"The Head" by J. Nate Levine
This article was written expressly for the 1968-1970 ASSA Handbook. While intended for breeders, it contains information useful to judges of the Sheltie, from one of the historic authorities on the breed.
Written breed standards are certainly subject to differences in interpretation as identical words create different pictures in the minds of different readers. There are, in fact, some breed standards that are so vague or general in their descriptions that the reader could not identify the breed he was reading about if he had no previous knowledge of the breed. The Sheltie Standard, however, is not of these! Not only does our standard carefully and in minute detail describe the desired breed characteristics (especially in regard to head qualities), it does, in its opening paragraph, clearly refer to another well know breed, the Rough Collie. How then, one wonders, have we arrived at the type of Sheltie one sees in the kennel and show ring today?
"We do not want the Sheltie to look just like a Collie" is a statement that has been made all too often! But who is the "we" of the statement? Certainly not the founding fathers of the breed who, in writing the early standard, used to opening phrase "The general appearance of the Shetland Sheepdog should be that of the ideal Collie in miniature", and who, finding that ideal Collie type lacking in the breed, crossed their Shelties with Collies in order to establish the desired type. The "we" certainly was not the group of dedicated, knowledgeable breeders who revised the standard in the mid-fifties, for though the omitted the phrase "ideal Collie in miniature," they amplified the description of head qualities, making the Sheltie head clearly identical with the desired Collie head (with the exception of a minor degree of difference in stop). For in those days of the standard revision the winning Shelties, and those deemed of superior quality by knowledgeable breeders, were those dogs who possessed heads that were clearly "Collie" type. The "we" of the statement then, are those breeders who have been unable to produce the head type clearly called for in our standard. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it is easier for us to accept not having something if we can convince ourselves (and others) that we really didn't want it anyway!
Where has all this led us today? To rings full of well marked, well coated, beautifully conditioned and well presented dogs lacking that one essential ingredient that makes our breed unique...the exquisite headpiece. So far afield have we gone that there are probably hundreds of breeders throughout the country that have never seen a Sheltie with a properly made head. You need only look at the picture of some of the old time greats such as Ch. Windrush O'Page's Hill (whose head study is used to illustrate the cover of the official ASSA Breed Standard) and Ch. Mountaineer O'Page's Hill, a pillar of the breed on the West coast, to realize what it is that we are rapidly losing. Borrow a Collie history and study the photographs of the pillars of that breed and ask yourself whether your dogs really resemble those great Collies of yesterday. Do they really have the gentle, intelligent and questioning expression that brought the breed its early admirers? Do they really have that smooth, chiseled, one piece head so refined, elegant and eye catching? If you are honest with yourself you will probably say no.
What, then, is wrong? Get a hold of your own favorite dog and see if you can find the answer! Skin back his head (with one hand on each side push down the hair at the backskull), and look at the head from the front. Does it taper back smoothly and gently from the nose to the area beneath and to the side of the ears without flaring out in backskull (behind the eyes) and without breaking either inward or outward in the area of the cheek? Our standard describes the head when viewed from the top or side as a long blunt wedge. That does NOT mean that the head should resemble a piece of apple pie. The opening phrase of the paragraph on head clearly states "the head should be refined" and Mr. Webster defines refined as "polished, free from impurity, exceedingly precise, and subtle." A flaring backskull is neither subtle nor refined. YOU may call it a "moderate" head in self defense, but it is a FAULTY head.
The standard says the "cheeks should be flat and should merge smoothly into a well rounded muzzle." It does not call for a cylinder stuck to a circle. The head should not look like a pear lying down when viewed from the front.
The standard says the top of the skull should be flat...certainly that is clear enough...but it does not refer only to the head in profile, it refers also to the head when viewed from the TOP. Look at the are above your dog's eyes back to his ears...is the area really flat, or is there a gentle curve? There shouldn't be one!
Look at your dog's profile. Better yet take a profile picture of him somewhat enlarged (or use one of the many that you will see in the magazines to get the idea); now, take a ruler and draw a line straight back following the plane of the muzzle and continue the line back past the ears. Now take your ruler and draw a line following the plane of the skull (the top of his head) and extend this line forward to the nose and back behind the ears. Do the tow lines converge at any point? They shouldn't! The standard clearly says "In profile, the top line of skull should parallel the top line of muzzle but on a higher plane." Parallel lines do NOT converge! While you are checking profile, look at you dog's stop. Does it start about an inch below his eyes and slope gently up to an inch above his eyes? It shouldn't! The standard says the stop should be "slight but definite" and the breaking point should be the inner corner of the eye. And, while you are measuring, is his muzzle the same length as his backskull? If it isn't his head is out of balance. Now look at you dog's underjaw in profile. Does his chin and underjaw truly extend to the base of his nostril, or does it fall back behind his nose giving him that "sharky" look seen in so many Shelties today? Does he have a true scissor bite?
Check you dog's eyes. Are they really dark (except in merles), and are the rims truly almond shaped, or do they tend more to resemble a hazelnut? Are they set obliquely (slanting) in the skull or do they protrude just a little bit like the Pekes down the street? How about his ears? Are they really small as called for in the standard? Are they really flexible or must you make them that way? Are they carried HIGH (defined by Mr. Webster as "extending upward") NOT outward?
Well, how does your dog's head measure up to the standard? If it truly does, it must look very much like that of the ideal Collie in miniature. However, there is one very important area that must not be overlooked. How often have we heard the following description? "Oh, it's a beautiful head; with a full muzzle, good profile, well balanced. Of course, it's a big head but it's really nice..." Well, don't believe it! No matter how perfect the head is itself, it is not the proper head if it does not fit the dog, for our standard clearly states that "the outline should be so symmetrical that NO part appears out of proportion to the whole"
"Well," you may say, "There is no perfect Sheltie," and that is true enough. Also true is that there are fewer really terrible Pomeranian type heads to be seen today. But, is the fact that we have succeeded in improving the quality of the average Sheltie really progress? Are masses of mediocre dogs really a good substitute for the few great ones we saw in the forties and fifties but don't see any longer? Where are the ones that caught your eye as they walked into the ring and made even the rankest amateur know that here was a dog of superb quality?
How can we regain that quality? First we must admit that we don't have it. Next we must realize that a lack of faults in a dog does not necessarily mean that he possesses great virtues. In other words, are we better off breeding to a dog with good body and coat, okay movement, pretty markings and a mediocre head...or to a dog with a really outstanding headpiece, with maybe not quite the coat or body of the former dog. What can we gain by breeding to the first dog? Probably some more mediocre Shelties. Certainly he will not provide us with the opportunity to produce a GREAT headpiece on a dog improved in body and coat as would the second dog.
You must make the choice...whether to base the selection of stud dogs on lack of faults or settle for mediocrity...or select on the basis of positive virtues with a chance to get that great one! Certainly not the Sheltie perfect from behind the ears to the tip of his tail!