In Search of Breed Type

In Search of Breed Type in the Kerry Blue Terrier: One Person’s Journey

by Stephen J. Schellenberg

If you ask most judges what they are looking for in the ring, their answer will include two of the most elusive words in the doggie lexicon – “breed type.” Defining those two words can be as frustrating as nailing Jello to a wall, yet they represent what the entire breeding enterprise is about – producing a dog that is recognizably a representative of its breed and no other. The standard is everyone’s common reference point, but beyond its words, we tend to think, “I know it when I see it.” However, we really have a hard time describing the “it.”

What follows is an account of my own efforts to define breed type in the breed that I love most – the Kerry Blue Terrier. I write this, not as a definitive statement on Kerry Blue type, but rather as an effort to stimulate discussion and to advance understanding, particularly my own. My hope is that comments from others can be collected and added to mine for posting on the USKBTC web site. Contact email addresses appear at the end of this commentary.

After more than 20 years in the breed as an active, if small-time, exhibitor and breeder, I still had great difficulty explaining what I thought was important in the Kerry Blue. With fellow Kerry people, I could discuss all sorts of details large and small, but I couldn’t organize them to explain Kerry Blue type to anyone else. That was when I came upon Rick Beauchamp’s book, Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type. He lays out a framework for thinking about breed type that brought some focus to my thinking.

Beauchamp breaks “type” down into five main categories, with different aspects of “type” assuming more or less importance, depending on the breed. Those five aspects are:

  • Breed Character
    Does the dog act like the breed should act, given its origins? Does it portray “Kerry Blue Terrier-ness” in the way it carries itself? Does everything fit together to portray the essence of the breed?
  • Outline and Structure
    Are the shape and proportions of the different parts correct? Does the dog’s structure support its original function? If you saw the dog in dim light so that you couldn’t see anything but the shape, would you know whether it was a good specimen of the breed?
  • Head
    Does the shape of the head, placement of eyes and ears, bite, etc. conform to the standard? Is the expression correct for the breed? If you saw only the head, would you know the breed?
  • Coat and Color
    Are the length, texture and color of the coat correct for the breed? Does clever grooming hide faults or inept grooming create them?
  • Movement That Is Correct for the Breed
    What was the dog’s original purpose? How well could it carry out that function, moving the way it does?

There is a danger in a framework like this. We can become too analytical and not see the whole dog. That’s why I like to change Beauchamp’s order to finish with breed character, which sums up everything else. I also like to start with movement, because that’s where my own journey to understanding began.

Generic movement may be the simplest thing to understand in dogs, although there’s a lot of anatomy and engineering involved in understanding it well. The understanding of movement that is appropriate to the breed, however, has been hindered by two factors. First, much of the early writing on the topic came from horsemen, who drew too many parallels to horses. Well, there are some distinct differences, (horses have a collarbone, can sleep standing up, don’t dig much, etc.). Second, much of the writing by dog people has come from those with rectangular breeds, (e.g., German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers), that are expected to show “Tremendous Reach And Drive (TRAD),” which is not appropriate for all breeds. In fact, in a short-backed dog like the Kerry, TRAD will produce overreaching and crabbing because the feet can’t get out of each other’s way. So what is appropriate for the Kerry Blue? It was originally a general purpose farm dog with special ability to go after vermin. Herding dogs such as collies or the Belgian breeds have very efficient movement with good length of stride, but the feet hardly leave the ground. Digging dogs such as fox terriers have a straighter front, a shorter upper arm, and a much shorter stride. My preference is for movement that is closer to the herding dog than the digging terriers, but with a higher head carriage. The rear feet should step in the footprint of the front but without wasting effort by lifting the leg any more than necessary. To do so, the rear feet need to reach under the dog as well as extending behind. The front feet reach straight forward to a point approximately below the nose. The feet should also converge toward a single track as the dog gains speed. I find it equally difficult to forgive short, mincing strides, “eggbeater” fronts, and high rear kicks, all of which cause the dog to tire out too quickly.

The Kerry Blue Terrier’s coat is clearly one of the defining characteristics of the breed. There probably is nothing that I can say that hasn’t already been said within the Kerry community, but I’d like to emphasize a few points. First, the standard allows quite a range of colors without preference. Even though we all have our biases, a dark slate dog or a light silvery dog is no less typical than one in the middle of the color range. Second, the standard is quite descriptive about the color change, but it seems that no one has ever looked very systematically at some of the folk wisdom, (e.g., a coat that turns early will end up with a skimpy texture). Do enough people have good records, that would enable us to we could collect them into a careful study? Finally, coat texture is as important as color. The standard says, “soft, dense and wavy” – all the words you really need. Not blow-dried straight, not moussed and sprayed to hold its shape, not so thick that a comb can’t reach the skin, just soft, dense and wavy, which brings us to the topic of grooming. I’m cheating here a bit because Beauchamp doesn’t include grooming as part of “type,” but I’ve watched grooming trends in our breed through the years, and the optical illusions that can be created have definitely changed the look of the breed. Just look at some of the picture of Kerries from fifty years ago, and you’ll have to agree. Probably the biggest change has been the grooming of the neck and back to emphasize the shortness of the back, which leads to the next topic, outline and structure.

To me, outline and structure are the most difficult of Beauchamp’s categories to summarize. At least he separates out the head for special consideration, but even so, there are so many details to discuss here that I can only give attention to a few of them. Also, it’s almost impossible to discuss one part without thinking about its interaction with others. Most obviously, our breed is a short-backed breed. (It is often thought of as a square breed, i.e. length from prosternum to point of buttocks equal to height at withers, but that may not be strictly true. That description does not appear in the standard.) The shortness should be in the loin, not in the rib cage, but a properly sloping shoulder will help create the picture of a short back, as will a high tail set. (Like I said, everything interacts.) The ribs should be deep and only moderately sprung. Otherwise, the front legs can’t work free of the sides. Rear angulation need not be extreme, but sufficient for the dog to move efficiently. Other details that matter are the flat back, relatively flat croup, high tail set, moderate tuckup and tight feet. The arch of the neck and the head carriage are also a vital part of the total picture of the Kerry. As I’ve already said, grooming can create illusions, so careful examination with the hands is essential. Of course, even if the judge’s hands don‘t find the truth, most structural illusions fall apart when the dog moves.

Beauchamp distinguishes the head as a separate component of type simply because so much of a breed’s character is conveyed through the head. The description of the head in our standard emphasizes moderation. The lines are clean with a gentle taper from the cheeks all the way to the nose. This is clearly a terrier head, but without the length of the Fox Terriers or Airedales. It shouldn’t be blocky or short in the muzzle, either. Whiskers and grooming can create great illusions, so it is always necessary to check with the hands. The teeth are terrier teeth. That is, for someone from another breed, the teeth may be surprisingly large, with either a scissors or level bite permitted. At times, our breed has had some problems with missing premolars or misaligned incisors due to narrow jaws, so these should always be checked. To me, the real key to a good head is the “keen terrier expression” conveyed primarily by the eyes and ears. The eyes are small and dark, but very active and alert. The ears fold forward just above the skull. The Kerry doesn’t want to miss anything, so the eyes and ears react to sound and motion constantly. For the same reason, he carries his head high to get a better view. In fact, the attitude conveyed by the head leads us directly to the final one of Beauchamp’s categories – breed character.

To me, breed character is the summation of all the other categories, plus attitude. How many times have we seen dogs where nothing seems terribly wrong with the parts, but somehow the picture just doesn’t fit together? “Spare parts dogs” I call them. This is where the judge needs to stop being analytical and use the artist’s eye to appreciate the total picture. Outline, head, coat, movement – all are part of that total picture, but they don’t yet give you the essence of the breed. How can we describe the personality of our breed – outgoing, alert, playful, a bit feisty . . . ? I am a great fan of sparring in the show ring. It must be done judiciously, (no more than three dogs at a time, respectful distances, not with novice handlers, etc.), but nothing brings out the terrier attitude better than two or three dogs looking at each other with that look in their eye that says, “Just who do you think you are? I’m in charge here.” When it comes to breed character, I still fall back into, “I know it when I see it,” and I suppose that’s all right. That’s how breeders got us this far, and it will always be a part of recognizing breed type. Not everything can be analyzed after all. In fact, if we were able to analyze and specify everything, there wouldn’t be any fascination left, at least not for me.

Editor’s Note: What are your thoughts on “breed type?”
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Last Updated: 02/27/2006, 10:45 am