Are Our Nationals Still Special?

Specialties are "special" by definition, or at least they ought to be, and the national ones ought to be the most special of all.

Specialties are “special” by definition, or at least they ought to be, and the national ones ought to be the most special of all. In fact, these single-breed shows have historically been the premier exhibition venues for exhibitors who still believe that the real purpose of dog shows is to evaluate breeding stock. For a variety of reasons, this purpose seems to have faded from our all-breed shows — or at least has done so in the minds of many exhibitors and breeders.

Increasingly, some breeder-exhibitors have stopped entering all-breed shows except at supported entries and/or under breeder-judges at all-breed shows. Also, with the average entry at all-breed shows currently hovering around 800, majors have become increasingly rare in all but the most popular breeds. For these reasons alone, national specialties should and generally do hold a special place on exhibitors’ show calendars.

Every breed has those odd members, the ones who call themselves breeders but rarely show their dogs at specialties or even under breeder-judges at all-breed shows. Oddly, there they are on the days of a show circuit at which an all-rounder is adjudicating but absent at the show where a breeder-judge is on the panel. Who can tell what is going through their minds? Why would they value the opinion of someone with less experience and knowledge over a specialist in their own breed, regardless of the latter’s opinion or placement of their dogs? Although their dogs may sometimes be ranked in the overall ratings, they are not true lovers of the breed but rather lovers of the win, of the competition itself.

People in some breeds feel that specialties have lost their importance in the overall dog show scene. If this is so, and I’m not sure it is, could this loss of sparkle be due to the proliferation of Group shows and regional specialties? Those with old ties to the sport know that there is only one national specialty and no other competition comes even close in importance, but perhaps that place at the top of the dog show game is not as important to newer participants in the sport. Is an all-breed Best in Show more important to these exhibitors than winning the breed at a national specialty?

There is a full spectrum of clubs’ approaches to their national specialties, from huge extravaganzas to rather drab affairs, and I suppose the character and personality of the individual breeds and their owners have a lot to do with that. And the interest that a specific club’s members have in those specialties is apparent in the shows’ entries. The Saluki Club of America and the American Whippet Club, to name just two, have large entries relative to their registration numbers.

Whatever the entry and whatever the complexity of the event, show committees have a tough job, and the decisions they make in advance of the shows are important ones. The date is one decision that is often dictated by the club’s constitution or policies that have been in place for a long time, with little leeway given for the availability of the venue and the requirements of the breed itself, such as seasonal growth of coat, heat or cold intolerance, etc.

Choosing the site is another consideration that can be determined by the officers of the club or by vote of the general membership. Sadly, the geographical area chosen these days depends on who will step forward to volunteer for the difficult and often thankless job of show chairperson. Years ago virtually every specialty was held outdoors, but today, more and more are going indoors to avoid extreme and unpredictable weather.

Regardless of the date or the venue or the part of the country in which the specialty is held, the choice of judge remains the most important decision when planning a specialty, and clubs give that decision a lot of attention. The decision of who will judge the national is arrived at in a myriad of ways, and the methods used have changed over the years, with strong disagreement over whether or not there has been an improvement.

Some clubs allow only breeder-judges to officiate at their specialties by policy, and even some clubs whose members vote for the judges have not had non-breeder-judges for more than 50 years. In the not-too-distant past, a handful of clubs had one person who picked the specialty judge, a method that seemed to work then but which would undoubtedly not be possible today.

The well-known and respected Bull Terrier fancier Raymond Oppenheimer was adamantly opposed to the democratic process of choosing judges for specialties. He insisted that a specialty was very serious business because it determined the future of a breed and whether or not it was moving forward. He felt such an important decision as the choice of these judges should not be left in the hands of the general membership.

But most of our parent clubs today do use some type of nomination or voting scheme to pick their judges. Some send out a list of all judges, both foreign and domestic, who are qualified to judge the breed. Of course, such a list is invalid as soon as it is mailed because judges retire from judging or are otherwise unable to continue judging. Some are even deceased by the time the list goes out. And it is virtually impossible to have a list of every living judge in every country.

A much saner yet still democratic method is to ask all voting members of a club to send in the names of five judges to be considered. Clubs utilizing this method generally report a rather small response, and another often-heard complaint is that some members, those who do not show or who have not shown for a long time, do not know the names of five people without a written list. Question: If we believe that specialties are truly important to the future of a breed, do we really want those people voting for the judge, regardless of their devotion to the breed in other areas?

A slight variation on this method is one in which the entire membership is sent a notice listing all approved judges for that breed, from which they choose 10 names. These choices are sent to the board of directors who then vote by secret ballot. The balloting becomes more complicated when judges are being chosen for very large specialties, for which there are separate judges for dogs, bitches, intersex, sweepstakes, futurities, etc. The above method is utilized by the Irish Setter Club of America with its 1,200-plus members on a yearly basis.

One of the most comprehensive methods of choosing judges is utilized by the American Rottweiler Club, which chooses its specialty judges at least three years in advance, and is one of several clubs that limits the frequency with which judges from a foreign country can be considered. A few other clubs mandate the frequency of breeder-judges and non-breeder-judges, at least by policy or recommendation. The ARC places a great deal of responsibility with its host clubs, allowing committee chairpersons to submit names that are whittled down by a precise and rather complex process. The final list is then sent to the entire membership for the final vote.

Of course, in addition to the balance of foreign versus domestic judges and breeder- versus non-breeder-judges, clubs impose other restrictions, primarily the frequency with which a judge is allowed to have the honor of adjudicating at a club’s specialty. Most clubs surveyed mandate five years and some “suggest” five years. Other clubs don’t want the same judge more frequently than every 10 years, and some clubs say, “Whatever the membership wants.”

One parent club with which I am familiar has recently decided that any judge be allowed to officiate at its specialty only once in the judge’s lifetime. What can possibly be the point of such a decision, which was a board decision and not of the membership? It is certainly true that often elections — any elections — boil down to a popularity contest. But it is also true that not all judges are created equal. If such a restriction is to simply allow more judges the opportunity to judge a national specialty, regardless of their skill or their ability in a specific breed, then this will surely lead further down the path to mediocrity — in the judging, in the competition, in the winner and surely, sooner or later, in the quality of the breed itself.

So we have almost as many methods of choosing judges as we have parent clubs, which is not surprising because the American Kennel Club puts no restrictions on how this process is determined. And isn’t it a good thing that clubs can try a method and then abandon if it isn’t successful? We have clubs of all sizes representing dogs and their owners of all types and natures devising the system that works best for them — or at least for most of their members.



From the June 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the June 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.

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