D is for Disqualification
Some fanciers bandy the term “disqualification” around liberally, as if tossing a big salad. But that word comes with very specific conditions — to say nothing of serious ramifications.
A disqualification is the ultimate censure in the dog-show world, a verdict by a judge that sends your dog from the ring in a cloud of ignominy.
But serious as they are, disqualifications can also be misapplied, especially if the standard in question is ambiguous or contradictory. Indeed, some judges debate the parameters of disqualifications like so many rabbinic scholars, holding up individual words to the bright light, trying to glean their true meaning.
Compounding this is the reality that disqualifications have different implications in the American Kennel Club (AKC) system compared to the Fédéracion Cynologique Internationale (FCI). Using the term interchangeably between these two governing bodies can be problematic, because they are not comparable, at least from an administrative perspective.
The ABCs of DQs
There is no perfect dog: That is reality. But all faults are not created equal. Some are more serious than others, a fact that is sometimes spelled out in a standard itself.
An undesirable trait described in a standard as a “serious fault” is an ominous red flag: It means that, while this dog might still have many virtues, they best be nothing short of outstanding in order to allow him or her to be considered for a ribbon or a role in a breeding program.
Disqualifications take this a step further: They are the unforgivable faults.
There are some universal disqualifications that apply to all AKC breeds: Dogs that are blind, deaf, castrated and spayed are to be disqualified according to AKC rules. The same applies to those dogs whose appearance has been changed by artificial means (unless specified in their breed standard — docking or cropping, for example), or males lacking “two normal testicles normally located in the scrotum.”
The disqualifications we are concerned with in this article are breed specific. Often, they address traits that belong to another breed — usually a closely related one, or one that was introduced into the gene pool, intentionally or not. As a result, disqualifying faults are a serious threat to type, which is the overall essence of a breed, the sum total of traits that define a breed. Type is what gives the Mastiff its “Mastiffness” and the Bullmastiff its “Bullmastiffness.”
Not all breeds have disqualifications in their AKC standards, however. In fact, the two breeds mentioned above don’t. But that doesn’t mean they are immune to producing traits that fanciers consider serious affronts to type. It just means that for various reasons — politics and tradition among them — their breed community has decided not to undergo the time-consuming and often contentious process of changing a standard to include a disqualification.
Two such deleterious traits that come to mind for the Mastiff are long coats (“fluffs”) and piebalds, both of which derive from the St. Bernard blood used to revive the breed, most recently after World War II. Such dogs can’t be formally disqualified from an AKC ring, as no disqualification exists. But if a judge considers those faults to be unforgiveable, such dogs can be removed from the ring using a process we’ll describe later.
A fluffy Bullmastiff. Charlie was a first-ever fluff for a very long-time and respected breeder, proof that unwanted recessive genes can pop up seemingly out of nowhere. There are no disqualifications in the AKC Bulllmastiff standard, so a judge would need to decide how to handle the appearance of one of these fuzzballs in their ring. As for Charlie, he was placed in a loving pet home.
Differences Across the Pond
Typically, AKC standards have many fewer disqualifications than FCI standards. Indeed, as soon as a new breed begins the process of adapting its FCI standard to fit the format of the American Kennel Club, the drumbeat begins to start eliminating disqualifications.
The reason for this has to do with how AKC and FCI manage disqualifications, and the repercussions — or lack thereof — that exist under each system.
Let’s turn to high school for a metaphor: An FCI disqualification is like detention — one crummy day of penance, and you’re free to resume the daily campus grind. With this caveat: Because FCI has a whopping 98 members and contract partners on six continents, individual national kennel clubs can apply their own restrictions on disqualified dogs. But even if a dog’s disqualification record renders it unable to compete according to the rules in Country A, that dog can still go on to compete in Country B — even achieve its championship or go Best in Show — as there is no overarching FCI rule to prevent that.
By contrast, an AKC disqualification is like a suspension, in that there is the threat of expulsion looming overhead: Three disqualifications, and a dog is permanently barred from the AKC conformation ring — with no hope for appeal.
Comparison of Number of AKC and FCI Disqualifications in Molosser Breeds
Three Strikes, You’re Out
Under the AKC system, there are three ways a dog can be disqualified:
1.) as discussed earlier, for physical abnormalities/alterations: blindness, deafness, spay/neuter and appearance changed by artificial means,
2.) for an attack or aggressive behavior toward humans, or
3.) for having a disqualification according to the breed standard
Regarding #2: If a dog is disqualified for attacking in the ring, paperwork documenting the incident is filled out, the dog must be removed from the show grounds, and cannot return to any AKC event without being officially reinstated. An attack in the ring is defined as any attempt to attack a human, even if the dog snaps or lunges but doesn’t make contact.
Dog-on-dog aggression in the ring — along with less overt behaviors toward humans such as growling — are instead dealt with by an excusal, which allows the dog to compete at subsequent events. After three such excusals for “threatening” or “menacing” a human, however, a dog is administratively disqualified by the AKC.
But the kinds of disqualifications we are talking about are those listed in the breed standard (#3), such as dilute coats in the Boerboel or missing teeth in a Cane Corso.
With those breed disqualifications, as with the above type of excusals, the same three-strike rule applies: After a dog has been disqualified three times, it can never walk into an AKC conformation ring again.
Because of this very strict penalty, most AKC disqualifications are very specific and measurable, such as for weight, size, color or dentition. While FCI judges can whip out a wicket and measure any dog in the ring, AKC is — again — quite specific about when and how judges can formally measure height: Judges can only wicket breeds that have a size disqualification, and must follow a precise procedure in which the handler is shown the written disqualification, informed of what the judge is measuring, and required to inspect the wicket to ensure it is set correctly.
Many, if not most AKC disqualifications involve measurable, quantifiable traits such as height or color. But there are exceptions. The Neapolitan Mastiff standard has a disqualification for "Absence of wrinkles or folds." Does this dog meet those criteria? You decide.
The Dogo Argentino and the Tibetan Mastiff are the only AKC Molosser breeds with height disqualifications (for being oversize and undersize, respectively); therefore, they are the only ones that can be wicketed in the ring, and subsequently disqualified if it they measure out.
The severe nature of AKC disqualifications is amplified by the fact that the American Kennel Club considers the decisions of their judges to be unimpeachable — no one can force an AKC judge to retract a disqualification. Social-media coverage and interventions by parent clubs often result in the chagrinned judge acknowledging he or she made and error and retracting the disqualification. But for those judges to opt to hold their ground, theirs is the final word. Period.
Understandably, because the consequences of disqualification in FCI are not as dire in AKC (where it’s three strikes, you’re out, and no hope of appeal), there tend to be more disqualifications in FCI standards, some of which are far more subjective than their AKC counterparts.
Consider, for example, the FCI standard for the Dogue de Bordeaux, with its 15 disqualifications. Among them: “Bulging eyes” — how much do they have to bulge in order for the dog to get booted? “Down on pasterns” — how down, exactly? What if the bend of pastern is 45 degrees? That’s arguably too much for a heavy-bodied Molosser, but is it enough to warrant a disqualification?
These are rhetorical questions, of course: It’s up to the judge to determine how much discordance with the standard should lead to a disqualification.
At FCI shows, exhibitors leave with more than just ribbons and trophies: They also get a written critique that describes their dog's strengths and weaknesses.
When comparing the FCI and AKC systems, it’s also important to remember that FCI bakes in a good deal of feedback for exhibitors: With a grading system that rates dogs “Excellent,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Sufficient” or “Disqualified” — with often only Excellent dogs invited back to compete further — a handler knows full well what the judge thinks of his or her exhibit. And if the judge is providing a critique to boot, that’s yet another opportunity for an honest assessment of the dog in question.
In AKC shows, however, the only feedback to exhibitors is the color ribbon they receive — if they receive one at all — or the stinging blow of a disqualification or excusal.
Tossing the Word Salad
Poorly worded language in an AKC standard — as well as sections that contradict themselves — can lead to perfectly correct dogs being disqualified, as well as the opposite: incorrect dogs not being disqualified when they should be.
Here are two examples, one of each, and both centered on the Dogue de Bordeaux AKC standard.
In the first instance, two judges at a show decided to disqualify two class Dogues for having white on their chests (https://www.modernmolosser.com/white-markings-in-the-dogue-de-bordeaux), even though the standard at the time clearly said: ““Non-invasive white marks are permitted on the chest and the extremities of the limbs.”
But the standard also had a disqualification for “White on the head or body.”
Using the logic that the chest was part of the body, the judges disqualified these Dogues — again, despite the fact that white on the chest is permitted. Indeed, it is typically difficult to find a Dogue without some white markings on its chest.
Part of the confusion likely came from the fact that many judges go to the list of disqualifications found at the end of the breed standard; to piece together the limits of the disqualification for white in the Dogue, the section on Color would have had to be read as well.
Dogue de Bordeaux puppy with acceptable white markings on the chest. Other than the toes, white on any other part of the body is a disqualification per the AKC standard.
When approached afterward, one judge acknowledged he had made an error and reversed the disqualification. But the other judge did not — and so that disqualification stands to this day.
Wisely, the Dogue de Bordeaux Society of America (DDBSA) later amended its disqualification to read: “White in any other location other than what is listed above.”
On the other end of the spectrum is the language in the AKC Dogue standard regarding the tail disqualification: “a tail that is knotted and laterally deviated.” The word “laterally” is the monkey wrench here, as “lateral” means “off to the side.” That phrase can be interpreted by a judge to mean a tail that goes off at a right angle to the body of the dog — not a tail that is kinked but pointing downward, toward the ground.
But the standard means to disqualify any Dogue with a kinked tail, no matter in what direction that kink is pointing. The DDBSA confirms that this is the intended interpretation of this disqualification, and the FCI standard concurs, listing “kink tail” parenthetically.
What if a disqualification doesn’t exist for an atypical trait in a given AKC breed? What is a judge to do when a dog is clearly either of poor quality, or exhibiting a trait that goes against breed type to such a degree that the judge effectively wants to eliminate it from competition?
Simple: The judge can excuse it, writing in his or her judging book the reason for the excusal.
AKC judges can excuse dogs for a variety of reasons, from debilitating shyness (“Excused: unable to examine”) to a hitch in their giddy-up (“Excused: lame”). They can also eject a dog from the ring for an overall lack of quality. (“Excused: lack of merit.”)
Color is another area where judges can exercise this option. We already mentioned that the Bullmastiff’s AKC standard has zero disqualifications. But if a merle Bullmastiff walks into a conformation ring, that judge has every right — and even duty — to excuse the dog, writing in her book, “Excused: Color/pattern not in accordance with the standard.”
A caveat about such excusals, particularly involving color: Judges need to be aware that a standard does not always describe every condition or color accepted by a given breed, and only a deep understanding of its particular breed culture is needed to make that determination. In the case of the Cane Corso, for example, “carbonation,” or sabling of the coat, is considered acceptable, even though the standard does not mention it; ditto for seal, which can make a black base coat or brindling appear to be a deep shade of acorn or dark chocolate. A literal reading of the standard might prompt a judge to excuse such dogs, when in fact they are considered acceptable the world over.
When it comes to disqualifying breed traits, AKC and FCI have different administrative systems — and consequences. But the goal in the end is the same: preventing atypical dogs from advancing further in competition and being rewarded.
No matter what system they show their dogs under, fanciers should know the rules that govern something as important as disqualification, and exhibit their dogs accordingly.