A few weeks ago, I was reading a column in another show dog publication in which the author said, in effect, that owner-handlers need to stop whining about professional handlers winning all the time because the dogs shown by the professional handlers are better trained, better trimmed, better presented, and they move better, so obviously they are going to win the majority of the time.
Not a single word was mentioned about the actual breed quality of the exhibits being shown by the professionals. No discussion about breed standards, breed-specific traits, breed-specific movement or breed-specific grooming. Just better shown, better trained, better trimmed and apparently better leash trained. In that author’s opinion, I guess that is what makes a great show dog and one that should win frequently. Have we come to a point in the dog show world where breed standards are obsolete? Should we just toss the standards and have competitions solely judged on condition, trim and grand showmanship?
The Purpose of Judging
I have a serious problem with the picture of winning dogs that was painted in that column. I grew up being taught that the purpose of showing our dogs was to evaluate breeding stock so that we could make the next generation stronger and more closely aligned with our breed standard. We showed our dogs to people whose opinions we respected, and we valued a win in strong competition under those we considered to be wise and honest. We investigated the background of the people that we were considering entering our dogs under and showed to those who we felt had the experience to competently judge our breed.
I refuse to accept that presentation, dog grooming and training are inherited traits. Therefore, I don’t think that they should be the first consideration in judging. I also don’t think that most people, especially professional handlers, show for a valued opinion anymore; they are showing for a win. Our sport has become a business and a game, and there is huge money involved. There isn’t a thing wrong with that, as long as we as judges vow to keep ourselves honest when judging. That is so important because it is the judges who control where this sport ultimately will go. I truly believe that without honest, well-educated, unbiased judging, our sport will crumble and fall. Serious breeders and exhibitors will eventually walk away from our sport if their carefully bred, correct-to-the-standard dogs are continually defeated by generic dogs that have only showmanship, condition and presentation, and a wide-open pocketbook to recommend them.
To me the concept of the word “honest” as it relates to judging means that we all need to seriously evaluate the dogs that come before us and render an opinion based upon our carefully considered and studied interpretation of each breed’s standard. Reward on specific breed quality, not on training, trimming and showmanship. Be honest enough with ourselves to realize it when the best dog in the ring is the one that is rather casually but correctly trimmed, and is shown naturally and easily instead of racing at top speed.
No Room Left for the Owner-Handlers
If I sound cranky, it’s because I am. A dear friend of mine who has spent a lifetime in the sport of dogs as a successful breeder, exhibitor, judge, author and artist commented to me the other day that if she was just beginning in the world of dogs, she would most likely be a pet owner and nothing more, as it appears to her that there is little or no room left in the show world for the serious breeder/owner-handler who is on a modest budget and can exhibit only occasionally. It’s a disheartening thought, but she could be right.
The AKC owner-handler series does not fill the void for me. I’m an owner-handler, yet I am ineligible because I am a judge. My daughter is an owner-handler, but she is ineligible because she occasionally takes money to show dogs for others. If the AKC series is for amateur owner-handlers only, then that should be its name. It’s a fallacy to have it called the owner-handler series because a great many of the very best owner-handlers in this sport are ineligible. To make it a really competitive owner-handler competition, open it to all owner-handlers and let the wins fall where they may. Or change it to amateur owner-handlers because that is what the rules currently allow for.
If the series was actually open to all owner-handled dogs, then I would be all for it and delighted to compete. But the way it stands now, most of the strong competition has been taken out of it, and if I were one of the few eligible, I would not feel satisfied that a BIS owner-handler ribbon was much of a reward at all. Owner-handlers should be competitive on all levels and should not need to have the competition watered down so they can win an award. And this again is in the hands of the judges.
Rewarding Professionals Just Because
One of the biggest concerns I have about the sport and the quality of judging these days is that we have a large number of professional handlers who become well known in a particular breed and follow one special immediately on the heels of the last. One after another, year after year, these dogs are rotated in and out of a handler’s truck, and each new dog seems to be pointed at in the breed, Group and Best in Show rings almost immediately by the same circle of judges who frequently awarded the last one. So-and-so has another one, so it must be a good one. But what about the fact that these dogs are often worlds apart in breed quality and sometimes sadly lacking in breed-specific characteristics? What about the fact that they are often so different in style that to breed experts they barely resemble the same breed? How can judges think that so many that are so different can all be correct?
Real experts in a breed can only stretch their parameters of interpretation of type in a standard so far. Yes, style can vary, but basic type requirements, such as size, proportion, leg length, substance, outline, balance, head shape and correct movement for its breed, must be met for any dog to begin to be considered a good one. Shouldn’t judges stop to actually evaluate the new dog against its breed standard instead of racing to award it a win just because it is the next one in a string of the same breed being shown by a handler who always has one?
Sometimes the next dog is just the only one of that breed that was available to the handler, the only one with owners that wanted to pursue a career and had the money to support that career. Absolutely, sometimes the next dog is a wonderful and exciting one. But sometimes it’s just a mediocre dog that is extremely well dressed. Shouldn’t judges be able to discern the difference? Isn’t that the job of every judge who walks to the center of a ring? And shouldn’t we put our foot down at the risk of angering the handler and say, “Sorry, but this one just isn’t good enough”? If we can follow that statement with a breed-descriptive critique, shouldn’t we as judges be applauded for taking a stand against a fancy but generic and extremely faulty dog instead of being called a giant killer? When I judge I so often wish that I was allowed by AKC to do a verbal or written critique. I would love to have the opportunity to explain exactly why I did what I did in breed-specific terms.
Judging in this country is becoming so rote and in many cases so boring and predictable to watch. Not nearly often enough do I see judges examine the breeds that I am intimately acquainted with in a serious, breed-specific manner. Instead, every dog of every breed is examined the same way: barely touched and mostly not in the right places for the breed. It’s one thing to judge a smooth-coated breed without much hands-on, but it is a totally different thing to judge a coated breed, especially one that is highly crafted into a shape by a clever trim, without really feeling what is under the hair.
I see this sort of generic exam over and over again, but what joy I feel when I watch someone I really respect judge one of my breeds and I am able to follow every move and every placement. Hands on each dog exactly where they should go and insisting that the dogs be gaited as described in the standard. This sort of judging is still in our rings, and it is what we should all strive to do in every breed that we judge. This sort of judging will be the salvation of our sport.
A while back, I overheard a conversation between two judges. Judge A said to Judge B, “You know that dog of ——’s really isn’t made well at all. It is wrong in front and so vertical that its shoulder blades are up behind its ears.” The response from Judge B, who had already awarded said dog multiple Group and BIS awards, was, “Really? I guess I better take a look at that the next time I have the dog.”
I have no words for how disconcerting it was to overhear that conversation. Shouldn’t Judge B have taken time to truly evaluate the dog the very first time it entered his ring? Isn’t that supposed to be our job as judges, to compare each dog against its breed standard and reward the one that best represents the description set forth in that standard?
Choosing the Wrong Dogs
All dogs have faults and failings, and the occasional fault and failing is certainly to be forgiven in a dog that is otherwise brimming with wonderful breed type characteristics. But what of the dog that has very few real positive breed characteristics but is shown to perfection? Is this really the one that should be consistently winning? I think not, but it happens all the time. Just talk to long-established, successful breeders who are so concerned with preserving correct type in their breed, and watch them shake their heads in wonder at the new “great one” that is being showered with wins. A number of years ago, a breeder that I greatly respect posted a note on a breed-specific list — it said, “If you want to screw up a breed, go pick somebody else’s and leave mine alone!”
Many dogs win that are, come on folks, you know it’s true, not very good representatives of their breed at all. The sad fact is that these dogs should not be getting into the Groups! They should be defeated during breed judging whenever a better dog appears. But a dog gets on a roll, and all of a sudden it is virtually unbeatable in the breed no matter the far superior quality of the competition. Even top-quality dogs occasionally meet a competitor that is just plain better. As judges, we should be up to the task of recognizing and rewarding that better dog, not just going through the motions and pointing at the big winner. Every dog is beatable on any given day because there are many circumstances at play. Dogs are different every day because their moods are different every day. They don’t rationalize like we do. If they aren’t in the frame of mind to do something well, then they don’t do it well. Mind-set can affect carriage, outline, foot timing and a myriad of other things. A good dog having a bad day should not be rewarded any more than a poor dog having a good day should be rewarded. Judge the dogs on the day against their breed standard.
In the end, the only person that can keep you honest as a judge is you. Rules, regulations and field representatives aside, we are the masters of our own accountability every time we step inside a ring. We need to know in our hearts that we are rewarding the correct dog on the basis of its quality, with no other influences considered.