When experienced exhibitors and professional handlers consider which upcoming dog shows they will enter, probably the most important factor that goes into their decision making is the judging panel. Each breed is judged according to a standard of perfection – a blueprint, if you will, that describes the ideal specimen from nose to tip of tail.
However, those words on the printed page are then interpreted in a subjective way by one individual, the judge, who has only 2½ minutes per dog because the American Kennel Club requires judges to evaluate 25 dogs an hour. Just as five cooks following the same recipe may end up with five different-looking and different-tasting dishes, so judges interpreting the standards individually, placing greater or lesser emphasis on breed points, may end up with different winners. Of course, that’s what makes dog shows.
There are two basic categories of judges: breeder-judges and “all-rounders.” Breeder-judges, as the name suggests, are longtime breeders who, after years of successfully producing generations of champions in their chosen breed, decide to apply to the AKC to judge their breed. Most breeder-judges continue to breed and show their own dogs, and probably don’t judge more than a few times a year. In time, many go on to apply for other breeds to judge, usually starting with the breeds in their group, with which they are most familiar (an Airedale breeder-judge, for instance, might apply for the first half of the Terrier Group, and eventually for the second half).
“All-rounders” have been judging for a much longer period of time than breeder-judges, although they probably started out judging a single breed just like the breeder-judges. Eventually, they became eligible to judge their group, and went on to judge several groups. Some judges are licensed by the AKC to evaluate all breeds, thus truly living up to the title “all-rounder.” With dog shows being held every weekend of the year across the country, talented all-rounders are in great demand. The majority also cut back on the showing of their own dogs, or stop showing altogether.
Most specialty shows – that is, a dog show at which only one breed is exhibited – tend to hire a breeder-judge. Breeders appreciate a well-informed opinion and particularly at a specialty, will support a judge who has firsthand experience raising the same breed that they do. Breeder-judges are expected to be familiar with all the subtle nuances of their breed. All-rounders, carrying up to 160 breed standards in their heads, are probably going to look for an overall sound dog but will be less familiar with growth patterns of each breed and the nuances of type that are best learned when you live with a particular breed of dog.
However, the disadvantage of breeder-judges can be that they may fixate on a particular characteristic of the breed – perhaps one that they have found challenging in their own breeding program – while overlooking other, equally important traits of the breed. The Afghan Hound standard, for example, requires a ring or a curve in the tail. While a ring is highly desirable, a curve is still quite correct. If a breeder-judge gets so hung up on finding a dog with the perfect donut ring in its tail that he or she overlooks a dog with a not-so-perfect tail but one possessing all the other needed Afghan characteristics – a small, almond-shaped eye; a long, powerful and graceful neck; prominent hipbones; strong, flowing, effortless movement – that judge is nitpicking.
Since every living dog has some flaws, judging involves compromise. We hope that the dogs entered are all of sufficiently high quality that the compromises required are small ones. Still, the judges who can’t see the forest for the trees are not helping their breed.
All-rounder judges tend to focus on the bigger picture. Sometimes literally. Many all-rounders like big coat, big movement, big attitude, and favor a bigger, more impressive dog. Their priorities are quite different from those of the more detail-oriented breeder-judge. However, the two groups complement one another. Thankfully, despite the subjectivity of conformation competition, a dog of high quality is not likely to be missed by either a competent all-rounder or breeder-judge.