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       DANELINKS.COM                                                                                                                                6.1.06

AESTHETICS AND THEATER
by Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones

First printed in Canine Chronicle. 
Reprinted with the permission of the author.

 

Although the dog show is still, ostensibly at least, primarily a forum for the comparative evaluation of breeding stock it has now evolved into something much more than just this and very few people seem to particularly care about the direction in which it is headed. It has now, to some degree, become such in appearance only and merely functionally plausible rather than demonstrably true and real in this respect, as it was originally intended to be. Its traditional purpose, in other words, has become somewhat compromised, if not tainted. As long as everyone is having a good time and getting whatever they want out of it, anything goes, or so it does indeed appear. Perhaps this is a reflection of our times, of the more superficial aspect of our culture and ethos, and of our changing values, or there may have been some element of the spectacle, of the something to view as having entertainment and thrill value there all along. There is, after all, something intrinsically appealing and attractive to the human mind in that which is visually notable, that which is eye-catching or dramatic, and hence the theatrical dimension has inevitably crept into our so-called sport and become increasingly inflated. Ostentatious display becomes an integral part of the process of presentation and the pattern of behavior of dogs and their handlers, not to mention judges, has, as its main goal, impressing the hell out of viewers. Choreography, that which involves the arrangement and direction of movements, becomes a preoccupation the emphasis changes. Dogs are rewarded on the basis of their showmanship capabilities, the adeptness of their handlers at exhibiting them to their best advantage, their free-stacking prowess, and so forth, as much as, if not more than, on their intrinsic virtues according to the dictates of breed standards. Thus the sensational can easily override the substantive.

The age of television has, in a way, really come home to roost insofar as the dog show is concerned. By that I mean the importance of visual display, of appearance attractiveness, of both dogs and humans, has assumed a rather different dimension and significance. Why else would fashion play such a big role in the way the participating ladies, whether exhibitors or judges, dress at some of our premier events? The drama part has also increased considerably. Performance theatricality has become de rigueur, a custom of note, an aspect which has an undoubted impact, or so it would seem. Nothing wrong with this as long as we exercise some control, some reason, and keep things in proper balance and perspective. This, I assume, is the position taken by most members of the Fancy. That which appeals to our eyes and senses has, after all, a certain legitimate currency, which is not to be denied. Dignity and modesty are surely the key words here, however; otherwise things can get rather ridiculous. Something done merely for show and to impress onlookers is not exactly what we should be about in the ring. There are nothing quite so destructive in this context as artificiality, grandstanding and phoniness. But the serious question is: are we taking some of this much too far and beginning to make a mockery of the very essence of the dog show and thereby erode the gravitas, the high seriousness of its purpose? There are some that think that this may very well, in at least some instances, indeed be the case; others have no particular concern about the matter. As long as there is no flamboyant display of ostentation most individuals, I take it, have no problem whatever with this.

There are a number of things in this subject area, however, that are severely bothering more than a few people. Take, for instance, this business of a judge requesting that dogs be individually free-stacked in the Best in Show ring. When this is done at high-profile events, especially those, which are televised, there is, unfortunately, a potential after-occurrence-effect. There is a real danger for this to become a widely adopted, detrimental habit for no other reason than the copycat phenomenon. You know how it goes; if so-and-so does it, so will I. After a while it becomes a convention, for no good reason I might add. Itís odd how things catch on, like the silly and unnecessary fixation on asking for a Pekingese to be picked up and held high. A superfluous, sort of going-through-the-motions type exercise. I was once in the Best in Show ring of a particular judge on three separate occasions with the same dog and she asked the same thing of me each time, just a minute or two after examining the dog on the table. This is pathetic, I said to myself, sort of secretly cursing because the dog resented it. I wanted to ask her; why on earth are you doing this? Although I put ten Bests on him as an owner-handler, not one of them came my way under said individual. But now I digress: what purpose, pray tell, does this free-stacking thing have other than to enhance theatricality and contribute to the spectator-sport dimension of the scenario? Even the length-of-held-stack factor seemingly becomes a competition. As if this had anything to do with judging a dog against its respective breed standard. Isnít that whatís supposed to really happen at a dog show? As pure choreography, this is all well and good but, regrettably, it destroys the level playing field since not all breeds are natural free-stackers and even if they were their profile would not be as visually pleasing or stunning as some others. You know that aesthetically appealing silhouette; head held high at a moderate upward incline, long slightly arching neck, somewhat-sloping topline fore to aft, fully extended rear hind quarters creating those ever-so-attractive angles. Well not every breed has this bearing, this countenance. So some will always be at a disadvantage. The mental composure of breeds vary, some have inherently shorter attention spans than others. So are we going to be penalizing breeds that wonít stand like statues for seconds on end? Where are we going with this?

No one is going to deny that the showmanship and temperament aspects are highly important but let us not get badly carried away, be blinded, and end up saying things like this or that dog just asked for it because he or she free-stacked gloriously, foursquare, without putting a foot wrong, and held the pose steadfastly for a prolonged moment in time. That, in my considered opinion, is just twisted anthropomorphism, plain and simple. This should surely not be the main criterion for making an award. Hey folks, the best-trained, best-performing dog, may not necessarily always be the best exhibit in a given competition. That is true at all levels. Let us not lose sight of the raison díÍtre of the dog show, the fundamental reason for its very existence, which is determining respective, overall merit of breeding stock, and fall into the temptation of allowing emotion to overcome reason. Reacting to what is pleasing and admirable is one thing; failing to put this in proper perspective is something else entirely. We are talking total package here. The giving of intense aesthetic pleasure and deep satisfaction to the mind and senses has a considerable role to play in the world of the dog show admittedly and, in reality, it is in every sense a stage. A well-made dog of classic type for its breed, capable of exemplary motion, perfectly presented, is certainly always a joy to behold and thatís all that need be said.

Another relevant aspect of showing methodology that bears discussing is the matter of using bait in the ring and the effect thereof. The reason for doing so is, of course, to induce alertness and attentiveness, two criteria that are viewed critical to competitiveness. Duh, hello, you might say! Among other ways of achieving the same end are the employment of squeaky toys of one sort or another and use of the human voice, either to call the dogís name, or to make some suitable noise, all usually audible to others. Anything to get a dogís attention when needed. All in the name of enhanced showmanship. Some handlers use bait with careless abandon, even throwing it around the ring with no regard for others, including judges. On occasion it comes straight out of their mouth. Some pick up what they toss, others couldnít give a damn, if you pardon the expression. The more respectful and considerate exhibitors use bait with discretion so that an onlooker might hardly know it is there. They run the gamut. Hardly surprising that some judges entirely disallow the use of bait in their ring and will go so far as to penalize a dog whose handler fails to obey their request. Quite apart from the sometime messiness and potential disruptiveness of this practice, there is the end result of dogs cranking their necks in a unnatural fashion and lunging forward, causing conformational distortion. Like a lot else in our dog show world, some people go overboard in their zealous attempts to gain an advantage and to make their exhibits as dramatic as possible. Where did all of this come from? Did you know that there are breeds which are now referred to as being non-baiters, whilst others are said to be baitable? Again, moderation is the key word and to those who go to the extreme in this regard there is only one thing to say; donít, for goodness sake, spoil it for others.
 

When all is said and done, it is the overall quality of a dog and how well it matches the dictates of its breed standard, as interpreted by the judge, that should have primary emphasis in any decision-making process. Not what sort of performance it puts on, particularly if the focus is a biased one. Failure to provide a level playing field by the judging procedure used is tantamount to being unfair. Some breeds have a strong, inherent proclivity for certain behavioral traits, whilst others do not. Breeds respond differently to external stimuli. Some are natural extroverts, others are not. None should be disadvantaged because of these realities. The theater part is essentially icing on the cake but can, unless one is very careful, be quite deceptive. This is not to say that a dog cannot have a certain charisma, a certain magnetic appeal, and be duly rewarded for it. Who amongst us has not experienced the wonderful feeling of excitement and exhilaration that comes from watching a great show dog perform at its very best? That is not what I have been writing about in this essay. So what do you think of free-stacking in the center of the ring and overt, excessive baiting? Are you for it or against these practices?
 


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