An Eye for a Dog: The Art and Science of Judging

Judging dogs is a combination of art and science, and the really good judges (and breeders) are blessed with and understand the perfect combination of the two.

Knowledgeable, competent and honest judges are essential to the showing and breeding of quality purebred dogs. (I know what you’re thinking: “Not more on judging; I can’t take it.” Bear with me, please.) Judges are an integral part of the very foundation of our sport upon which almost everything we do depends; depends, that is, if we are still interested in quality. Show committees need them to construct judging panels that will draw the most entries and hopefully the best dogs to the shows. Exhibitors need them to draw good entries to make up the points in the classes and also in Group and Best in Show points for national ranking.

Some still look to the show ring for evaluation of their breeding stock. But we tend to overlook the most important element in the judging equation: maintaining and/or improving our dogs and the breeds they represent. Excellence in our breeds is more important than show entries, majors or win records, and if we are not pursuing that, then just what are we doing? If we want excellence in our dogs, we need excellence in our judges.

The great Bull Terrier breeder Raymond Oppenheimer cared deeply about his beloved breed and understood this need. He said, “No breed can long continue to progress if it is consistently badly judged, because sooner or later a general air of confusion will grow so that neither the experienced dog breeder nor the novice knows what to do next. It is therefore of great importance that everybody connected with shows should understand clearly what the term ‘a good judge’ implies so that only men and women who qualify for such a description shall be appointed to officiate on important occasions.”

Why? He goes on to explain, “If the wrong animals are put up consistently, they are liable to be chosen for breeding, which is likely to have a harmful effect on the breed concerned. So it is very important that a high level of judging be maintained, especially at important shows (the breed club and general championship shows), for unless this happens, the general standard of the dogs will almost certainly deteriorate.”

I want to make two points. First, the number of conformation dog shows, all-breed shows particularly, requires a frightening number of judges to fill the panels. Even without knowing that a relatively small percentage of our judges are actually officiating at these shows, we can see that this requirement sets us up for failure almost before we begin. Someone has to judge those shows, and reason tells us that they can’t all be top-flight and can’t all have availed themselves of the essential training and experiences.

Second, I really have no idea how to determine which aspiring judges will rise to the top and be the good ones, the people to whom we look forward to showing our dogs and whom we are eager to put on our all-breed panels. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the methods we have been using for the last 20 years have not been all that successful, or else why would we keep changing those methods?

One of the reasons, probably the principal reason, why no satisfactory method of evaluating potential judges exists is the same one that makes educating them so difficult: Judging dogs is a combination of art and science, and the really good judges (and breeders) are blessed with and understand the perfect combination of the two. We seem to believe that we can measure everything and train everyone if we throw enough PowerPoint programs at aspiring judges and test them with SAT-type programs. And isn’t it the artistic part that renders the judges’ decisions subjective rather than strictly objective?


Having “An Eye for a Dog”

Why do we seem to forget that an important element for a great judge is that mysterious element we call “an eye for a dog.” All the great judges had/have it, usually without knowing it because it is so natural to them. Judith Anne Dorothea Blunt-Lytton, the 16th Baroness Wentworth, whom Arabian Horse breeders have always referred to as Lady Wentworth, understood this essential gift. In addition to her Crabbet horses, she was a respected breeder and judge of King Charles Spaniels and wrote a distinguished work on the ancestry of Toy breeds in 1911. She expressed her views on judging dogs in 1950 in the English magazine Country Life: “A good judge must have natural aptitude as well as experience. No amount of training can replace it, and a lot of nonsense is talked about training young judges. Nothing is worse than training in a bad school, and a lot of old judges would have to go to an elementary school themselves before they would be able to teach. Yet the worst judges are often the hottest advocates of Leading the Young Idea, and it becomes a case of the incurably blind leading the short-sighted.”

I can never read that statement without thinking that if a group of people heard her say that today, they would surely ask, in concert, “Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, Lady Wentworth?”

There was an interesting article that appeared in Sports Illustrated before the Westminster show in 1967. The great Percy Roberts, then 77 years old, was the Best in Show judge that year, and his comments on dogs and judging made the importance of that “eye” crystal clear. He was interested in all animals, including cattle and horses, observing them in order to hone his skill at finding quality wherever he could, going to the racetrack, not to gamble but to observe the horses at work. He recalled his Welsh father, a horse dealer, telling him to “never buy a horse that doesn’t impress you when he first comes out of the barn.” He worked as a kennel man for the best breeders, and observed animals of all species and breeds at every opportunity to improve his knowledge of dogs and refine his “eye.” He didn’t do it by looking at photographs and certainly would not by looking at digital images if he were alive today.

There is an entire book dedicated to this subject, An Eye for a Dog, Illustrated Guide to Judging Purebred Dogs, by the late Canadian writer Robert W. Cole. In the conclusion of the book, Mr. Cole writes, “Having an ‘eye for a dog’ combines both science and art. Knowledge of the science of the dog and the ability to develop an appreciation for the art involved are required for the successful judge and exhibitor. On the science side, you must know the purpose a breed serves. This provides the clues as to how the dog should be structured and move. The art involves the ability to recognize beauty, form, symmetry and style … in other words the dog’s aesthetic appeal. One category complements the other.”

Other livestock judging requires this combination of art and science, even when more scientific qualities are more important, such as milk production, wool quality and the fat/lean balance in beef and other livestock. For example, this from the article “Alpaca Judging: Art or Science?” by Mike Safley: “I have judged 1,000’s of classes over the past 10 years, and I would like to suggest that each decision is not necessarily scientific; there is by necessity a certain art to judging alpacas.”

Tom Horner, the well-known English judge and journalist, is reported to have said that breed standards are like “The Lord’s Prayer.” Even a child can memorize the prayer, but it takes a lifetime to completely understand it. He was another admired judge who clearly understood the art/science balance in judging.

In his Take Them Round, Please: The Art of Judging Dogs, Mr. Horner writes, “Judging is both an art and a science: It is an art because the decisions with which a judge is constantly faced are very often based on considerations of an intangible nature that cannot be recognized intuitively. It is also a science because without a sound knowledge of a dog’s points and anatomy, a judge cannot make a proper assessment of it whether it is standing or in motion.”

In acknowledging the essential gift of talent, he writes, “Knowledge, decisiveness, integrity and the rest of the necessary qualities are useless without one vital possession — ‘an eye for a dog,’ which is the ability that every good judge has to recognize at a glance whether a dog is right or wrong, good, bad or indifferent. A priceless gift, without which no one can make a real success of judging, it is acquired by long and painstaking study of anatomy, breed standards, high-class dogs and poor ones, breed books, photographs and so on, until it becomes an instinctive skill to weigh up the merits of a dog, almost on first sight.”

And once again, who can ever say it better than Raymond Oppenheimer? (And what does it say about the world of dogs or, now that I think about it, me, that most of my references are to English men and women, and deceased English men and women?) In the chapter on judges and judging in McGuffin & Co.: A Bull Terrier History, published in 1964, he describes a good judge. “He must have that flair which recognizes quality, style, symmetry and balance at a glance.” This requirement “is one that can never be learned unless the judge has an artistic sense, and it is the one which will always mark out the first-class judge from the second-class. If a man can see quality, style, symmetry and all-round balance, he has what it takes to make both a great dog breeder and a great judge.”


Obtaining the Eye

If we can accept the proposition that science and art are both necessary parts of the good judging equation, how do we try to achieve that in our judges, the ones in our future who are just entering the approval process or applying for additional breeds? Most of the people quoted above agreed that these qualities can be attained or, at least, our natural talents can be improved upon. The question is, how? I have a few suggestions.

Does anyone read anymore? There are excellent books in print that would add to everyone’s existing knowledge of dogs, written by people who have talent and experience. In his excellent book, Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type, the author/judge Richard Beauchamp discusses the value of reading expertly written books for both dog breeders and judges and gives examples of specific ones that he has found valuable in his judging career. Why is reading one of these books not an acceptable component, even a requirement, in the application process? Is having aspiring judges write book reports such a bad idea?

There is nothing to compare with getting your hands on dogs, and on as many dogs as possible. We’re all at dog shows, and it takes very little time and effort to ask an exhibitor outside the ring if we can go over a dog. It may not be a breed we are at that moment interested in judging, but may still enlighten us as to structure or coat texture. And it doesn’t have to be a great dog, or even a good one. How a dog feels under our hands, and learning by experience what that feeling means is enlightening, even as we try not to listen to the owner tell us about the dog’s wins and rankings.

To say that I am not a fan of PowerPoint or slide presentations is a great understatement because both are so often the refuge of the lazy or worse. I am reminded of several dog breeders I know who will sit in front of their computer or television watching a litter of puppies on video when the very puppies are outside in the yard. Nothing replaces touching and watching the actual dog in living flesh. Otherwise, why don’t we just send photos of our dogs to judges to be evaluated?

Could we require all aspiring judges to write a critique of the dogs judged during the permit phase of the approval process? Writing a critique requires the judge to focus on what he or she saw and forces that judge to prove or disprove his or her actual knowledge of the standard. Of course, writing a critique takes time, and yes, it might slow down the ring a little. But couldn’t we allow fewer dogs to be judged per hour in the pursuit of better judging, better dogs and better breeds? It is a valuable tool for learning as well as evaluating, and I have known some of our best judges to sit ringside and write critiques on the dogs being observed, even dogs they are currently approved to judge, because our best judges always want to know more and to do a better job.

Finally, we need more intelligent conversation about our dogs and our breeds. The talk at club meetings, shows and even specialties is more often than not about a specific dog’s winning record or national ranking, or who has bred to what dog, or what horrible health issues a popular sire is producing. I am always impressed at the high level of discussions ringside and in the dining areas at Scandinavian shows, where there seems to be a more intellectual approach to all aspects of dogs, especially breeding and judging. Is it possible that this approach is at least partially responsible for the consistently high quality of their dogs and, dare I say, their judging?

As a group, we are particularly resistant to change. But if we are truly interested in better judging, in the product and not the process, there are many options we could consider. May I suggest that the proposed AKC Canine College, which would provide online educational opportunities, might be an acceptable method to train some architects or some engineers, but not those seeking the art in judging dogs?

All judges are not created equal and do not approach judging with the same talents, with that natural understanding of balance and beauty, that “eye for a dog.” And, in the end, we are all going to have to be satisfied with a wide range of expertise in our judges. But can’t we do a better job in finding those especially talented ones and give them every assistance possible to advance? I know we can be more creative in helping to develop that essential “eye” in all aspiring judges who are willing to put in the time and effort to that end.


From the May 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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