Applying Character Traits: Dog lovers, please help.

It happens every year.  The winner of the Westminster Dog Show gets described in terms of their style and  character, and I just can’t see why it applies.  It’s presented as though the top dog wins because of their style and character, but one gets the eery sense that the dog wins and then the  traits are just invented.

Surely that’s wrong.  My puzzlement here might be just like that of people who swear there’s no different between red plonk and anything else.  So let’s try:  why does this set of description

Malachy is not a speedy dog. While his six competitors sped around the ring at Madison Square Garden, Malachy moved so deliberately that he only had to make a half circuit on the green carpet. It did not matter. Beneath his long coat and lion’s mane — and behind that distinctive pushed-in face — was the club’s ultimate champion…

“He’s a very happy dog,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s an extrovert in the ring.”

Malachy defeated the other toy dogs Monday and had 24 hours to relax. “I kept him quiet all day to save his energy for tonight.”

Last year, Malachy also made it to Best in Show, but lost to a Scottish deerhound.

Malachy’s a little more mature this year,” said Fitzpatrick, who had a broken arm last year.

Iris Love, also a co-owner, said that she was wearing a yellow blouse in Malachy’s honor, one that is sprinkled with images of a dragon, which is her dog’s insignia.

“This is the year of the dragon,” she said, then proclaimed: “We are in the presence of an imperial Pekingese. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Fitzpatrick knows that his Pekingese was a bit different from the other dogs. He is small, about 12 pounds. Maybe a half-pound of it was hair. But when he was asked about Malachy’s clear lack of speed, he responded with a bit of testiness about his dog’s rivals.

“Their gait should be slower,” he said…

But, then, it was the little Pekingese, with his unhurried, short-legged style, who won. “His demeanor was spotless,” Vogels said. “He was flawless.”

apply to this wooly catepillar dog? 

Apologies for the video, but it’s the only one I could find that did the parade that won him the trophy:


Non-philosophers might want to know that there are philosophical questions involved in the issue I am raising.  They have to do with the bases we have for describing each other and then extending the descriptions to members of other species. 

20 thoughts on “Applying Character Traits: Dog lovers, please help.

  1. What little I’ve learned from a friend who shows dogs is that the different breeds compete on how close they are to matching the current ideals of their breed. In her case, the dog she shows locally has a “deformity” that is relatively common among the other dogs being shown in her class, so that’s why her dog wins, but as soon as another dog shows up without that characteristic, she’ll start to lose to it.

    But that’s pretty much all I know.

  2. The anthropomorphic descriptions given by the dog’s owner, which you quote here, are technically not the basis of the prize. In principle, at least, the judges are supposed to evaluate how well each dog resembles the Platonic ideal for the given breed, as it is laid out in the AKC breed standard. These official standards (available from the AKC website) largely address more straightforwardly biological properties, often in considerable detail (e.g. the standard for the Pekingese requires that its ears be “heart-shaped, set on the front corners of the topskull, and lie flat against the head. The leather does not extend below the jaw. Correctly placed ears, with their heavy feathering and long fringing, frame the sides of the face and add to the appearance of a wide, rectangular head”). Usually only a small portion of the standard is actually devoted to “temperament.”

    Of course, though this might go some ways towards addressing the specific worry you raise about the grounds for evaluating ornate anthropomorphisms, there are many other reasons that may lead one to think the rankings are more arbitrary than the cognoscenti insist. Even if we assume for the sake of the argument that the question of which of a pair of Pekingese more closely resembles the AKC ideal Pekingese is well-posed and uncontroversially answerable, and assume that the judges are answering it accurately, the dogs in the group and best-in-show competitions are not assessed directly against each other. There the relevant questions are meant to be something like “Does this German shepherd more closely resemble the ideal German shepherd than this Pekingese resembles the ideal Pekingese?” It’s far from obvious what the basis of this sort of assessment is meant to be.

  3. Thank you both for some reassurance. The puzzle for me still remains, though. Are these style and character ascriptions just make up? I can see that the winner has an adorable coat, but I can’t see that it is imperial, an extrovert or mature. Perhaps one has to see it with lots of others who are perhaps more distractable, for example.

  4. Well, the particular epithets “imperial,” “extrovert,” and “mature” are just make up in so far as they aren’t in the official Pekingese breed standard and were therefore not actually used to award it the prize – they are just how the owner chose to describe his dog to the press. So the puzzle you bring up becomes a general one about how pet owners’ anthropomorphic descriptions of their pets are to be interpreted.

    Admittedly, the Pekingese standard does say the following in the “temperament” section: “A combination of regal dignity, intelligence and self-importance make for a good natured, opinionated and affectionate companion to those who have earned its respect.” This is maybe slightly less inscrutable than the owner’s description, but certainly not much. The “temperament” section, however, is only a small portion of the breed standard (

    Of course, it’s still doubtful whether deviations from the breed standard can be meaningfully compared across breeds, as the competition purports to do, even when it comes to (in principle) objective attributes like body shape. Simon Huttegger (UC Irvine) has an excellent recent paper (co-authored with biologist Philipp Mitteroecker) in Evolutionary Biology that discusses some of the limitations on such comparisons.

  5. No. No. Just no. Year of the Dragon?!? I should start inventing pet horoscopes and selling them to people with more money than sense!

  6. I am an ethologist by training, not a philosopher so would be keen to know more about your interest and concerns with using some of the terms in bold. I can’t speak to the culture of breeding and showing dogs, which is surely a factor in this example. However, I regularly use terms and measures associated with personality, temperament, developmental stage, behavior / comportment, psychological adjustment, etc. in research and applied work, including some that you have put in bold above. Vet med would use some of these concepts, too. I’m happy to chat with you about specifics if it might be helpful. I’d be curious to know more about your line of inquiry, too. In any case, good luck.

  7. The dog is extroverted in so far as he’s very comfortable being shown; he’s not nervously looking about, he’s paying attention to his shower – he is performing. He’s mature in so far as he’s not hurrying, he’s not in the least bit excitable or distractable. I think that’s where it ends as far as things we can know about this dog’s temperament.

    The “imperial” bit is probably a reference to the breed’s history, as dogs of the Imperial Court in Beijing, and that’s probably just bigging up the breed to increase sale values.

    In order to get to this stage, all the dogs are considered the best examples of their breed and type, so it is down to perhaps some personal taste on the part of judges, I daresay fashion plays a role, but then it’s the temperament of the dog.

    I too see a wooly caterpillar, but it is a confident, self-assured wooly caterpillar who is clearly enjoying the limelight.

  8. I’m not sure yet that I understand your worry, Anne, and would be curious to hear more. You are not claiming that dogs don’t have different personalities from one another are you? I don’t mean anything deeply theoretically loaded by ‘personality’, but quite obviously, the best words we have to describe various dogs include shy, friendly, nervous, aggressive, etc. And I am sure you have met extroverted and introverted dogs. And immature puppies and mature grown dogs. So that’s not what’s bothering you, I assume. Is it that you think the judges don’t get to have enough exposure to the dogs to tell their personalities? I think you can tell quite a bit as soon as you meet a dog, and especially by watching how they are handling the pressure and stimulation of the show. And I’d guess that seasoned judges can tell yet more.

    As others said, the competition is about breed standard, and breed standards include temperament standards, so this kind of talk is not irrelevant to the judging process.

  9. I realize this is not on topic but could not resist adding it. I read the worst thing the other dog breed owners and fans had to say about Malachy was that he (get this) “looks like a cat”. !!

  10. Anne, one way of seeing how this applies is to momentarily step back, if I might suggest it, to a `non-philosopher’s` position on this question.

    As I see it, this dog is being examined at various levels at once: as a representative of a certain breed, on the ability to glorify the custom and business of developing breeds of dogs, and on the practice of domestication itself.

    The way we (humans) judge a dog’s qualities will lay the framework for weeding out dogs who are considered imperfect – who don’t suit the whim and the fashion sense held by the influential breeders of the present day. Nowadays, this is often done by selling puppies who fall short of the breeders’ current ideal to a pet owner along with a neutering contract – although culling puppies is still not unheard of. On the larger social scale of pet ownership, we see fit to “get rid of” or consider “unadoptable” those dogs whose personality traits – as we perceive and describe those traits – displease us.

    I wrote the following in On Their Own Terms: Bring Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth (citations omitted):

    Bred for us to handle, they come into the world with the status of articles to be exchanged…Dogs from breeds in which aggression is disproportionately common, or dogs who turn out to be assertive or unpredictable, are often regarded with a wary eye or even outright anger, and are at particular risk of being rejected or killed. A pet practically has to have a cheerful personality and a strong attachment to humans—maybe an ESFP personality on the Myers-Briggs test—to survive. `This Extraverted Sensing Feeling Perceiving being is fun-loving, lives in the moment, and adores people, generally treating everyone as a friend.` I’m only half-joking, of course. It’s risky to be a rebellious cat or dog, or even one who’s too nervous to sense and act on the expectations of an owner.

    Anne, you ask if the style and character ascriptions are just made up. I think your point is well taken. I think they act as signals that we are permitted to make such assessments – however capricious or unfounded they might be. The message, as I see it, is that we may decide whether they are physically acceptable to us, and also whether their character is either acceptable or blameworthy. It allows us to continue imposing our will on them and to maintain the illusion that somehow the disposition of this or that dog is the way it should be. It validates our prerogative to select them or dismiss them.

    Consider the reality that the caterpillar dog, pulled on a string by someone in a suit to the applause of spectators, had as ancestors the wolves (untamed beings who were chased out of Britain by 1848, have been chased from the East Coast of the United States and now live only in small pockets under fire in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and the midwest). Consider the overall show of human dominance this particular spectacle (and all the chatter that attends it) represents. I know I’ve not directly responded to the query about the bases we have for describing each other and then extending the descriptions to members of other species – but I think there’s another vital question for the feminist philosopher here, and that this topic bears a lot more exploring.

  11. PETA happens to be one of the entities that systematically kills dogs (in 2010, the records show, they collected 792 dogs, killed 693 themselves, placed just 16, and sent the rest to shelters with systematic killing policies). What does that say about how they themselves view their analogy?

  12. Animal law, thank you very much for bringing these very serious issues to the fore. I agree that so many “pets” and show animals are commodities fashioned and described according to our wants. They way the 2011 wolfhound winner was treated was an amazing example of this. E.g., he had steak at Sardi, on a plate on a table. No concessions to his ease. He opened the New York Stock Exchange!

    Unfortunately, I am getting interrupted, but I hope to return later. Let me say that my question was at heart the much more modest question of evidence. I agree with Rebecca that one can often tell if a dog is friendly or hostile or … . What puzzled me about the comments on dog shows is that the discriminations made are often very subtle and it is hard ot know what they consist in, still less how they are spotted.

    CF: ha, ha!

  13. Animal law, I am getting back to this late. You can contact us through the contact link. Also, it is easy to find out that I am ajjacobson [at] I’d be interested in your ideas about a further post or two we might do.

    I have to warn you that I feel limited here. It may sound pathetic, but thinking about the plight of other species profoundly and negatively affects me. I’m like the person who would love to be a surgeon for the poor, but who gets very ill at the sight of blood. E.g., having witnessed an tragic situation with a cat hit by a car, I ended up giving up a significant portion of my possessions. I was seriously caught by the loss of desire that depression can bring.

    Mind you, I’m glad I got rid of things, but not about what made it possible. Still, I’d so like to facilitate others who can cope better.

    I have risked revealing this character flaw in part because I think that the very least we can do is to acknowledge why we fail.

    Gosh, it is late. I am positively getting moralistic and all.

  14. Thanks, Animal Law. Do write when you can. I really am limited in what I can discussed about animal misery, but I will try at least to find a blogger who can. That shouldn’t be difficult.

  15. Hi, Anne. I sent a message to your e-mail address. It has an attachment so checking in with you to ensure it didn’t get swept by your anti-virus protection. Advise if it makes sense to you as a possibility for continuing this discussion. All good wishes, Lee.

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