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Faultlessness vs. Virtue

by jonathan jeffrey kimes

Many people assume, I suspect, that technical accordance to a breed standard is the highest level of perfection a breeder should strive to achieve.  To these fanciers, the aim of breeding purebred dogs is to have all these pieces of the puzzle assembled in the same animal.  There are, of course, two problems with such thinking.  The first problem is assuming meeting the breed standard signifies excellence or perfection of the trait.  If this were the case, one could easily argue the state of purebred dogs today is quite exceptional as most show dogs meet the breed standard in most ways.  To test the effectiveness to which a breed standard describes perfection, I would challenge anyone to take the written breed standard to 10 artists, none of whom have ever seen the breed, and have them provide illustrations of the written descriptions.  I suspect some renderings would be unrecognizable as breed specimens. 

The second issue which closely follows this thinking puts a reliance on the identification of faults as the tool of separation between the exceptional specimens and the less valuable dogs.  Here I am using the term “fault” in its most classical meaning.  Many breed standards specifically list out faults while the few remaining others have the rather more enlightened caveat that “departure from the standard is a fault, the degree of which is determined by the extent to which the characteristic departs from the standard.”  Consequently the dog must possess a specific departure from the standard in an area to be “faulty”.  This also literally means if two dogs possess headpieces, both of which meet the standard, then neither can be considered preferable to the other.
Odd thinking, isn’t it?  We know, if we are truly students of one or more breeds, that there is some invisible ideal out there, our “vision” of perfection, which is far more specific and detailed than what is described by most breed standards.   It is the existence of this very specific “vision” in the mind of a judge which makes his/her opinion a valuable assessment.  It also is an extremely critical understanding for one to become a successful breeder.  I cannot ever recall meeting a truly successful breeder who did not carry with them a very clear mental vision of what the ideal of their breed should be.

So I think it is fair to say just meeting the physical description of a breed standard is not enough for most keen fanciers of a breed.  There is something above and beyond this which is recognized as “excellence”.  Quite naturally, this idea of excellence may vary amongst individuals, but it is a vision which each person holds in their mind.  And generally speaking, those who have something akin to an expert’s knowledge of a breed will tend to agree on what these exceptional attributes look like.  Think for a moment, if you will, about the front in your breed.  Surely you have seen a majority of which are acceptable and totally meet the standard, but are “nothing special”.  But can’t you also envision the front of perhaps a few specimens which were over and beyond the basic requirements and weren’t they truly beautiful?  Both type of fronts meet the standard but only the latter group are what you might consider truly virtuous.

If one would agree that meeting a standard is technically “fault-free” or “faultless” then I think we begin to understand what being faultless truly means.  I think we can agree there is obviously a difference between being faultless and being truly virtuous.  This is not, by the way, new thinking by any regard.  In fact, the late extraordinary Raymond Oppenheimer (a partner in Ormandy/Souperlative, the phenomenally successful English kennel of bull terriers) expounded on this very topic quite nicely.  He once wrote, “The absence of fault in no way signifies the presence of its corresponding virtue.”  What he meant is what I have just written about – just because it isn’t technically wrong doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s ideal.   I began reading RHO’s writings when I was 13 and I still find them profoundly perceptive.

It is this thinking which supports the notion of specialist judges – those who are supposedly most likely to have in-depth knowledge of a breed to the extent they have clearly envisioned the ultimate, virtuous animal in their mind’s eye.  It’s not quite that straight-forward, of course, because experience in a breed is needed for an individual to understand how to properly weigh departures from this vision.  For instance, while both small and closely-set ears may be a fault in a certain breed, the experienced judge (or breeder for that matter) may come to understand that small but properly placed ears are less threatening to correct breed type than properly sized but close-set ears.
The true reason for my essay is to understand how we breed the dogs who possess such strength of virtue. We would not breed two dogs with bad fronts together with an expectation of obtaining good fronts.  We generally breed dogs based on a concept I call “complementarity.”. It is based on this notion that one would cross-fault one’s bitch with a stud dog who complements her where she has failings, and vice versa.  I fully realize dog breeding is not quite so simple or systematic, but this is the basic methodology used.  So for the bitch with the poor front, one would use a stud dog with a good front in the hopes some of the puppies will have the sire’s good front.  We use, in fact, phenotypical attributes to help determine the genetic consequences.  That is to say, we make assumptions about what a dog is likely to produce based on how s/he appears.  This is the whole basis for holding dog shows at all.  If examining a dog provided no insight into how s/he would produce, the point of dog shows would be not for the judging of breeding stock, but for the celebration of show dogs unto themselves – a perspective which I am certain pervades the minds of those fanciers (and here I mean judges as well as breeders!) who tolerate or participate in the coloring and ear-, bite- and tail-fixing which is endemic in some breeds today.

If one were to think about the challenge of manifesting in the flesh that vision in one’s mind, there are really the same two kind of methodologies one can use.  The first is to breed away from faults.  If the bitch has characteristics which are considered faulty, the breeder will complement those by finding a stud dog who is not faulty in the same area.  If this process is followed religiously, I suspect the eventual outcome would be dogs who possess few faults.  The program might produce, dare I say it, faultless dogs!  However, to the breed student, dogs who “just” meet the standard in all areas are most likely considered “common,” “without quality,” or “boring.”  The bull terrier fancy refer to these sort of animals as “faultless non-entities.”
The second approach is to breed for virtues.  This means to select a stud dog based on the fact he has a “gorgeous” head, or a “great” sidegait.  The breeder is seeking, in point of fact, something beyond the minimum standard.  For the forward thinkers, they know just meeting a baseline standard is not a very successful manner in which to expect any degree of consistent success or satisfaction.  They strive for something that stands out, something that is better than the rest.  So this breeder will tend to search for strength of virtues.

Quite naturally, the ideal scenario is to obtain a high proportion of virtuous characteristics with no faults.  What we find in practice, though, is that the dogs who are very virtuous in some aspect or aspects sometimes are also saddled with faults.  If I were the breeder who bred for lack of faults, such a dog would be sent out to a pet home for his faults.  If I were the breeder who is striving for that ideal in my mind, I would hesitate and determine whether the dog, overall, was worth using despite the fault or faults. The frustrating fact is when these “phenoms” appear they not only have extreme virtues but often extreme faults as well!  I euphemistically think this is Mother Nature’s way of keeping things in balance.  The “house rule” I use in this instance is quite simple.  I ask myself, “Can I obtain these great virtues elsewhere, in a less faulty dog?”  If the answer is yes, the animal can be discarded from the breeding program.  If the answer is no, there is the distinct possibility that discarding such an animal will ensure those characteristics will never be bred to such a high standard again.  For the judge, the question is the same, “Have I seen such strength of virtue exhibited in this breed before?”  If not, then one must ponder the value that animal has in a breeding program before deciding his/her placement amongst the competitors.
The challenge the breeder is faced with, when presented with a dog of extreme virtue and extreme fault, is to determine if such a dog can be leveraged in a breeding program successfully.  It really takes considerable cleverness to accurately determine if the risk is worth the potential value.  Some breeders fail at this miserably and possibly end up breeding a line of beautifully headed cripples or some other sort of ill-conceived manifestations.  But given the right opportunity by the person who somehow has the ability to understand when these controversial dogs are useful, they typically make profound influences on their breed.  I shall not delve further into the needed importance of a judge’s ability to possess the same talent in order for their opinion to be truly useful.  Inevitably, these extreme animals have two long lines of followers – those who love the dog (for his/her virtues) and those who despise the dog (for his/her faults and sometimes virtues!)  There is very little middle-ground with these guys.

Enough theorizing, I’ll now provide a couple of examples.  My first example comes from the bull terrier breed.  I will freely acknowledge that progressive, liberal thinking was practiced by this fancy long before such posturing was fashionable and I suspect it was largely due to Mr. Oppenheimer’s genius.  He was wealthy, opinionated and generally right in his thinking – a formula for becoming a mover and shaker!  So to begin, there appeared from the smoke of WWII a very impressive colored bull terrier.  Notwithstanding the fact this particular dog had the gall to be colored (whites were historically considered superior in those days), he had a simply phenomenal head.  Much of bull terrier breed type is in the head, so when an extreme headed dog has appeared, I have often read stories of how the judge almost fainted! being overcome but such extraordinary perfection.  At any rate, this dog, who became English Ch. Romany Reliance, was such an animal.  He had a superb gunbarrel front, bone, substance, a lovely neck and an auspicious headpiece.  What were wrong were straight shoulders, straight stifles, a high-set tail, a certain lack of body shape and an imperfect bite – he was, in short, riddled with faults.  Plenty of ammunition for both sides to rally around!  Suffice it to say he was an extraordinary link to vast breed improvement and is probably single-handedly responsible why the breeders of whites mutinied against their parent club to allow them free use of coloreds and color-bred whites in their breeding programs.

In Cardigan Welsh Corgis, I can illustrate such a case in which I played some part.  There existed in the seventies a most beautiful brindle dog by the name of Ch. Brymore’s Taliesin. While he possessed many exceptional virtues he was not a particularly up-to-standard mover.  He won well for his day, competing in the Working Group as Cardis did in those days, with two Best in Shows and two CWCCA National Specialty BBs.  But he was most controversial and I very much remember overhearing much debate about his value.  Being a teenager I tended to keep my mouth closed (or at least that’s how I remember it) but I always thought him of exceptional virtue without question.  In the event he was, in fact, very little used at stud.  When I reached a point where I was actively involved in breeding dogs, I championed his use, but by now he was nearly 12 years old.  Eventually, a daughter of Taliesin was put to a dog of mine, Ch. Kennebec Ice Anchor.  The bitch was a decent sort, she was long-coated, barely acceptable in movement but typical in many ways and quite obviously carried many of the good points of her sire.  What came out of the litter was a rather glorious bitch by the name of Ch. Davenitch Shiloh Luca.  She became the first Cardigan bitch in the world to win an all breed Best in Show and won two national specialties and was BOS to her sire at another.  She was, indeed, a phenomenal specimen.  Before and after the advent of Luca, I crossed the Taliesin descendents I had with the complementary Ice Anchor and they proved extremely valuable in breed improvement, counting for a large number of national specialty and all breed winners among their descendants.

The point of my essay being that truly, it is strength of virtue - intelligently recognized and utilized - which moves a breed forward, not a mad pursuit for lack of fault.  Judging by faults is far easier but far less satisfactory in the end.  I will insert the comment that I am by no means asserting a characteristic carried to extreme is always virtuous!  But I do believe it true that as one approaches what we consider “perfection” the horizon ever recedes and our concept of perfection then alters.  I do believe, with great conviction, that without the recognition and use of these rare occurrences in dog breeding, we lose momentum and great opportunities for breed advancement.

So when we come upon these phenoms and they are saddled with shortcomings, let us recognize both the good and bad and evaluate them in the light of breed improvement and not just as a static manifestation of an imperfect rendering of the breed standard. 

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