With Westminster over and Crufts winding up, halfway between Miss America and Miss USA, it seems a good a time as any to look at our standards of physical perfection — for dogs and humans — and where they came from.
Recent evidence suggests that — at least when it comes to competitions — they all may have started with pigeons, or, more accurately, with humans in pursuit of pigeon perfection.
This, be warned, is not a scholarly presentation — just an impish one – but we will cite the work of some scholars, namely historians at the University of Manchester who say they’ve traced the first use of a physical standard to describe what’s desirable, appearance wise, for a certain a breed of dog.
That dog was a pointer, named Major, but what’s even more interesting to us is where the whole presumptuous idea came from that we humans get to declare what’s perfect when it comes to the sizes, shapes, coats, muscle tone, wingspan or snout length of nature’s creations.
It’s one thing to set standards for our own species — be they male bodybuilders wearing too-skimpy Speedos, or women in swimsuits competing in “scholarship competitions.” It’s quite another to think we have the right to decide the right look for the entire animal kingdom — and then fashion those creatures to better please our eyes.
Apparently we have the pigeon — or pigeon afficianados — to thank. Fancy that.
Modern day dog show standards were modeled after the scoring system used in the 1800s to rate pigeons, according to University of Manchester historians.
They say they have discovered the first attempt to define a physical standard for a dog breed – in an 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. It was written, in reference to a show-winning pointer named Major, by John Henry Walsh, who used the pseudonym of “Stonehenge.”
The historians say that makes Major the “first modern dog.” Walsh took the system of giving scores for different parts of the body from pigeon fanciers, paving the way for the pedigree dog breeds we know and love today.
That led the way to all the other breed standards, and inbreeding and all the resulting genetic problems, too.
Historians at the University of Manchester believe standards caught on because, prior to them, judging was a pretty arbitrary pursuit, and contestants — the humans hoping to win ribbons, trophies and money through their animals — were often unhappy with the results, leading to disputes.
In other words, with standards in place, the decisions of judges seemed less arbitrary — even though the standards themselves are mostly arbitrary.
In September 1865, Stonehenge published a classification for the pointer which outlined what it should look like, and gave point values to the various section of its body – head and neck 30 points, frame and general symmetry 25 points, legs and feet 20 points, color and coat 10 points.
Articles soon followed on the standards for gordon setters, clumber spaniels, Norfolk spaniels, truffle dogs and fox terriers. Walsh’s edited collection was published in 1867.
“The standard set by ‘Mr Smith’s Major’ must surely be one of the most important milestones in the six-thousand-year-old relationship between canines and man,” said Professor Michael Worboys, head of the University’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.
“As dogs came to be defined as ‘breeds,’ they were bred for greater conformity to breed standards, which meant more inbreeding, and more health problems as dogs were bred from a smaller gene pool … Stonehenge’s classifications set in chain a process where dogs were re-imagined, redesigned and remade.”
The standards weren’t pulled out of thin air. Most often they were based on traits a type of dog had already shown. The bulldog, for example was bred to have a form ideal for grappling with a bull, even though bull-baiting had been banned in 1830.
While both dog shows and breed standards got their start in England, Americans picked up on them, including P.T. Barnum, who after holding dog, bird and baby contests, is credited by some with staging the first modern American beauty pageant.
P.T. Barnum is also often credited with the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Numerous websites will tell you he said that; many more say he did not — that it was instead the owner of a competing circus.
(The Internet is one of those places that has no standards.)
We’re not totally against written standards, just a little bothered when they are arbitrarily imposed by one species on another, or by one majority on a minority.
There are plenty of places we can use some standards – among them hospitals, Congress and corporate empires, like the one belonging to Donald Trump, the modern-day P.T. Barnum who owns the Miss USA pageant.
When it comes to beauty though — human, dog or pigeon beauty — we think that decision is best made not by a checklist, but by the eye of the beholder.
(Photos: Top left, Sheena Monnin, a Miss USA contestant who, after claiming the pageant was fixed, was ordered to pay Donald Trump $5 million; top right, a pigeon, courtesy of U.S. Department of Fish and Wildife ; sketch of Major courtesy of Dr. Michael Worboys, University of Manchester)
Posted by jwoestendiek March 11th, 2013 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, beauty, beauty pageants, breeding, conformation, crufts, desirable, disorders, dog breed, dog shows, dogs, donald trump, females, first, form, genetic, humans, ideals, inbreeding, males, miss america, miss usa, perfection, pets, pigeons, pt barnum, shape, size, standards, westminster, written
The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum has announced the winner of the Owney Look-Alike Contest.
Bentley (above), a terrier mix from California, was chosen as the dog who best reflected the looks and spirit of Owney, a scruffy mutt who became a fixture at the Albany, N.Y., post office in 1888 and rode with the mailbags on train cars across the country.
His fame was renewed this year when the Post Office came out with a new stamp bearing his likeness.
More than 70 pet owners from across the country entered the nationwide contest, sending in photos of their dogs lounging on mailbags, dressed up in letter-carrier uniforms and posed by mailboxes.
The contest was sponsored by the Washington Humane Society and the National Postal Museum, where Owney’s original form is preserved and on display.
Bentley, like Owney, was once a stray. Coming in at a close second was Jordy, a former shelter dog from Virginia. The third place winner, also a rescue, was Murphy from Ohio.
The top prize was an iPad2, but all three top vote getters will receive prizes and have their photos displayed for two weeks in the museum next to the real Owney, who was given taxidermic makeover in connection with the release of the stamp and the opening of the exhibit.
“This has been an exciting year for Owney and his fans,” said Nancy Pope, historian and curator. “We presented Owney, fresh from his ‘makeover’ in a new exhibit that allows visitors to learn even more about their favorite mail dog. Owney’s online friends can browse through his entire tag collection and learn more about his life and travels via the museum’s Owney web page.”
Owney will also be the subject of a new interactive e-book, “Tails from the Rails,” being released by the museum later this fall.
The National Postal Museum is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C., across from Union Station.
Posted by jwoestendiek October 22nd, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: albany, animals, bentley, contest, dog, dogs, exhibit, form, jordan, lookalike, mail, mail dog, mailbags, mount, murphy, museum, national postal museum, owney, pets, postal service, smithsonian, stamp, stamps, tails from the rails, winner, winners
For the last in our week-long series of kudzu dogs (are you questioning my sanity yet?) we start off with the artwork first (above), and the undoctored photo (below).
This one is definitely a Newfoundland.
Even without our tampering, this kudzu dog is a very obvious one, located near Hanes Park in Winston-Salem.
Posted by jwoestendiek July 21st, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, art, attack of the giant kudzu dogs, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogs in kudzu, dogscountry, form, growth, images, imagination, kudzu, kudzu dog, kudzu dogs, north carolina, pets, photography, shapes, summer, travels with ace, vines, weeds, winston-salem
Those of you who followed Ace and me in our year of traveling across America know that there came a time last summer that I developed a curious obsession — one that led me to risk life and limb, fritter away numerous hours and question what had become of my life.
Somewhere in Mississippi, I spotted a patch of kudzu, growing in the shape of a dog — and shared it with you, of course, in the hopes that you would see the dog, too.
After that, I began looking for more, casually at first, then with the kind of intensity that might be viewed as going overboard. I started driving too slowly, focusing more on the side of road than the road itself, backtracking and pulling onto the shoulder of highways that didn’t have shoulders. As semis shot by, rattling my car and body like fllimsy aluminum signage, I took pictures, trying to capture the dogs within the kudzu.
Yes, I was pursuing that all-important “whimsy” I wrote about yesterday, but at what cost? Was I merely filling time? Was I compensating for some lack in my life? Was I over-using my imagination? Was I avoiding life’s harsh realities? It might surprise you to learn that photographing kudzu dogs pays no salary and carries no health insurance, which, possibly, are the things I should have been pursuing, as opposed to kudzu shaped liked dogs.
Eventually, I got over it, with help from nature. As fall arrived, the kudzu leaves turned brown and dropped to the ground, leaving only skeletal vines lurking in the woods.
By then, the exercise had renewed my fantasy of opening up “The Kud-Zoo,” a roadside attraction I envisioned years earlier while traveling the south. The dream was to open it up in a huge, kudzu-filled lot somewhere near an Interstate. I, along with my staff, would groom the kudzu — assisting nature, not controlling it — training and trimming the fast-growing weed to grow into the shape of animals.
There, too, we would offer kudzu crafts for sale, and hold workshops on kudzu — both at The Kud-Zoo itself and through outreach programs, taking our Kudzu bus to make public presentations aimed at improving the image of the hated alien weed. Basically, we would embrace kudzu, which I think is what it is trying to do with us. We’d be all about peace and harmony, with a lemonade-out-of-lemons philosophy: If you can’t beat it, make things out of it and sell it. We’d be sort of like hippies, but obsessed with a different kind of weed.
Fortunately, that dreamed faded, as did my summer-long obsession with kudzu growing in the shape of dogs. But with this summer’s arrival, kudzu has renewed its quest for world dominance, and I have had a relapse.
Seeing animals in kudzu, like seeing forms in the clouds, is an entertaining pursuit. Maybe it is God’s way of amusing us. Kudzu animals are like God’s Chia pets, though God hasn’t capitalized as much as He could on merchandising them.
I found lots of them, or so I think. At times, I think seeing dogs in the kudzu is a psychiatric disorder; at other times, I think it may be a superpower — that only I can see them.
I’ll let you be the judge. For the next six days — yes, six days — I’ll be showing you kudzu dogs. We’ll feature an unadulterated photo of a kudzu dog, along with a highly and obviously adulterated one, to better allow you to see the dog I’m seeing.
We shall call these adulterated pictures “art,” so you won’t question whether the combination of taking the photos in the first place, then spending hours tweaking them, is actually a form of insanity.
I like to think that someday — when the world realizes that I, rather than being a wackjob, have a unique vision — my kudzu dog photographs will be worth a lot of money.
Unitil then I’ll be that weird guy on side of the highway, lurking in the park, taking pictures of big green clumps — because how can I not?
We’ll be showing you a pooping kudzu dog, a playfully jumping up kudzu dog, and several kudzu dogs in repose. Because repose is a good place to be.
While you are enjoying kudzu dogs, Ace and I will be enjoying the beach — the same one we visited last year.
We are not planning on blogging — similarly, at its core, an obsession — during our time at the beach, unless of course we stumble across something too amazing to pass up.
So without further ado, we kick off our weeklong series: “Attack of the Giant Kudzu Dogs,” starting with this one we spotted along Silas Creek Trail in Winston-Salem.
The photo at the top of this post — go ahead, scroll back up for another look, I’ll wait — is unretouched.
Below is the same photo, doctored, or dog-tored as the case may be, through a very basic computer program called “Paint.”
As I see it, it’s comparable to the sculptor who sees an object in wood, marble, Play-Doh, or whatever, and then removes those parts necessary for you to see it, too. I, much like Rodin, or a first grader, am simply bringing out the form that was already there.
It was already there, wasn’t it?
(Tomorrow: Resting kudzu dog)
Posted by jwoestendiek July 15th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, art, attack of the giant kudzu dogs, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogs in kudzu, dogscountry, form, imagination, kudzu, kudzu dogs, landscape, pets, photography, shapes, south, travel, travels with ace, vines, weeds