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The "F" Words



For casual consumption only; not to be ingested without the proverbial grain…

  Lisa Warren  


        THE "F" WORDS

"Form follows function." It is a term used frequently in the dog world, borrowed, I believe, from architecture, although I am not certain of its absolute origin. With the exception of the breeds in the toy group, nearly all of today's breeds were developed with a purpose other than companionship in mind, a purpose that would serve the needs of man in some very functional way.  A seriously thought-out breed standard, as it describes the ideal form of the dog, does not lose sight of the breed's original function, or perhaps of a purpose for which the breed has more recently come to be used.  If these intended functions are ignored in the standard or by the breeders and judges who shape the form of the breed as it evolves, then the breed in question could become one of several doing a flying trot down the road toward the loss of essential "breediness".  You will know what I mean if you have sat at ringside during group judging over the years and noted more and more breeds moving with amazing front and rear extension, or trying to, whether that gait would serve them well in their particular function or not, and whether or not that is the gait described in their standard.  And, in the pursuit of eye-catching prettiness, many of these exhibits are trimmed and groomed in ways that would make the old-time breeders do half-gainers in their graves. One by one, it seems, breeds are becoming more and more like "cookie-cutter dogs" that may vary in shape, size, coat and color, but otherwise could all have come from the same manufacturer, from the same cookie cutter set.  All of this is true because these things so often succeed at a dog show; many judges are, perhaps unconsciously, more impressed by prettiness and flashy movement than by a really balanced, sound, correct example of a breed, complete with all of the distinguishing characteristics and structural requisites that both design its form and make it functional.  I suspect that this state of affairs has evolved due to the enormous emphasis that is placed on group and best-in-show competition in this country, focusing much of the fancy's attention away from the subtleties and finer points of the various breeds.  Many breeders, being adaptable and wanting to breed what they can win with, begin ignoring the mandates of structure and breed specifics in their standards, and they get away with it all too often at dog shows.

 One hears many interesting things at ringside, and I recently overheard a conversation between two Afghan hound breeders in which one remarked that, while it was quite nice for a dog to have all of the structural and breed-specific features outlined in the standard, he himself felt that it was much more important to breed for a "look". Well, it is difficult to win without a "look", but surely a correct-looking bloodline cannot maintain that look for more that a few generations if the breeder is not constantly considering structural excellence during both the matchmaking and selection phases of breeding, keeping the standard's precepts in mind all the while.  I give that particular breeder only a few years before he loses his valued "look" entirely, unless he wakes up to the folly and shortsightedness of his point of view.

 Another overheard conversation involved dachshunds. One exhibitor was trying to console another who had not won that day: "Well, you know that he only likes very elegant, flashy dogs with refined heads." And when I thought about the dogs that had won that day, it seemed to be an accurate statement.  So, that judge was consistent.  He was not, I thought, correct: the words "flashy" and "elegant" do not appear in our standard's general description of the dachshund, nor is "refinement" a requisite for the desired head.  And if you think about it for only a minute, you will probably agree with me that it is just as well, since none of those "qualities" is going to be of service to a dog who is meant to be able to go down a hole and battle an angry badger in its home turf.  Elegance is not functional in the dachshund; substance is.  An overlong neck and narrow, elegant head will not serve him well.  Better form for the dachshund's function combines a strong neck of adequate length and a head that is in balance on a dog of the robust muscular development called for in the standard.  That head needs brain room, enough nasal width and depth to fully accommodate breathing under duress in tight spots where oxygen is limited, and a really strong underjaw which provides enough bone for the attachment of serious muscles, muscles vital for success in close encounters with a mortal enemy.  I amuse myself by imagining a conversation with that judge who was looking for elegance and flashiness in which he comments "I may not know much about dachshunds, but I know what I like!"

Flashy movement alone will not serve a dog well in the field; his movement must also be efficient, effortless and sound.  Why does the standard ask for well-angled shoulders and a ninety-degree angle between shoulder and upper arm?  Not only are these features absolutely essential for an animal that needs to fold its limbs back upon themselves bone by bone in order to go to earth and still be able to maneuver underground, that angulation and the equal bone lengths specified in the standard are also major components of the efficient and effortless movement that will enable a dachshund to put in a full day of tracking or hunting without fading.  All of the movement faults that we recognize in dogs are faults not simply because they are unsightly, but more importantly because they reduce efficiency and require more of the dog's energy to get from point A to point B, thereby diminishing his ability to perform his function.

 A breed standard could be considered a work in progress over the history of the breed, as is the breed itself.  Standards are altered and updated from time to time, sometimes to clarify meaning or to improve format, and sometimes, for better or worse, to more accurately describe the dog that has evolved over the years since the last revision. (For example, in our own breed standard the eye shape was recently changed from "oval" to "almond".  A tighter eye is certainly less susceptible to damage in combat and to injury in the bush; but the eye opening is determined largely by the skull's shape, and danger lies in going to an extreme that creates an overly narrowed skull in an attempt through breeding to alter the shape of the eye socket.) If the breed in question can still be expected to function efficiently, and if the evolution it has experienced has improved its ability to perform or has enhanced its appearance with no detriment to function, then it is good to change the standard to reflect that evolution.  But standard changes do a disservice to a breed when they are made in order to reflect the taste of the show fancy while ignoring the fact that a decrease in functional ability may result.

Our breed is a race of dwarfs, ideally suited by that dwarfism for going to earth and for working at ground level in a variety of difficult terrains.  Physical beauty in the dachshund requires a fitness for work, good breed type, and a symmetry of parts, that eye-pleasing, all-of-a-piece look while both standing and moving that is the hallmark of any balanced and structurally sound animal.  The dachshund does not need to aspire to an off-type elegance in the pursuit of beauty any more than an exquisitely-formed and accomplished gymnast needs to aspire to the willowy attenuation of a fashion model.

 We are fortunate in our breed that there are currently many dual champions, dogs whose excellence of form makes them both functional enough to earn field championships and beautiful enough to hold show titles.  Their breeders and owners are to be commended and encouraged, as this reflects a balance of interest within the fancy that is probably essential to the future of the dachshund if it is not to become one of the many "cookie-cutter" breeds seen at today's shows.  Also essential to that good future is that the function of the dachshund remains clearly in the minds of those of us who breed for the show ring, and that we do not fall into the trap of breeding to win under those judges who can say "I may not know much about dachshunds, but I know what I like!"