Monday, December 24, 2012

The Boxer--What Judges Look For…

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of ShowSight Magazine.

--Stephanie Abraham
Judges’ Education Chair:  American Boxer Club

               Some years ago, a well known multi-breed judge stated to me in consternation, “This breed is so hard to judge—why, you have 16 points in the Standard on ‘head’ alone!”  As I thought about her remarks, it occurred to me that she might be technically correct, but that no one judging the Boxer ought to be dissecting the Standard (and the breed) by despairing that she might not be able to appreciate all “16 points.”  While our Standard is, I believe, an intelligent and defining document, and of the greatest value to judges and breeders alike, it is the overall “sense” of it that all of us should take away after reading it.  It actually defines essential breed type. And isn’t it ‘type’ that remains the most important characteristic of any breed, and one that is often the most elusive?
                   Type is actually detailed in the opening paragraph of the Standard, revised by the parent club in 2005, telling us that the Boxer is a medium size, square dog, combining “strength and agility with elegance and style…  In judging the Boxer first consideration is given to general appearance and overall balance. Special attention is then devoted to the head, after which the individual body components are examined for their correct construction, and the gait evaluated for efficiency.”
             SOooo...the Boxer is square and medium sized, elegant, stylish, and balanced. We then pay special attention to the head (all 16 points!) and evaluate the overall dog. Several considerations come to mind:
            First, what does “medium size” mean?  We have all seen many very tall dogs and bitches in the ring in recent years.  Yet we have no size disqualification.  The recommended heights are 21 ½-23 ½ for bitches and 23-25 for males.  It is up to the individual judge if he wants to reward a 26” or even taller dog, or whether he penalizes a 22” one …all sizes are acceptable under the breed Standard. The parent club did not raise the height limits in its 2005 revision of the Standard—except at the LOWER end, therefore stating its preference to keep the sizes moderate.  Nonetheless, a glorious taller dog or bitch may prove irresistible to both judge and breeder alike—and is perfectly “legal” under the Standard.
           Squareness in the Boxer should be greatly prized.  The “form and function” adage never more clearly applies than in this concept.  The Boxer was used to run down and hold fierce wild game—bear and boar—and had to be square to make quick turns through the forest at breakneck speed when pursuing his prey around trees and boulders over uneven terrain.  So the “squareness” proviso has a historical precedent and should be heeded by the modern judge, even though the dog is no longer used as a hunter.  Again, it comes down to a sense of how well the Boxer in front of us is likely to do the job for which he was bred.
      The Boxer’s lines are clean and easily analyzed—there is no long hair to disguise the outline for good or ill.  Therefore ‘style,’ or how the judge interprets that, is evident at a glance. To me, taut musculature without coarseness, all contributing to ‘strength,’ the long arched neck properly set as it flows into the shoulders, and balanced angulation front and rear all contribute to this elusive notion of ‘style and elegance.’
      Certainly the most difficult portion of the Standard to understand is proper head type. Indeed, across the country excellent heads are sadly becoming harder and harder to find, and too many of us are forgetting that form follows function in head type as well as body type—i.e.: we are not valuing the construction that allowed the Boxer to be an efficient hunter.
         First, the Boxer’s jaws are not those of a ‘slasher’ with a scissors bite.  Instead, the Boxer’s undershot jaw, ideally wide and straight across for greater gripping power, was used to catch hold of a struggling prey animal and keep it under control until the human hunter arrived on the scene to dispatch it.   I am often asked “What amount of space should there be between upper and lower rows of teeth?”  The answer is that there is no exact measure—if the jaw is too undershot, then teeth or tongue will show when the mouth is closed. If the dog is barely undershot, he may be afflicted with an overlip that may make him look like Andy Gump (the upper lip covering all or part of the chin).  But if the lips meet evenly, the upper one just touching and lying on top of (not over) the other, and the chin is perceptible from the front and the side—he is probably ok.  Don’t worry about precise distances. All of the contours of the head accommodate these many features in a unique way.  Once you see an outstanding head, you will always remember it. We do not count teeth in the Boxer, but wider jaws are preferred to narrow ones that would have less ability to ‘hold’ simply because they would grip a lesser amount of skin and flesh.
      When viewing the Boxer head from the front, the first thing that should be apparent is that the expression is sweet and kind—the jaws are formidable, but the eyes impart a gentle look, have plenty of ‘fill’ under them, and are frontally placed (as are our own).  They are generous, dark, and full—all so that the dog could see his fleeing prey better. There is nothing harsh or sharp in a Boxer’s facial features, and definitely no slanted or almond-shaped eyes on the side of the head.  It may seem odd that such a fierce pursuer would have a sweet expression, but we must remember that the Boxer was never a killer, but rather a ‘holder.’  The ears (cropped or uncropped) are set on high to catch every nuance of sound in the forest.  Wrinkling on the forehead is moderate and contributes to the gentleness of expression.  Most critically, the tip of the nose lies higher than the ‘stop,’ which allowed the dog to breathe while holding a mouthful of moving fur. This is an essential breed characteristic, and one that is most obvious in profile.  The fact that the blunt muzzle is approx. 2/3 the width of the skull and 1/3 the length of the head from the occiput to the tip of the nose will help to define a ‘look’ that will become apparent to you without ever having to actually think in terms of measurements again.
        No proper hunter could accomplish his goals without essential soundness.  The Boxer should be balanced for efficiency of gait, and have excellent reach and drive for propelling power at the gallop and the trot.  His movement, however, does not differ appreciably from many other working dogs—it is the square outline and the head that sets him apart in the show ring.  The slightly sloping topline levels out in motion, and as speed increases the head and neck stretch forward unless (sadly) pulled up by handlers in the ring.  The Boxer definitely single tracks, and imbalances of angulation are evident in those dogs who sidewind or move wide behind or have a hackney gait in front.  Those compensations are due to structural flaws and should at once be a red flag to the judge that something is not right—often a lack of correct balance.
        The Boxer must be as fearless in the ring as he was at the hunt—and we implore judges NOT to reward timid specimens.  To that effect, any dogs that shy away from the judge should be severely penalized, as the Standard advises.  While obvious displays of shyness are clear, some are more subtle. For example, in the Boxer, the tail is carried erect in motion, and a tail held in a tucked position indicates an unhappy, insecure animal.  Likewise, the nervous dog that is constantly swiveling around, looking for bogeymen behind every chair, is not of sound temperament.  We do tolerate modest displays of aggression towards other dogs, so long as they are controlled.  Thankfully, such displays are rather infrequent, and you will almost never see a Boxer who is aggressive towards people. 
       When the Boxers enter the ring to be judged, it should be evident at a seemingly casual glance which specimens are to be most prized.  Balance is clear; square outline is clear; attitude is clear.  When you come up close to the dog, head type and expression are obvious—you must educate your “eye” so that you do not have to think twice about what all those “points” really mean.  Markings (or lack thereof) are not so important, and we usually advise judges to be ‘colorblind’ in the ring.  While attractive white markings may appeal, they are not required in any way, and the so-called ‘plain or classic’ Boxer should enjoy parity with his flashier cousins.  In other words, as the old tale advises, just imagine an elephant and chip away all the parts of him that are not “Boxer.” Then you will see your near-perfect specimen materialize before you, and can rely on your good judgment to reward him properly so that he makes his mark on this glorious breed.