What Changes After 100 Years?

English Setter owners, if you don’t recognize the following sentence as having come from your breed standard, you’re not looking in the right place:

“The lips should not be too full or pendant.”

If it doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because you have to go back nearly 100 years to find the wording in the AKC standard from 1929.

Why was it dropped from the current standard?

We’ll get to that a little later. For now, we will add that the aforementioned sentence wasn’t the only change from that 1929 standard.

The current English Setter standard (approved in 1986) doesn’t mention weight at all, but in 1929, it included a weight range of about 40 pounds to 55 pounds for males, and 35 to 50 pounds for bitches. While both old and new standards set a height (currently 25 inches for a male, and 24 inches for a female), in 1929, dogs were allowed to be considerably shorter (22 to 23 inches) and in bitches, 21 to 22 inches.

Markings and color details aren’t significantly different between the two standards, but while the current one briefly mentions symmetry in its general appearance (“An elegant, substantial and symmetrical gun dog suggesting the ideal blend of strength, stamina, grace, and style”), the 1929 standard devoted a paragraph to symmetry alone: “The harmony of all the parts is to be considered. Symmetrical dogs will be slightly higher at the shoulders than at the hips. The judge is specially directed to look for balance and harmony of proportion and an appearance of breeding and quality and to avoid massiveness and coarseness..”

When it comes to coat, the current standard reads: “Flat without curl or wooliness. Feathering on ears, chest, abdomen, underside of thighs, back of all legs and on the tail of good length but not so excessive as to hide true lines and movement or to affect the dog’s appearance or function as a sporting dog.” The “spirit” of the 1929 version hints at much the same, but says it differently: “The coat should be flat and of moderate length without curl; not too long or soft or woolly. The feather on the legs should be thin and regular.”

You’ll note that the modern standard is more specific about feathering. Back in the 1920s, the definition of “regular” feathering may have been highly open to interpretation. By the 1980s, the authors of the current standard must have felt that it was time to further define this word by writing that feathering isn’t to be so excessive as to hide true lines and movement.

Semantics? Probably. But so much of breed standards can come down to meanings, implications, and the logical use of a word in context. And now suddenly, we think this is a good place to insert our own sentiment about something related to the topic:

Few breeds look exactly as they did 100 years before. Standards reflect a breed’s evolution through better nutrition, genetic testing, and a better understanding of structure and movement through the work of people like Rachel Page Elliott. Core characteristics of a breed typically remain, but refinements and clarifications in how we describe them may change because language changes with the times, and the times change the people involved in the sport.

Another factor in why many standards have changed over the years has to do with time. Despite today’s “time saving” conveniences, people seem to have less of it than they used to. More breeds are being recognized by the AKC and UKC, and judges have the same, if not less time, to comprehend and memorize more standards.  For years now, most breed registries have been encouraging clubs to standardize the “blueprints” of their breeds to be consistent in format and length, and help economize the time that people do have to judge, breed, and/or show their dogs.  Fancierstasked wi th updating their standards are mindful of the need to choose words carefully, if not sparingly.

A good example is the very first sentence we used to start this post, “The lips should not be too full or pendant.” It was a “stand-alone” sentence in the 1929 standard, but writers of the current standard were able to save a few words by crafting the current wording: “Muzzle… of good depth with flews squared and fairly pendant.”

Here’s another example from 1929: “The form of the skull…should be long, with moderate dome, with but little difference between the width at the base of the skull and the brows…”   The current standard says: “Skull-oval when viewed from above, of medium width, without coarseness, and only slightly wider at the earset than at the brow.”

A difference of five words may seem trivial, but professional writers know the importance of word counts.

Having said all this, some words or phrases used in a standard are immutable no matter when they were written: “Belton” cannot be removed from the English Setter standard because it refers to the characteristic flecks or specks on this breed’s coat. “Moderate length” with regards to the ears cannot be removed as it impacts breed type. “Long and lean” cannot be removed when describing the neck because in a setting breed, this matters (a long or moderately long neck also appears in the AKC standards of the three other setter breeds).

As much as we’d like to do a lengthier “deep dive” into comparing and contrasting the two standards, space considerations dictate that we finish this up. The current English Setter standard is relatively brief, but the 1929 version found in “Pure-bred Dogs: The Breeds and Standards as recognized by the American Kennel Club” published in 1929 takes up four pages!

Suffice it to say that it’s insightful to compare standards written decades apart.

Image: English Setter by Laila Olofsson with consent

One thought on “What Changes After 100 Years?”

  1. This post (and my aunt’s upcoming 100th birthday which I am helping Mom with research for) led me to do something that I’ve occasionally thought of, but never done. I looked up the original standard for the Doberman Pinscher here in America. Turns out they were here and showing before there was one. At least one here in the US. The standard used was the modified 1920 German Standard until the Doberman Pinscher Club of America wrote up its own standard in 1935.

    And that led me to another of your recent posts! It turns out that the German standard mentions both the Greyhound and the Borzoi, but not, I’m sad to note, in a complementary way 🙁

    This one’s not too bad –
    “Belly well drawn up but not as much as a greyhound. Tail short and clipped.”
    but then there’s this –
    “…Especially faulty are: deviations from the correct type and in particular borzoi and greyhound type dogs, a shy, cowardly and nervous character, too light, too heavy, too low standing or distinct high legged and too narrow body build.”

    But I suppose that Greyhound and Borzoi people would count one of their dogs resembling a Doberman as “especially faulty”, too 😉 😀

    So many breeds, but only one species. Aren’t we lucky that we’ve been able to play with the gene pool and create so many breeds who have done so much for humans through the centuries and continue to adapt to our ever-changing lives and in the process enrich our lives by doing so many wonderful things with and for us?

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