From My Perspective: Behind the Curtain of Oz

For exhibitors to better understand what lies behind the judge's magical curtain, so to speak, it would benefit everyone to unveil some of the mystery behind the scenes.

Everyone is familiar with the classic story of The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy seeks the wizard in hopes that this mystical all-knowing being can help her and her band of travelers find the answers to all of their problems. Throughout the entire journey, Dorothy places the grand Wizard of Oz high on a pedestal as a being of great wisdom, only to find out he is a mere mortal just like her. Imagine her disappointment. The truth of the matter is only unveiled once she sees behind the magical curtain. The wizard was simply a man trying to do what he felt was best for everyone.

This is very similar to the relationship between exhibitors and judges. When exhibitors enter under a judge, they have an expectation that the judge is knowledgeable, honest and wants to find the best breeding stock possible. Exhibitors sometimes find themselves sadly disappointed to find out that the judge is not some grand wizard of the dog show world but only a mere mortal.

As a relatively new judge who was once a breeder and also a professional handler, I can say now that I have experienced all the facets of showing dogs. I think for exhibitors to better understand what lies behind the judge’s magical curtain, so to speak, it would benefit everyone to unveil some of the mystery behind the scenes.

Let’s start with the application process for judges. First we have basic requirements to judge dogs. You must have been in the sport for an extended period of time, gathering experience. You have to have bred and/or exhibited numerous champions with documentation. Additionally, judging and stewarding are requested to further your repertoire, among other requirements. Once you have the foundation for a breed or breeds, you then apply, filling out all the necessary paperwork. It is submitted to the AKC. Next comes the interview. The interview is scheduled with an AKC field representative, and guess what? You do not get to handpick who you want to interview you. That person remains a mystery until the interview time approaches, thus eliminating any view of favoritism. The interview process is a very thorough and exhaustive one to determine if you are able to succinctly quantify and explain all of your knowledge. You are then informed whether you passed the interview or are required to gain more experience. If you succeed in passing, the application is reviewed by a committee and a final decision is made as to whether you are granted the breeds requested.

There has been much discussion of late regarding the new invitation system, in which people are invited to apply for additional breeds. I was lucky enough to be one of them. Whether one agrees with the system or not, I would like to point out that all the invitees go through the exact same process of applying. This is not a gift or a free pass. Take, for example, my application based on the invitation. It was more than 50 pages, and my interview was conducted over two days. As well as studying and learning all the standards, including more than 80 disqualifications, I gave the field representative my thoughts on breed strengths and weaknesses, and trends in the breeds. I also discussed origins of the breeds, how they related to other breeds, and noted the nuances of similarities and differences among them. The field rep was thorough but fair in our discussions, making sure I was prepared for every breed. If you receive an invitation and wonder how the invitation system works, just know that it is the same as the regular system. [According to the April 2013 AKC Board Meeting Highlights, released April 29, 2013, “there is a moratorium on any new invitations to apply for additional breeds,” effective immediately. The complete minutes from the April 22-23, 2013 meeting of the AKC Board of Directors will be available at — Eds.]

Once a judge is finally approved, the next step is permit assignments. This is the stage where the judge is evaluated by AKC field representatives. Once we begin judging, we are evaluated first on procedure. We are watched to make sure our examinations are fluid and consistent. Additionally, the field reps make sure we deal with disqualifications or excusals properly and run our ring in the manner expected of us. The field reps are there to help. They offer great advice on how to handle any and all situations. If you, as a new judge, feel you know how to handle all situations, you have not judged enough. At any given time something completely unexpected will happen, and that is where the AKC field rep is invaluable.

The next stage in a judge’s evolution is performance evaluations, in which we are given ratings based on the entry before us and our final selections. There are four ratings that we can receive, ranging from a fail to “exceptional.” Our evaluations are based on consistency and finding the quality specimens in an entry. The field reps give us latitude for interpretation in our judging. Once an observation is complete, the judge and the field rep meet to discuss certain classes and entries. It is an in-depth exchange of ideas on where priorities were placed and the rationale behind a judge’s decision. If judges are able to discuss in breed-specific terms why they placed one dog over another in a logical manner, most AKC reps will accept a judge’s decision even if they felt another dog should have won. After three successful reviews by the staff and a number of provisional assignments, a judge then advances to becoming fully approved for the breed.

This does not mean that we now are exempt from evaluations by the staff. They can at any time perform an evaluation on a judge and in essence say this judge is not judging a breed up to par and needs further study. Personally I feel this is much needed, pass or fail, as it helps keep both new and longtime judges from becoming complacent in their craft. Each evaluation requires the individual to prioritize and reflect upon their judging, so the evaluation is a great mental exercise.

Once a judge achieves regular status, it is time for the most difficult evaluation of all: being judged by the exhibitors. This is where a judge quickly discovers where the heart of the sport lies. All exhibitors show dogs in hopes that the judge selects their exhibit as the best of the day based solely on the standard by which we are to judge. Without an entry, the judge has no job to perform. It is a judge’s responsibility and duty to ensure that each and every exhibit is given the same amount of attention in the ring. All exhibits deserve a proper examination based on the standard as well as singular attention while gaiting. It is a given that if a judge does not grant exhibitors this minimal amount of attention, they will and should feel slighted, and the repercussions are vast. It is imperative judges give every exhibit no matter its quality the same consideration until final decisions are being made. Now as a judge I can say that, given the short amount of time we have to judge each specimen, decisions are being made as we see the dogs enter the ring, perform the first go-round and also the first impression on the stack. We then delve into the minutia of each animal. Some dogs are not to our liking immediately upon entering the ring, and some dogs are truly standouts from the first instant we see them. Consider them like a piece of art. Some objects we are immediately drawn to, while we are dismissive of others from the instant we view them. However, this never gives a judge the right to ignore an exhibit because as they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

In the ring while judging a class, a judge’s mind is racing. We try to recollect all key points of the standard, evaluate condition, and consider the age of an exhibit and whether it is at the appropriate stage of development. Then we compare and contrast dogs to each other and decide where our compromises can be made. It’s a fine balancing act that we hope, in the end, results in the best dog being rewarded. I can speak from my limited experience that what I may be willing to tolerate, another may not. That is what makes all judges’ and exhibitors’ opinions unique. We all see dogs in a different light. Judging is never as finite and exact as we would like it to be. Breeds are always in flux, with new strengths and weaknesses on which to base priorities. It’s such a wonderful exercise each time we enter the ring to ponder each exhibit’s virtues in contrast to another’s and render a final decision.

To say that judging is easy is quite a misconception. It is always a learning process and should always continue to be a process of education and study. The glimpse of a judge presented thus far is just the beginning of what lies behind that mystical curtain. I hope we can lift the perceived smoke and mirrors of judges in our sport to show that even though the initial perception is that of some grand wizard with superhuman powers, judges are just like anyone else: fallible but earnest in the perfection of a sport for which exhibitors and judges alike have such a passion.

Next time we will delve deeper behind the scenes of judging.


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

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