Understanding proportions

The idea of freedom has more to do with my freedom to do what I want than your freedom to do what you want – Douglas Adams

In a recent post on Facebook Our Dogs’ Breed Feature Editor, Helen Davenport Willis, posted this picture of a Bernese Mountain Dog

and wrote ‘Proportions here are incorrect on this Bernese Mountain Dog which is too long in the back and too short on the leg. The whole picture is totally unbalanced; the top line is clearly sagging. Worryingly, there are many like this in the show ring. Bernese proportions should be 9 to 10. That is 9 high to 10 long. Essential to excellence in breed type has to be the correct proportions.’

I replied , I am afraid rather pessimistically, ‘I established the Judging Diploma in 1980 and have been a Kennel Club Accredited Trainer since 2000 so, along with many other thoughtful and knowledgeable columnists and commentators from the UK and North America (Robert Cole in Canada and Curtis Brown in the USA), I have spent 40 years of making exactly this and other comments on structure in seminars, articles, presentations on the Internet and for the last 25 years, in Speakers’ Corner in Our Dogs. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts (and this includes the Kennel Club’s welcome and increasing emphasis on judges’ education) they do not appear to have made a scrap of difference and although some breeds have maintained their standards and there have been improvements in in head structure in Chows and some of the brachycephalic breeds, the conformation and overall shape of many others breeds is simply wrong and totally at odds with their standards.’  I indicated I would try again despite my experience of brick walls and heads and shortly afterwards my mood was lifted with a further post from Nancy P Melone, a retired university professor and Bernese Mountain Dog enthusiast from the States who replied, ‘Intelligence and (most importantly) motivation are not uniformly distributed throughout the population … but there are pockets scattered here and there. We can and do teach the pockets … and for our efforts, those students are deeply appreciative’.

Of course, what she says is quite true and she reminded me of two important points: that the joy of teaching is that you make a difference in the long term (as a student I remember a discussion I initiated on the basis that we were educating for 100 years hence and not tomorrow) and, as I know from my own correspondence, there are many who are as frustrated as I am by the often narrow-minded focus of some breeders and judges who continue to ignore the fundamental conformation of a dog because they like its head, its coat or its tail set.

To begin at the beginning

I should begin by saying that there are many wonderful show dogs and it is one of the great pleasures judging when you see their grace, style and appeal: so, as with the brachycephalic breeds, we know that excellence is achievable.  Unfortunately, the terms ‘breeder’ and ‘high profile’ when applied to breeders do not necessarily correspond: one would wish that they did for it is the high profile breeders who all too often have the greatest influence with judges and novices coming in to a breed. A friend, who had a high profile until 20 years ago when they stood back from the pressures of the show ring, was studying the Our Dogs Annual in January and told me they were horrified at the number of dogs which were distinctly way out of kilter from what their breed standards demanded.

As Helen makes clear, the proportions of her breed is the key element of the criticism of so many dogs in the ring today and this applies to far too many: you do not have to spend very many minutes on canine, show related social media to see evidence of this fundamental distortion. I have no problem in people showing pictures of their dogs but it does concern me that so many people then pile in with their congratulations and confident comments about the quality of dogs which are too often genuinely awful examples of their breed.

But back to the thread – I would like to discuss what in my opinion are the two major problems from which many breeds continue to suffer.  If they could be resolved we could focus on soundness and breed characteristics – the other aspects of excellence.

As noted by Helen the first is ‘proportion’: if a breed is described in the standard as ’square’ then if it is not square it cannot be typical however closely it conforms to its other breed characteristics.  If, as with Bernese Mountain Dogs, the proportions are 10:9, so it is slightly longer than tall, however good the rest is  I would suggest that this is a fundamental flaw.  Of course, the judge must balance the good features against those that are less good but ‘proportion’ is central to whether the dog looks like its breed. In passing I would mention that a note for prospective puppy buyers has been added to all breed standards on the Kennel Club webpages which I had not noticed before.  It says, ‘Size – the Kennel Club Breed Standard is a guide and description of the ideal of the breed; the Size as described does not imply that the dog will match the measurements given (height or weight). A dog might be larger or smaller than the Size measurements stated in the Breed Standard’.  I mention this because I think it proves my point for although we can, I think, comfortably accept that dogs may be slightly smaller than desirable or up to size, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be such a note which says that it could be expected that the proportions of any given breed might not be the same as that described in the breed standard.

Structural balance compromised

The next is the question of ‘structural balance’.  We have seen the damage that can be inflicted on a breed when its structural balance is compromised as in the German Shepherd Dog and, should you be interested, I refer you to my Web Log at http://www.davidcavill.wordpress.com for my series of articles on this subject.  We continue to see structural balance being compromised by the fashion for the hind-quarter strength of some breeds being bred (consciously or unconsciously), with very long second thighs taking the back feet significantly behind the point of maximum stability as seen even in the Kennel Club videos for judges describing conformation and movement.  Now, there are some breeds where a little greater hind angulation is acceptable (not longer second thighs) because they are designed to move most efficiently at the double suspension gallop. Breeds such as Greyhounds, Whippets and Salukis will have this tendency although one would not want to see it taken to the extremes we see all too often. But why such outlines are considered elegant in some guarding, shepherding, mastiff, and gundog breeds (which include poodles) I have no idea but many believe such an outline to be not just acceptable but desirable.

All suggestions as to how to get these vital concepts over to breeds and exhibitors effectively would be very welcome.  Do not hesitate to contact me at mail@davidcavill.co.uk.


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2 Comments on “Understanding proportions”

  1. Anja Says:

    In my opinion, the dog in the picture is above all sadly overweight. Also, the picture is somehow askew, taken perhaps from above, so the back line and proportions seem distorted. That notwithstanding, I agree with what you say about structure.

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