proper sort of dog for the breed.  When not overly revised, they help transmit the vision of the breed’s early supporters, who knew the breed as it should be, down through generations of breeders.  The task of their heirs, the breeders and exhibitors of today, is to preserve and continue those traditions.