Do Dog Show Judges Encourage New Exhibitors?

Exhibitors' experiences at dog shows will determine the future of the sport

As a follow up to the last column which covered how the public perceives professional handlers (January DIR), let’s take a look at how dog show judges deal with novice exhibitors.

Newbies are easy to spot. Too much fiddling with their dogs, nervousness, bad setups, trouble following the judges’ gaiting instructions and, in some cases, exhibiting inferior breed specimens with no chance of winning. And the cardinal sin of all: asking the judge why their dog didn’t place.

How dog show judges handle these blunders can either encourage a new exhibitor to do better or else send them packing after a brief period of showing. Kindness with a dash of “tough love” can go a long way to helping new exhibitors enjoy and stay in the sport.

Novices are understandably intimidated by dog show judges and those with an intimidating attitude can frighten both handlers and dogs. A heavy-handed examination by a judge has scared off more than one unwitting exhibitor who doesn’t know enough to object or not enter the ring in the first place.

I’ll start with my own limited experiences in the ring, which were rarely good since I seem to be missing the “handling” gene, but which demonstrate very different attitudes by judges.

After doing well at matches (believe it or not) my first point show was a huge disappointment. I was summarily excused by a very gruff dog show judge who snapped, “You don’t know what you’re doing” with my 6-month-old Newfoundland puppy and kicked us out. Mine was the only puppy in the class and I can still see her tossing her head back with that “don’t waste my time” look on her face. That was the beginning and end of point-show competition with me on the end of the lead.

Several years later, I was excused from the Veterans class with my 10-year-old Newfoundland by a judge who proclaimed, “He doesn’t seem to be having a good time.” What? At that age you celebrate the fact they can walk into the ring and gait. He was in fine shape for his age. I spent the next two days hunting that dog show judge down for an explanation and she apologized, admitting she’d made a mistake.

And now for the most embarrassing experience of all, which nearly had me in tears, but the dog show judge made it all better. After tripping and falling on my female veteran at the national specialty, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die, so I excused myself. Later that day the judge actually hunted me down stating I should have kept going as he had us in the placements.

Now that you’ve gotten some perspective from a true novice, let’s hear from a few experts on this subject.

George Alston: nationally renowned handling instructor and author of The Winning Edge
“This subject comes up all the time in my handling seminars. We’re losing people in the dog game because of conduct both in and outside the ring. Good judges judge positively.

“Courtesy in the ring is a major problem, including ‘dirty tricks’ pulled by more experienced handlers such as setting up too close, running up on the dog in front, making sounds to distract your dog, throwing bait, etc. Judges should police their rings more thoroughly. Many of my students think that’s why they lost.

“Judges should make the experience pleasant. Act like they care, be gentle with the dogs and people, yet also be firm and strict. They are the captains of the ship and responsible for everything that goes on in their rings. Dog show judges need to realize they work for the exhibitor who paid fees to be there.”

Darin Cox: Obedience Training Class of Harrisburg, Pa., drop-in handling instructor/exhibitor — 20 years
“Judges need to keep in mind they are the face of the sport for novices. If they are rough or terse with a new exhibitor that person often goes away telling everyone the sport is rude.

“Many folks have brought dogs to me after a male dog show judge scared it, and I’m one of the few male handling instructors in the area. When a dog is spooked it can take a lot of time, effort and money to get them back in the ring. I advise new handlers to consider not picking up their armband if they see a judge doing something that causes them concern.

“At one show, my wife, an inexperienced exhibitor, mistakenly picked up a show schedule off the dog show judges table to take a quick glance and was rudely chastised by that judge. That alone could create a very negative impression over something very trivial. He was correct by ‘the letter of the law,’ but should keep in mind how he comes across to the general public. Public relations are everyone’s concern if the fancy is to survive.”

Bob & Jane Forsyth: AKC judges — 30-plus years
“New exhibitors quitting early in the game is a huge problem, in part due to novice exhibitors who don’t always realize their dog show judge has a disqualification or is otherwise not of high enough quality to show.

“Both Janey and I give novice exhibitors slack we wouldn’t give the pros. By that I mean giving them more time, even Pointers as to resetting fronts and rears, and if a dog is excused, explaining why. When we explain that they should acquire a higher-quality dog to really enjoy the sport, most greatly appreciate that advice.

“If exhibitors inappropriately ask why their dog didn’t place we suggest they talk to us later and don’t make a spectacle out of it.

“As for dirty tricks in the ring, throwing bait is a definite no-no. I’ve actually stopped classes to chew out handlers who do this. I remember one experienced fellow who acted like a whirling dervish in my ring, jumping around, wouldn’t stand still. I told him if he kept it up I’d never allow him in my ring again.

“The bottom line is we need new exhibitors and, more so, need to keep them in the business. Dog show judges should treat new exhibitors as they would want to be treated, even if it means extending courtesy outside of the ‘rule book.’”

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