Monday, January 12, 2015

Cracking Tired Chestnuts About Form and Function

Red fox taxidermy mannequins. There is no red fox taxidermy mannequin anywhere in the world that has a chest span of greater than 14 inches.

At the side of every show ring, there is always some well-dressed individual talking about "the standard" and how "form follows function."

It all sounds good, of course -- wonderful rhetorical chestnuts -- but it's pretty much nonsense.

I mean think about it. A working dachshund is a great little animal in the field and does the same work as a terrier, but it does not look like a terrier, does it?

By the same token, a Patterdale Terrier does not look too much like a Jack Russell, which does not look too much like a Border Terrier. Smooth coats and rough do equally well in the field, as do coats of black or white, red or brown, or any combination in between. A folded ear is the same as a prick ear, a black nose the same as a liver-colored nose. Every working earth dog breed has a different head shape, and many have different tails as well. A perfect scissors bite is not necessary for work.

So when people say "form follows function," what the hell are they talking about?

Let us hope they are not talking about movement. Movement is one of those words show people toss around with a wink and a nod as if they have the secret knowledge of a wine connoisseur.

It is pure bunk. "Movement" may be important to a greyhound, a pulling dog, or even a border collie, but it is not much of a concern as it relates to a working terrier. So long as a dog can walk well, and has decent muscle mass, it can work fine. Hocks in or out hardly matters a whit.

Which is not to say that movement is irrelevant to terrier work. In fact, it is critical. But the important movement is .... wait for it .... an owner that will move off the couch, and move out of the car, and move into a hedgerow, and move a lot of dirt while digging down to a dog that is in full voice with rising adrenaline. That's the only important part of movement that matters. After you have done that a few dozen times, you will know a little more about movement, and terriers in particular.

We hear a great deal of nodding nonsense from folks who talk a good game about "protecting" their breed. But protect it from what? And by what right or qualification do these people think they are particularly well chosen to protect the bred? And what do they intend to protect it with?

In almost every case they are people who do not dig, and who seek to "protect" the terrier with nothing but a scrap of paper proclaiming a show dog "up to the standard."

And who do these people hope to protect the breed from? Why, show ring breeders, of course!

It is all laughable nonsense. And it becomes nonsense on stilts when people begin to talk about "the standard" as if it were a sacred text delivered to Moses on the Mount.

In fact, is there anything standard about "the standard?" I defy you to find a single canine standard that is more than 20 years old that has not been changed at least once.

And then there is the little matter that the standard is not the same from one country to another, or one registry to another. So what is so "standard" about the standard?

Ironically, what is NOT part of any standard in the UK or the US, is a requirement that the dog actually be a proven worker in the field. That, apparently is not "the standard." That function is not required for the rosette. A black nose, is a "Yes," but working a dozen fox, raccoon, badger, or groundhog in the field, is a "No."

The one issue of any importance in "the standard" as it relates to "form follows function," is chest size. Yet on this point, "the standard" is awfully vague, isn't it?

We are told a chest span is a man's hands. Yes, but whose hands? We do not measure a house in cubits, so why are we measuring dogs in "hand spans"? Who but the puppy peddler profits by keeping chest measurements this vague?

The Germans are not so coy and facile about chest size. A standard working dachshund (a "Teckel" in German) has a chest of just under 14 inches. The measurement is precise -- 35 cm -- and it reflects the chest size of the average red fox. The Germans are not ones to shave dice when it comes to working dogs.

It is interesting that the same 14" chest size is named not only by fox biologists, but also by such terriermen as Barry Jones, Ken James, and Eddie Chapman. In fact, if any one thing separates the digger from the rosette chaser, it's clarity on chest size.

The rosette chaser is always a bit vague about what a "span" actually means. A digger knows it means his fingers better well overlap, and if he is working fox in a natural fox-dug earth, it is best if his fingers overlap by more than one joint!

And so we come back to the real meaning of "form follows function" as used by academics in the dog world.

For these folks the "form" being referred to seems to be a paper form showing the pedigree of the animal being displayed. And "the function" is either the rosette from a show judge, or the cash to be gotten from a prospective dog-buyer.

Form follows function, indeed!


Matt Mullenix said...

Watched some of the AKC show last night and caught the terrier class. They actually mentioned "span" and made a little show of the judge putting her hands around the dog. But neither of the 3 announcers could be specific about why they made the point to mention spanning at all, or what it was the judge was hoping to discover.

Then there was the "working dog" (!!!) group, for which they had MUCH to say about the nobility of a dog's work and NOTHING to say about the specifics of any of their jobs.

Annoucer 1: "You see those broad shoulders on the huskie, those are bred for pulling very heavy loads for short distances."


Announcer 2: "You mean, like pulling sleds, you know, dog sledding?"

Annoucer 1: "Excatly. But only short distances."

I used to like dog shows on TV Patrick, but you've ruined me. :-)

PBurns said...

The funny thing is that most of the terrier judges don't even know how to span a terrier. If you watch carefully, they are not really doing it 9 times out of 10; it's just a pantomime . . . something they read about in the pamphlet about judging.

None of the AKC show judges work their terriers. Not a one of them. And multi-breed judges! Does Dalmations and bulldogs too does he? Say no more!!


Laura said...

In the context of dog breeding, "form follows function" means if you selectively breed for the function, you will end up with the correct form to perform that function. This is true of all working dog breeding.

"Form follows function" is true in biology, in general.

Show dog breeding is based on the premise that if you select for the "correct form", you will preserve function. In other words, "function follows form". Biology doesn't work this way, so it should be no surprise that this premise has always failed to preserve function in dog breeding.

Caveat said...

I love the way you rib the fancy.

What's the function of AKC/CKC GSDs these days? Anybody know?

It can't be doing any kind of work - they can hardly walk.

gabboon said...

I watched one of those dog shows a while back and actually caught the judge "spanning" some terrier. The technique involved grabbing the fur on the ribs and lifting the front feet off the ground. The woman looked winded from the effort. I laughed so much I can't even recall the breed.

As far as form and standards: We just lost the last of our three rescue bassetts. The first was "purebred" with papers (we never registered) and she lived about ten years before being eaten alive by cancer. Typical age for a bassett bred to standards - I think is 10-12 years, if you're lucky. (the other was ancient when we got her and have no idea of her age)

This last hound was no show dog. Too leggy, no sagging face to "funnel the scent", no short legs to barrel through the brush. And he never had a serious health problem. Also lived to be about 14. We had him 11 years and he was thought the be about 3 when we got him.

Telling a friend about this we learned that their ugly duckling basset had also passed recently. Again, no show dog. And he lived to be 17.

Seems that perhaps standards also keep the industry running with short life spans and increased sales of dogs and registrations?

idgie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I shamelessly post "A Working Terrier Standard" from F&MWTC and advocate its use every chance I get. Thanks for initially bringing it to my attention.

Laura, you make an excellent point with "form follows function". Breeders should read that slowly, paying close attention to the sequence of those words. I'm not a big auto racing fan, but I know one thing about it - it doesn't matter how good the car looks if there's no engine under the hood.