Judges Education: Formal and Informal

How does education relate to the approval process?

Once upon a time, there was no AKC-approved, standard- or parent club-approved formal judges’ education. People who wanted to judge figured out who knew the various breeds and sat at their feet to learn. Learning to judge dogs has always been about knowing who knows. Do you go to learn from the person who has bred 30, 50 or 100 champions, the successful handler who shows many dozens or hundreds of them, or the person with the bare minimum 12 years, five litters and four champions AKC wants from applicants to judge their first breed? Do you talk to a lot of people or just a couple? Do you read a lot about a breed? Do you go to kennels? Today, no matter how you attempt to learn about dogs, you better learn to check boxes, and you better do a lot of paperwork if you want to be approved.

I have judged since the late 1960s and can’t say I kept copies of all the various applications I’ve filled out. In the beginning, I remember detailing and listing every show where I exhibited. I compiled pages and pages for the first application. I might have written a few paragraphs on what I thought was important in the breed. As time went on, we realized there were a few things that were certain in life: death, taxes and the AKC changing its requirements for becoming a judge.


The In-Ring Observation Program

For a long time, applications included writing what you thought a breed was supposed to be, and maybe a list of people you had talked to and other things you may have done to learn. You also got an interview with a Field Rep. After that, along came observing judges in the ring. The first time I observed, long ago, I was told by the older gentleman judge whose name escapes me to sit in his chair and watch. I dutifully did this, and when he finished he asked me if I thought he did a good job. That was it. But I was the one who was supposed to be getting a learning experience. Of course it progressed from there. In the meantime, those who wanted to learn figured out how to learn, as it will always be.

The in-ring observation program progressed. You could contact a judge and ask to observe a breed inside the ring and follow the judge around as he or she judged. I remember observing Maxine Beam. She was fabulous. The breed was Italian Greyhounds. She was really into this breed and gave me good information. Other times, the judge was silent. Some pontificated ad nauseum. It is always good to be able to get up close to see lots of dogs as you are learning, though.

On the other side, when I judged, I had people ask to come into my ring to observe when I was judging. Some were great students, and others were a big distraction. People who just wanted to chat with their friends or me were enough to sour me on this issue. Then there was the day I judged my first American Water Spaniel entry. I had been mentored by breeders who promised to bring dogs for me to judge in this exceedingly rare breed. The entry was 14! Before the show, I was contacted by multiple judges who all wanted to do an in-ring observation. Because this was my first assignment in the breed, I told each one it was not appropriate, but I was sure the breeders who helped me would be happy to talk to them afterward. I wanted to focus on doing a good job. When I got to the show, the Show Chair announced he would be coming in to observe. I told him what I had told everyone else, that this was my first time judging them, so I wouldn’t take an observer. He then told me if I would not let him come in, I would never judge for his club again! Wow. Nice education going on here.

As an exhibitor, I remember showing a Dandie in a large entry (when there were large entries of Dandies) at Hatboro many years ago and thinking I was in it for the breed. The judge had an observer, and the observer decided to look closely at my dog during the judging. I asked this person to please move off, as I was intent on showing my dog and hoping to win. The observer wanted to strike up a conversation with me. Hey! This is Montgomery weekend! Give me a break! So the in-ring observer program had its ups and downs. It ended, but the AKC may be bringing it back.


Hands-On Judging Test

AKC also came up with the hands-on judging test. This was to me very scary. As I recall, the applicant was presented with a class of about eight dogs to sort and place. There were three judges evaluating the applicant’s performance. I sat on both sides of this experience.

I did the hands-on with American Cocker Spaniels. Luckily, I had great mentors who had allowed me to visit their kennels, go over all their dogs and their clients’ dogs, and discuss the fine points of breed type. I put a lot of work into this, and my mentors taught me so much, but I was still a bag of nerves not knowing who the panel would be. I got through it but hoped never to have to do another.

I also served once on a panel. We had two judges being tested on Dobermans. Both of these gentlemen were from Sporting dogs. First we, the panel, went over all the dogs. We decided our potential order. Then the students, one at a time, went over the dogs and placed them. They gave their reasons, and we were allowed to ask questions. Dobermans have a disqualification for missing teeth. I noticed both judges were very tentative handling the dogs and especially opening mouths. Dobermans, Rottweilers and other guard breeds that are handled tentatively can misread intentions, especially if judges kind of jump away after the exam. I remember asking both applicants how many dogs had missing teeth. They both struggled with this question and one stated one or two. Wrong answer. I failed both because they were so tentative on their exam of the dogs and did not seem to know how to count teeth. Both got the breeds applied for, and one was bitten by a Rottweiler on one of his first assignments. The other was bitten later.



Judges Education Workshops

The various local workshop groups put together for and by judges are one of the best learning tools I think we have had to learn about breeds. I remember flying to California for the L.A. Dog Judges’ two-day seminar. There was a lot of passion for breeds by presenters on display. Many workshops sprang up around the country. They worked to get presentations on breeds members were interested in. Gerry Penta came up with the great two-day event in Pennsylvania where people could go, spend time with a lot of other judges, go to well-organized seminars and hopefully get good information.

Today, only a few workshops survive. Why? AKC. In all their tinkering, AKC started to micromanage the process of acceptable learning. They brought out what we all called the “60 points of light” and the culture of box-checking. They mandated who was an acceptable seminar presenter, how many points it was worth, and what counted and what didn’t. They created a class of judges I refer to as seminar junkies. They have gradually killed off a lot of really good judges groups by pushing their various group institutes.

The kicker is the institutes have “parent club-approved” presentations and presenters. This sounds good, but the reality is that not all parent clubs have figured out that judges education is supposed to be about education. In some clubs, this is a political football. In other clubs, people who aren’t judges or successful, experienced breeders or breed-specialist handlers are calling the shots. When our Northeast Judges Workshop was going full tilt, we looked for presenters with experience, success in breeding and showing and with great passion for their breed. Not all of our presenters were parent club presenters, but so many were excellent. They gave us some of our best presentations.

We also had numerous breed comparisons of similar breeds. Many of these were really helpful. The Amstaff, Staffordshire and Mini Bull Terrier comparison stands out in my memory as a great experience. Unfortunately, we also had a few awful presentations. I think the worst one I ever attended was a parent club presentation of a Working breed. The presenters came with a slideshow. One read a script, and the other ran the projector. They argued over which description they were on, as they didn’t seem to know. When it came time for the hands-on, they brought out what looked like a dysplastic puppy, a sway-backed, middle-aged bitch and a broken-down elderly dog. We asked why they brought these dogs, as they had been instructed to bring three to four top-quality dogs that could compete at a specialty. The presenters told us their club did not allow them to bring any dog that was being shown or could be shown. Some clubs won’t let champions be used in judges education presentations! And this is called a learning experience?

If parent clubs don’t get their best people into the mentor slot, the approved “mentors” become something of a joke. And the seminars are a joke when people come in late to sign in, read a newspaper at the back of the room (I saw someone doing this), go to the powder room for an extended stay and come back to pick up their certificate. But, boy, their paperwork looks good.


Paperwork Still Reigns

The folly of box-checking and voluminous paperwork remains. The lifetime of the Smith Committee when worthy individuals could be advanced quickly was all too brief. Now it is back to box-checking, but a new scheme is in the wings. It was rolled out for comment, and the main thrust seemed to be check your boxes, do your paperwork, judge your shows and move on; no one stops you or checks on more than procedure. The Field Reps get downgraded, and the folks who can get assignments judge. The latest iteration lets the Field Reps have a dialogue with those who have less than two Groups. It also has a fast track for foreign judges. But the new proposed scheme still has the list of “educational experiences” and how many points they are worth.

Talking to numerous very experienced dog people, many who might otherwise be convinced to become judges, are shaking their heads. Many don’t plan to apply. Any number of judges with several Groups already don’t plan to apply either. So the generation of seminar junkies and box-checkers will advance. That is until the next change in the system. Maybe. Depending.

Back when there were no long lists of points of light, judges education committees and boxes to check, if you wanted to learn, you had to figure out who knows. Today, that is still the reality for people who want to learn. If you go to a parent club specialty and are shuffled around from mentor to mentor, you can pick up some information and also become very confused. It’s important to listen to people who know. But what do these people offering you this experience know? Who are they? Are they the people who have bred the really good dogs year in and year out, or are they people with only a little experience? If they sit one on either side of you and argue over the merits of the dogs in the ring, is this a great experience?


Judges’ Feedback

I asked a few long-term judges what their worst judge’s education experiences were. Here is a sample:

  1. The seminar presenter who only read the standard.
  2. The presenters at a seminar screaming at each other. 
  3. The club that invited everyone at the show to the judges ed seminar and lost control of the presentation. 
  4. The ringside mentors who told students the standard was useless and to ignore it. 
  5. The ringside mentors who pointed out and promoted their friends and bad-mouthed people while saying little about the dogs. 
  6. The presentations where someone read a script.

So what are the best ways to learn? Here is another list of what a lot of long-term judges said:

  1. Finding a successful breeder or specialty handler, going to their kennel and having them go over all their dogs and discuss them.
  2. Hands-on experience portion of a study group was mentioned multiple times. 
  3. Any opportunity to get hands on dogs with an experienced person present discussing the merits of the dogs. 
  4. A good illustrated standard with drawings rather than photos. 
  5. Actually judging the breed at a match or any other place. 
  6. Judging a new breed with a trusted mentor commenting afterward.

The discussion about judging, who should judge and how you become a judge is always ongoing. Parent clubs that don’t understand what judges need to learn are part of the problem. Too much micromanaging and an overemphasis on paperwork is a problem. The bottom line is that for the sport to survive and prosper, we need knowledgeable judges. We need the people who know. Can the parent clubs furnish these very knowledgeable mothers and fathers of the breed to teach, or will they furnish the 12-5-4 people? For the next generation, we need to find the people who know, and sit at their feet and listen and learn.

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