Our theme for the month of February is “color.”

One of the great pleasures of “theme” months here at the post calvin is the opportunity they present for researching random shit. Example: this month’s post had me reading up on the official breed standard for English springer spaniels, as promulgated by the American Kennel Club (AKC). At three single-spaced pages, these written guidelines catalog all the features deemed desirable in the English springer spaniel. As such, they constitute a Holy Bible for those interested in breeding the dog for show.

I do not count myself among the audience for this particular document. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t care for dog shows. I find them stuffy and slow and boring. Yet despite a longstanding wish of mine that Animal Planet would replace its staid, prim-and-proper dog shows with extended blooper reels—where dopey, overly enthusiastic retrievers slip their leashes and go bounding into the audience, and where handlers watch, gob-smacked and mortified, as their star competitors make earnest doggie-love on the contest floor—it says something that I found the breed standards for the English springer spaniel to be, in a word, exquisite. An absolute delight. Take, for instance, this extract from the standard’s description of a springer’s muzzle:

The muzzle is approximately the same length as the skull and one half the width of the skull. Viewed in profile, the toplines of the skull and muzzle lie in approximately parallel planes. The nasal bone is straight, with no inclination downward toward the tip of the nose, the latter giving an undesirable downfaced look. Neither is the nasal bone concave, resulting in a “dish-faced” profile; nor convex, giving the dog a Roman nose.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a researcher and can sympathize, but few things compare to the joy of watching a person gush about something niche. Reading this passage on (of all things) muzzle proportions, I find myself in a kind of charmed awe—and also a little bit uncomfortable. In awe, of course, because someone, somewhere, decided that a dog’s itty-bitty adorable little snoot merited such lavish, precise, quasi-mathematical language.

And uncomfortable, because that same lavish, precise, quasi-mathematical language is, after all, just a few phylogenetic branches away from eugenics.

I grew up with English springer spaniels, by the way. It’s because of them, actually, that I went on this particular research-jag in the first place. Both dogs were “liver and white” in breeder-lingo—a coloration that, by contrast, we ignorant plebs might inaccurately term brown and white. Both were good dogs. Yet by the standards of the AKC’s geeky muzzle-measurer, neither of them would have qualified for show. Pippin especially.

Pippin especially.

Indebted for her name to my adolescent obsession with The Lord of the Rings, Pippin was a runty dog—smaller than the nineteen inches and forty pounds that the AKC prescribes for “bitches.” She was also, I should add, a very bad little dog, at least in the day-to-day business of dogging. She tore up furniture. She devoured toys. She jumped on strangers. She pulled books off shelves, shredded screen doors, and pilfered dirty underwear. On the Fourth of July, she would panic so much that she had to be sedated, which unfortunate fact nevertheless led to such fortunate pictures as this:

Pippin was, in other words, the sort of dog who’d have made those posh AKC dog-show types, with their monocles and top hats and ridiculously bouffanted poodles, call for their fainting couches. Indeed, she very nearly put my own parents in their grave. To this day, all it takes is to say, “Lora, it’s me! It’s your baby!” in that squeaky voice that my family invented for Pippin, to make my mom wince.

To make my mom wince—and then to make her start telling stories.

Like the AKC’s idealized English springer spaniel, which has probably only ever existed on paper, Pippin now lives only in the realm of abstraction, in the stories we tell about her. We have a lot of stories. And like the AKC breed standard, distance and time apart from our source material has, on the whole, done Pippin more good than harm. Now, when my family gets to reminiscing, it’s not just stories of Pippin’s misadventures that we share. Indeed, for every story of her galloping headlong into a closed van door, or of her ripping stuffing out of the sofa and then running like hell to get away with her prize, there’s at least one that reminds us of how sweet she could be. Of how her stubby docked tail would wag furiously whenever we’d return from school. Of how, during devotions after dinner, she’d insist on clambering into my mom’s lap and would press her face into my mom’s chest.

And of how, nights at my grandparents’ house, Pippin would crawl into bed with the woman who was then just my girlfriend and curl at her feet to sleep.


  1. Laura Sheppard

    Here’s to hoping my nasal bones make me neither “downfaced” nor “dish-faced.” I love your description of your pup. It’s funny how we forgive, and even look fondly on, the mischief. (My dog once ate my friend’s most precious, time-worn Bible, and I have yet to fully milk the “bread of life” jokes from that incident.)

  2. Kyric Koning

    Interesting how this piece started scientific and logical, then bled into emotion and narrative. Not a bad ploy. The two aren’t as exclusive as people want to make them. I myself like a dichotomy, especially a balanced one.


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