The Devil Is in the Detail
Judging purebred dogs may appear simple and straightforward to the uninitiated – someone of experience stands in the center of a ring and points to the dog he likes best … easy! Readers of this article will, however, appreciate that it is anything but.
To evaluate an entry of any breed effectively, apart from the expectation of integrity and courage, a judge must have a thorough knowledge of that breed that extends beyond the wording of the breed standard. There should be an appreciation of what a breed was originally developed for and how it may have developed over time.
Judging has always struck me as something of a two-tier process: First one must assess a dog on its overall picture (to quote the late great Sabella, “Does it walk into the ring and scream its breed?”), the silhouette the dog creates both statically and in motion, its attitude and bearing, and the gait it displays in a breed-specific context.
Is the dog correctly balanced and proportioned for its breed? Is its physical conformation typical for that breed and enabling optimum function?
That first impression has to be paramount, but the second tier becomes more complex, as this involves a much more detailed examination of the many characteristics that contribute to a dog possessing BREED TYPE. Ask any dog person to describe “type” and what creates it, and you will get many varied answers. I have always believed that breed type is a combination of size, shape, head and expression, coat, movement and character. That may sound like an over-simplification, but it has always worked for me.
Mentally, when working through a class of a breed, a judge will have in his mind those dogs in the class who ticked his boxes when it came to that initial impression, the dogs whose overall picture pleased. Then they have to be separated, and this is where deep knowledge of a breed is required.
Beginning with the head, is it correctly proportioned from all angles? Both head on and in profile, the head must be balanced. Breeds that require smooth, clean cheeks immediately lose an essential if they are bucket-headed, or too strong in backskull, to be more polite. Head structure appraised, are the eyes correctly placed and shaped and of an acceptable color? Are the ears in the right position, and, in breeds where it is required, are they mobile? All these contribute to creating the dog’s expression, and it is surprising how detracting can be, for example, low-set ears (when the standard calls for higher set) or eyes that are forward-looking when the standard requires them to be obliquely placed.
Dentition needs to be examined and the bite assessed. Not all breeds require a perfect scissor bite as some will need to be slightly undershot, and let’s not forget the importance of the underjaw, as I cannot think of one breed that is required to have a weak chin. In so many breeds strength of underjaw contributes hugely to expression. Depth and strength of underjaw give a certain arrogance – lack thereof can make an otherwise pleasing head appear bland and gormless.
Following on from the head, the neck needs to be examined. Is it the correct length? (Few breeds require giraffe-like necks, but some decisions make one wonder!) Is it sufficiently muscular and, when a clean, dry neck is required, is it free from throatiness?
The front assembly is vitally important to any functioning dog, so shoulders need to be assessed in their angulation relative to the upper arm – forelegs need to be UNDER the dog and not tacked on in front as an afterthought. Never underestimate the importance of the forechest, as while not all breeds require the keel of a Dachshund, most require a well-developed forechest, and sometimes cathedral fronts in coated breeds can be superficially disguised by endless back-combing, so use of the hands is vital.
Bone density needs to be examined, and this again can be cleverly masked by expert groomers and modern products. It is important to understand the strength of bone the breed requires, as in a moderately boned breed too much will create a common, overdone look while too little will make the dog look weak.
Using the hands beyond the shoulders, the ribcage must be examined closely – for spring, depth and length. A common failing in so many breeds is a shortness of ribcage coupled with undue length of loin. These long-coupled dogs may appear well balanced in outline initially, but close inspection will reveal an inadequacy of construction and a good indicator will be the underline. Short ribcages will invariably come hand in hand with an abrupt and untypical tuck-up.
Ribcage dealt with, toplines must be examined and in particular the croup, as not all breeds require tails that are “bang on top.” Many of the breeds that actually require a slightly low tailset have seen the croups change in the breed, which produces a totally different set and carriage.
Tails may not be considered important by many, but in some breeds they are very much a breed characteristic. Labrador Retrievers without the correct otter tail immediately lose an important element of type, as would a Chihuahua with a thin rat-tail, so tails must be evaluated.
When it comes to the hindquarters there must be balance and musculation to a degree in all breeds. The plague of so many breeds nowadays is an elongated second thigh that extends the rear way beyond the functional and invariably creates an untypical, albeit dramatic, sloping topline.
Coat may be the icing on the cake, but in many breeds its texture and length are important related to function, so due attention should be paid. Sadly, many breeds today can have their coat texture altered significantly with the application of modern grooming products.
So the hands-on has shown us what lies beyond that first impression, and hopefully many of those who appealed at first glance will not disappoint on closer inspection.
We now come to movement and determining soundness and breed-specific gait (remembering that the fastest dog does not automatically get pointed to first!). If I were writing this for a British audience I would emphasize that evaluating movement requires more than a simple out-and-back and maybe a minimal triangle. To really appreciate a dog’s merits in action studying profile by at least requesting two circuits of a decent-sized ring is essential. It has always struck me that British judges generally tend to neglect profile whereas Americans place great importance on it and are perhaps a little forgiving of the out-and-back. Personally I very much identify with the American priorities in this respect.
Tremendous reach and drive is not required in all breeds; some breeds can single-track, and some front action can be a little high-stepping. It is important to be aware of the idiosyncrasies of any breed in motion.
After a thorough hands-on and watching them move, the competing dogs must now be placed, and this is where a judge’s priorities become apparent.
It is here where different mind-sets are visible to all. Does a judge make his final decisions still based on those overall pictures on a final go-around or do the revelations of the hands-on force him to adjust his initial thoughts?
Going back to Sabella’s quote – “Does it scream its breed?” – a dog with a slightly light eye or a misplaced incisor can still do just that and yet I have seen judges getting bogged down by minor imperfections, often of a cosmetic nature, and throw out the baby with the bathwater. In endless discussion with other judges I have got the impression over the years that placing great emphasis on individual breed characteristics gives them some kind of credibility with the breed specialists. That may be, but judges should never try to be something they are not. Breed specialists may attach vast importance to minor details and be less demanding of “overall picture,” but this is where all-rounders have an important part to play. They should have that overall picture paramount in their mind while seeing breed points in perspective.
The reason exhibitors go to dog shows, week in, week out, is that they are seeking different opinions from judges who have different priorities. There is room for them all – as long as they understand a breed and can clearly interpret the demands of the breed standard in their own particular way.