Further Thoughts on Breed Type

A while ago I wrote a short article on type for one of the smaller of the Chow Chow breed clubs here in the UK. Rereading this piece, after I had posted it off to the newsletter editor, I realised that I could have expanded it to include other aspects of type, so that the word had a more complete meaning. What follows are my further thoughts on the subject.

Like so many other terms used in dogs, the meaning of the word type, is not very well defined. Yet it is constantly used as if we all have the same understanding. Even the most casual reflection will reveal that we do not all use the word in the same sense. In the same way that we each have an almost unique interpretation of a breed standard, to the same extent do we each give the word “type” a unique definition. This comes about because too many breed standards are not rigid enough in clearly defining what the ideal type for a breed should be. We have such phrases as “should be this or that,” or “may differ in this respect or that,” or looks like something else (that also has much variation). So judges, breeders and others are given a very wide brief in saying what is, and is not, an acceptable combination of features. Interestingly, Harold Spira, in his excellent book Canine Terminology does not even list the word “type.”

For me, one of the best working definitions is in Tom Horner’s little masterpiece, Take Them Round, Please. He defines type as “the sum of all those points that makes a dog look like his own breed and no other.”

I think we all agree, that even with the above definition, there appears to be much variation within breeds. If we were able to place all the dogs, in a given breed, and in existence at any given time, on a sort of continuum, we would find that at one extreme we would have animals that varied so far from the norm to be nearly unrecognisable as being of that breed. At the other extreme would be those dogs that came near to the ideal described in the breed standard. In the centre a mixture of below and above average animals, deferring in breed type.

To complicate the matter further, within breeds we often have kennels that produce dogs that have a distinctive look about them. So that without looking at the catalogue you know who the breeder is, or the where one, or sometimes both, parents came from. Here, in the UK, this “branding” was more common some years ago, but is not so evident today, as the old-time line-breeders pass on. What this produced was a series of kennel “types” within the general breed type. So to contend, as many do, that there is only one type, and that is the one described by the breed standard does not hold water, for this begs the question: using whose interpretation?

All of the above is fair enough. And yet it leaves a vague feeling that there must be more to this question of type, than a collection of characteristics, of this sort of head, that sort of body, and a particular action on the move. Experienced judges know when an exhibit is not of a “good type,” even though it falls well inside the description set out in the breed standard. They know that a dog is more than just the sum of its part. That there is an almost indefinable essence that shouts Chow or Irish Setter or Border Terrier. And those who can see this are said to have an “eye for a dog.” Many experts in dogs believe that you cannot learn this ability from books or seminars or listening to the chatter around the ringside. It is something that you have as a natural gift that attracts you to the world of dogs, or comes like a sudden revelation, or from much experience. I do not know if they are right. But I do think that some judges appear not to have this ability. Some show winners placed by lesser judges, lack that intangible inner quality that takes them from the realm of the average into the world of the ideal. They are very good specimens when compared to the standard, yet do not come even close to the ideal type. Amongst the many quotes that I have saved over the years, is one, I think again from Tom Horner, that reads, “It is as if these intangible properties possessed by all really great dogs are spiritual rather than physical.”

Leaving the esoteric to one side, above all else, type is rooted in form and construction, and form flows naturally from function. So the ideal type in any breed, must be those dogs that can best perform the task for which it has evolved or for which it has been developed. The Saluki is of that construction because it has evolved to hunt over the mainly vast flat plains of the deserts. These conditions require an animal that is very fast, with much stamina, ample heart and lung room, excellent eyesight, and agile of mind. While the Chow Chow, was used as a multipurpose dog, capable of living in harsh conditions. It was used to herd, to hunt, to haul, and to guard. So we should seek out a type of Chow that is fairly active and agile, short-coupled and well built, with good muscle coverage and strong bone, a good double coat and fearless. Even the Bull Terrier, despite his history and reputation, must be judged as if he were still used for fighting. We should still look for the substance and power of a fighting machine if we are not to lose the true type. Transpose any of the basic characteristics between these three breeds, and in nearly all instances, the dogs become less sound and less able to perform their individual functions at an optimum level.

It cannot be overemphasised, that the ideal type and function of any breed are as interwoven as the warp and woof in a piece of cloth. To judge a dog having just the words of the breed standard as a guide is to miss the purpose of the whole exercise. For without a visualisation of the performance value of the dog, its true merit cannot be gauged. The recognition of function in breeds, and therefore the ideal type, is easier within the Sporting, Pastoral and Terrier Groups, but becomes less certain for the Toy and Utility (Non-Sporting) Groups. Yet, the Toy breeds too have work to do, and given the restrictions as to construction set by the breed standard, they must be capable of being worthy companion animals to their owners. Equally with the Non-Sporting. Most breeds within this grouping are no longer used for their original purpose, but that does not mean that we can ignore that original function when we assess them. For even with the worst of the breed standards, there is hidden within the words the ideal type to perform a function, whether that be dictated by nature or man.

Another important attribute that we must include in our definition of type is temperament, the characteristic attitude that a breed exhibits. As we human beings show a certain face to the world, so do each breed of dog have a persona that springs naturally from its function and place in the scheme of things. We do not want the outgoing enthusiasm of the Terriers in the Herding breeds, or the docile fireside mentality of the Toys in the Sporting breeds. Many view the natural reserve of the Chow Chow as indicating a suspect temperament. To the specialist this is not so. And so it is with every breed of dog. Temperament is a mental process, that, like other characteristics, varies from one individual to another. But there is an air that surrounds the ideal type of dog within a breed that is unmistakably unique to it. It is there in the tilt of the head, the look in the eye, the whole range of body movements, that speaks a language distinctive for that breed.

The Japanese in their Nippon standard for the Shiba Inu places the section “Essence and Expression” at the very beginning. Essence can roughly be reduced to the more common term, temperament. Yet, reading what the Japanese mean by essence, and one comes to realise that it is more than just attitude or character. It comes closer to Tom Horner’s “spirituality” in the quote above. It is something that others may like to ponder. For the writer to pursue this path further is outside his brief for this article.

Given that breed standards must depend primarily on word pictures, type is often described as a series of measurements, and a subjective assessment as to quality (with show dogs) or an objective assessment to complete tests (field dogs). Added to this must be the ability and soundness of the dogs to perform a certain function. Or as another writer has said, the ideal dog must have breed type and “functional efficiency.” To the extent that judges and breeders ignore the underlying work that any breed was intended to perform, to that extent will a breed lose its soundness and ideal type. One has only to consider the modern Bulldog to appreciate the truth of the statement.

Yet, we have seen that there are intangible elements too. So although the definition given earlier that type is “the sum of all those points that makes a dog look like his own breed and no other”, we now have added other dimensions. This revised definition goes beyond what is seen by the eye, or can be measured. We also must include something from the dogs, an inner quality that gives the breed an aura unique to that breed. If we are looking for outstanding dogs, we need then dogs of excellent physical type, capable of performing specific tasks. Plus possessing those extra qualities that, as far as I can see, almost defies description. Maybe that is why Harold Spira left the word “type” out of his book of terminology. It is impossible to explain in a few words. And, alas, I fear that I have faired no better.


Tom Horner Take Them Round, Please, subtitle The Art of Judging Dogs. This is a good general book on judging. Many line drawings illustrating the text. Published in the USA by David & Charles Inc., North Pomfret, Vermont. ISBN 0 7153 6880 X.

Harold R. Spira, Canine Terminology. This is almost an encyclopedia of terms used in dogs. Everything from “Abdomen” through “Zygomatic Arch.” Masses of detailed line drawings by Mary and Peggy Davidson. A must for judges and breeders. Published by Harper & Row, New York ISBN 0 06 312047X.

The Complete Study of the Japanese Shiba, compiled by Miriam Clews. This photocopied “booklet” was produced by Mim Clews in 1989/90, while she was Secretary of the Japanese Shiba Club of Great Britain. It is a detailed study of the breed’s characteristics based on a translation of the Japanese breed standard by Susan Houser. Much more detailed information is given by Mr Watanabe. With its many photographs and drawings, this is one of the most complete breed standards I have seen, comprising 51 two-sided sheets of A4 paper. I am not sure if this booklet is still available.

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