I once heard someone say, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” This speaks volumes about the task we AKC judges face each time we enter the dog show ring. The decisions we make are our own, based upon our personal knowledge and past experiences. As we enter the conformation ring to adjudicate over the breeding stock before us, we must dismiss the myriad external influences that surround us and strive to be true to our individual convictions and beliefs.
I was recently approved to judge my first Group, and was fortunate enough to be asked to render my decision at one of the largest and most competitive shows in the country. Knowing that all breeds in the Group would be present, this was an amazing opportunity to implement all of my years of study and knowledge. I can’t speak for other dog show judges, but I can only imagine that every judge goes through the same gamut of feelings, thoughts and emotions that I did.
Each time I enter the conformation ring, I am faced with feelings of anxiety about how to approach the judging assignment at hand. As a judge you are constantly reviewing dog breed standards and trying to prioritize. You hope all the dogs will be looking their best on that day so that each animal is on equal footing. When judging a new Group, you may be evaluating dogs you’ve never seen before. It can be daunting but exhilarating at the same time. Even procedure enters into your mind so that you can set the stage without failure.
When outsiders observe our sport, there are perceived influences and conditions that many people might feel affect a dog show judge’s decision. There are numerous ratings that seem to dictate which canine is the best of its breed by virtue of its numerical status in the country. Advertising, publicity and marketing, all popular vehicles for campaigning a show dog, are also viewed as potential vehicles to sway a judge’s opinion toward a more favorable or desirable outcome. Also let’s not forget the simple fact that there will always be people exhibiting under dog show judges who, after years of competing and exhibiting together, have become close friends. After those supposed influences, then we enter the realm of preferences based upon the judge’s background, whether they are biases based on familiar and favorite dog breeds, or simple preferences of color or style.
The barrage of outside influences can seem overwhelming to a new judge, and that’s where integrity and strength of character come into play. Every extraneous factor can be a potential stumbling block on the way to making the correct decision in the dog show ring. The priority remains to judge each dog based on the breed standard and how closely each animal conforms to it.
So how do we as judges remove those distracting pressures and focus on the task at hand? I believe the primary weapon we have to draw upon is our past experience. If you are a Group judge, obviously you have been around long enough to have seen many great dogs through the years. This gives you a point of reference to start with for each dog breed. As time progresses, you formulate ideals in your mind for each breed. You also see the trends across all breeds and realize the strengths in each breed as well as the shortcomings. While the breed standard is the template against which dogs are judged, actual hands-on experience is that which solidifies what our vision of the standard entails.
As we grow in the sport, we rely on our peers and mentors to impart to us the essence of each breed. Without drawing upon the collective knowledge of breeders, judges and handlers, I doubt many judges would succeed in rendering a decision worth much to anyone.
Every dog breed has priorities listed but those must be considered in relation to the whole of the animal. One part does not make a whole animal, nor does one fault make the animal a valueless item to be discarded. I do feel this is a pitfall that many judges can fall prey to when evaluating breeding stock. It becomes all too easy to see one wonderful virtue and deem that dog the best, or conversely see one fault and dismiss the animal completely. It’s balance that will convey the best image of type consistently. To judge based on balance of form and function is another hard act of integrity to subscribe to in this sport, but it is an absolute necessity in order to be proficient in judging.
So armed with all your expertise and knowledge about purebred dogs, you now must confront the influences that attempt to sway you off the path of choosing the best specimen on the day. Such things as popular opinion enter into play. If many say the dog is the best, does that make it so? Possibly, but where is the harm in coming to your own conclusion? The reality of judging is that most judges are aware of which dogs have amassed outstanding records. It’s just the simple fact that if you attend enough dog shows, you see certain dogs winning consistently. But to me, and I think to most other judges as well, the moment of truth comes when that known or unknown dog enters your ring. That is where the ultimate decision of quality and merit must be made. Of course we as judges are excited to get our hands on a supposed great one. That is the thrill of judging. To see and examine show dogs that are truly once-in-a-lifetime animals is the joy of judging. What is imperative to keep in mind, though, is that those show dogs must represent the ideal to us and us alone. It becomes secondary what others think when you are the judge. You owe it to the sport to come to your own conclusions. If you as the judge concur with the past decisions of your peers, so be it. If you see the dog in a different light, that is your prerogative as well. Differences in opinions and views are what make the sport of dogs so fascinating and unique each day.
As AKC judges, our decisions in the ring are ultimately our own. We all have different priorities and views when making our decisions at dog shows. There really is no right or wrong decision. The most important factor is that when entering the ring you base your choices on knowledge and expertise. Placing the utmost value on your own integrity is essential to success. Observers outside the ring may not realize how much you value your personal stance in the ring, but what matters in the end is that you uphold your personal integrity and choose the right show dog with authority and knowledge peers and mentors to impart to us the essence of each breed. Without drawing upon the collective knowledge of breeders, judges and handlers, I doubt many judges would succeed in rendering a decision worth much to anyone.
From the January 2013 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the January 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.