Those Precarious Shades of Gray

Ethical dilemmas hound us in the dog-show world, just as they do in our personal and work lives. Often, the right thing to do is spelled out in the rules and regulations of a company handbook, but not always. Life doesn’t come with a manual. Sometimes we have to rely on our own moral compass to guide us. If you have to ask yourself the appropriateness of a certain course of action, that’s probably a sign it isn’t the right action to take.

Recently a firestorm of protest swept the conformation community after Best in Show was awarded to a dog the judge had bred. The American Kennel Club dog-show rules clearly state that a dog that was owned by or lived with a judge cannot be entered and shown under that judge. The rules do not address dogs bred by the judge. However, such action would clearly put a judge in an awkward position.

Judges are expected to look for the dog that they feel comes closest to meeting its breed standard. Presumably a judge who continues breeding dogs would feel their dogs fit the standard best and would favor the look and style of their dogs. To overlook their dog and put up a lesser dog – in their subjective opinion – is to let other variables get in the way of judging. Yet to put up the dog they bred is to invite disapproval from other exhibitors and judges.

In the case of this Best in Show win, two other judges had to award the dog Best of Breed and Best in Group earlier in the day before it wound up in the final line-up of seven dogs competing for Best in Show. However, the handler could have brought the dog into the Best in Show ring for its final moment of glory and then asked to be excused because of the obvious conflict of interests. Alternatively, the judge could have raised the matter of the conflict of interests when it became evident one of the seven finalists was a dog the judge had bred.

With so many handlers flying their show dogs to compete across the country every week, judges can’t predict what dogs they will be facing in their rings. Owners, exhibitors and handlers should try not to put judges in compromising situations.

Perhaps the fallout from this debacle will lead to a new rule explicitly addressing the matter of judges assessing dogs they have bred. Until that happens, judges must consider optics. In this economic downturn, entries at dog shows have dropped everywhere. As passionate participants in the sport of conformation, we all try to encourage newcomers to embrace the game. For that to happen, judging must be seen as fair and above board. Political wins tarnish the public’s overall perception of the sport. Is any victory worth those destructive, long-term consequences?

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