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Breeding for Perfection: What It Takes for a Dog to Be a Champion

By Michael Brandow


The following is excerpted from A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend.

Entering the grand old house on West Twelfth for an interview with a potential client, I was ushered in by a determined doggy who was flanked on both sides by two decorative felines. The cats paused cautiously while their pal, a funny French bulldog whose personality far exceeded her size, came rushing toward the door snorting and barking with a rough, whiskey voice. “This is Winnie,” was my introduction to the being I befriended with a simple scratch behind one of her outlandish satellite-dish ears out of proportion to her head, which was itself supersized for the small, compact frame to which it looked bolted. “She’s seven and loves cats,” Winnie’s mom continued, sensing my delight with the peaceable kingdom I’d just discovered in a narrow foyer. The dog approved, her owner was instantly set on giving me the job, and the rest was mere formality.

My new client gestured me down the hall and my new best friend followed, as though by instinct without being told, in a precise heel position by my side on round, feline feet. The cats scattered to right and left , disappearing into different rooms. “In fact she has two of her own. I like to call them the Three Musketeers. But you have to watch her on the sidewalk because she only loves her cats.” A conversation followed in the front parlor where I sat on a sofa petting a quirky contraption that looked more like a cat than a dog. Attached to Winnie’s dwarfed body was a domed lion’s head with the punched-in face of a Persian. Puss-in-Boots ears were raised alertly, and her back was permanently arched like a frightened kitty’s. Wide leonine eyes, a flat button nose, and a Cheshire grin carved into a globular skull resembling a Halloween pumpkin—a long tail was all that was missing to complete the comparison. Winnie’s was reduced to a stub.

IBRANDOW-AMatterOfBreeding-new_subtitle smiled at the abbreviated cat-dog vying with her owner for attention while I was handed instructions on her idiosyncrasies. Endearing details were revealed, like what sorts of dogs frightened her on the street, which parks she preferred to promenade in, and favorite treats kept on the second shelf to the left. The top priority was a small cylindrical object made of rubber called a Kong toy, an alien shape I was told to impregnate with peanut butter and place precisely at the center of Winnie’s red velvet bed in the library—not the pink satin bed in kitchen—after her daily walk. Winnie’s intricate daily routine had to be respected strictly and punctually, I was warned in no uncertain terms, observed like rituals in a monk’s book of hours, or else she might get confused and poop in the bedroom. Such are the intimate facts, some based on trial and error, others spawned of a dog owner’s own private anthropomorphisms, that only a devoted parent would understand and care to impart to someone entering a circle of trust. Over the years, hit-or-miss habits become rules, and eventually these morph into sacred traditions. “I leave the TV on all day because she just loves Animal Planet,” the woman continued with one of those wild claims that seemed at first to be “more about the people than the dogs,” as they say, until I saw Winnie sitting mesmerized by shadows of tigers, zebras, and giraffes passing highly defined across an enormous flat screen. “She’s very good on the leash. But keep an eye open for pizza crusts and chicken wings when you’re walking her, because she’s a real Hoover!”

Just as I was thinking that dogs would be dogs and there was nothing not to love about this one, some unseen presence entered the room and turned our conversation in a new direction. Winnie’s mom and I sat civilized around a coffee table discussing doggy do’s and don’ts, but as though guided by forces beyond her control, my host felt compelled to make an unsolicited confession. “The breeder told us she’s not show quality,” she confessed, apologizing for the perfectly sweet and innocent creature before us. “Her ears are too droopy, they said.”

I’d heard it all before. No matter what the breed or how wonderful and unique the individual dog, there’s always something wrong: a Frenchie’s ears don’t stand quite right, beagle’s muzzle is too long, basenji’s tail doesn’t lean slightly to one side at a precise angle, cocker’s eye rims lack that distinct “almond” shape…A person can adore a pet in or out of the show ring, but there’s always that other presence looming, scrutinizing, and handing down judgments. It taxes the understanding of amateur dog lovers to discover that industry professionals, grown adults and many of them educated, devote their entire lives to maintaining the proper distance between a pair of nostrils and preserving the sanctity of a curly tail. Exacting rules for the canine form assume a complexity that pushes the limits of common sense and drags us back into a dark and primitive world of secret incantations and weird geometrical formulas.

Each of three sections on a dachshund, for example—head, torso, and hindquarters—should ideally make up, respectively, no more than one-third of the entire length. Otherwise, the pup might win no prize, and the price of its off spring, like the owner’s esteem, will suffer. Likewise, a borzoi’s height, platonically speaking, is equal to its length—in other words, the dog must form a perfect square. This insistence on balance and mathematical precision can sometimes border on madness. If a Pembroke Welsh corgi wants to be fit for a queen or a kennel club, then it must be constructed as follows: “Distance from the occiput [or back of the head] to center of stop [where the muzzle begins] to be greater than the distance from stop to nose tip, the proportion being five parts of total distance for the skull and three parts for the foreface.” A line drawn from the nose tip through the eyes and then across the ear tips should form “an approximate equilateral triangle.” Professional show judges and average pet owners bow before rigid but arbitrary standards that have changed surprisingly little in years.

Coat color is also strictly governed on dogs wishing to be worthy of places in our hearts and homes. How quickly we’ve forgotten that throughout much of the nineteenth century, early attempts at Labrador retrievers were killed at birth if they were yellow, because no shade other than solid black was “desirable,” as they say in the fancy. “There is no record of what happened to yellow dogs through this period,” writes Richard Wolters in The Labrador Retriever: The History—the People. “The records of the restocking of the Buccleuch kennels from the Malmesbury line mentioned only blacks. It has to be assumed that if off-color puppies arrived they were not appreciated and consequently done away with.” To the present day at Westminster or Cruft s, perfectionists can be very demanding, and a tiny wisp or “flash” of contrast on the chest or muzzle of an otherwise unblemished yellow, chocolate, or black Lab might handicap that dog in a judge’s eyes. “A small white spot on the chest is permissible, but not desirable,” reads the AKC standard out of sheer charity. Any highlights such as graying on the face that can’t be explained by age—though one of the Lab’s possible ancestors, the Saint John’s water dog, had these distinctions at birth—are grounds for disqualification. Heaven help the puppy born brindled.

Matching accessories are no less carefully thought out in advance. “Eye color should be brown in black and yellow Labradors, and brown or hazel in chocolates,” reads the standard. “Black, or yellow eyes give a harsh expression and are undesirable. Small eyes, set close together or round prominent eyes are not typical of the breed. Eye rims are black in black and yellow Labradors; and brown in chocolates. Eye rims without pigmentation is a disqualification.” It doesn’t stop there. Black and yellow Labs must have black noses. Chocolate Labs must have brown. And the pink snout often seen on today’s very popular yellow Lab is simply “unacceptable.” Skin, like fur, must be laid out as per instructions, especially on breeds with too much of it. English bulldogs and Dogues de Bordeaux, for example, cannot be champions if those distinctive folds aren’t mapped symmetrically across the faces. A breeder of Rhodesian ridgebacks admitted to the BBC in 2008 that puppies born without that distinctive mark along the back—even though it’s linked to a defect of the spine—are killed out of some (misguided) sense of mercy.

Arbitrary but idealistic as this enormous body of rules might seem to outsiders, standards didn’t fall from the sky. Winnie the French bulldog didn’t inhabit her cartoon shape by accident. Before the AKC had the final word on her look, early pioneers fought long and hard to get this dog on a path to some preconception of perfection. Authorities back in the late nineteenth century bickered over whether the tail should be straight or curly, and the breed itself almost didn’t happen. Three different runners-up vied for recognition from the kennel clubs and a lasting place in our hearts. The miniature bulldog, the toy bulldog, and the French bulldog all looked quite similar, and only one would live on to be ranked among the most popular breeds in the world. After some prolonged cat-fighting between ladies partial to each of these types, speculators on two variations stepped aside. The Frenchie was the social survivor.

About the Author

Michael_Brandow-by_Michael_James_BradfordWith a background in journalism, dog care, and community activism, Michael Brandow is a sought-after commentator on dog-related issues and has written for publications including the New York Times, Town & Country, ARTNews, the BARk, and Animal Fair. He is the author of A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend.