Oh, Those Topknots

Those towering umbrella-like edifices, kept in place with many rubber bands, huge bejeweled bows, a curling iron, backcombing, and hairspray. Many’s the long-time exhibitor who has bewailed what has happened to Shih Tzu topknots over the past couple of decades. At the other end of the time frame, many’s the new exhibitor who has at least contemplated giving up on showing because they simply can’t master the art. And many are those who would like to see things change, IF they thought it would be accepted by judges. Unfortunately, most simply give in and “go with the flow,” out of fear that they’ll be penalized as nonconformists.

How did we ever get to this state, anyway? It began, as I recall, with the 1989 revision to the Shih Tzu breed standard that, for the first time, mentioned length of neck in any way, shape, or form. “Of sufficient length to permit naturally high head carriage and in balance with height and length of dog,” are the precise words. Thus, if your dog had a neck that was shorter than you might like, or it didn’t carry its head high, you could improve its appearance not only by stringing it up and racing it around the ring, but also by thinning out the hair on its neck and increasing the height of the topknot. The Poodle handlers who also showed Shih Tzu were particularly adept at this. At least, one might say, visually enhancing the length of neck was better than breeding for an exaggeratedly long neck that soon gave us what became known as “pea-headed giraffes.”

The smaller heads that quite often went along with those longer necks (and shorter backs) could also be camouflaged by elaborately-done topknots. Want more muzzle cushioning? Just tease the moustache. Want more stop and a shorter nose? Just pouf out the topknot. Want the illusion of larger eyes? Just be sure to include the hair from the outer corners of the eyes in your rubber bands.

As all of these efforts to improve the appearance of individual dogs that were slightly faulty by those who understood what this accomplished became more widespread, people who didn’t understand copied the pros even when their dogs did not have such faults, leading to the current situation.

To judges, I say that you MUST look beneath those elaborate topknots to ascertain what is actually there, and not be afraid to penalize any faults you might find. Also, if someone has a dog with a wonderful head and is brave enough to do an old-style topknot, please don’t penalize them (and the dog) because they did so.

To exhibitors, if you have a dog with the proper structure and head, don’t be afraid to show it off with an old-style topknot. Only if you are willing to let the judge see what is actually there will we be able to return to something more sensible that doesn’t take years of practice to learn how to assemble. Just think, in the process we’ll make it clearer to those at ringside and looking at the glamorous photos in the magazines just which dogs actually best conform to the breed standard.

This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of the American Kennel Club Gazette. The author, Jo Ann White, is a past president of the ASTC, Shih Tzu breed columnist for the AKC Gazette, and head of the ASTC web site committee. Jo Ann acquired her first Shih Tzu in 1967 and has bred and/or owned about 20 champions. She is the author of many articles and several books on the breed, including The Official Book of the Shih Tzu (1998).