British judge and author Dr. Malcolm Willis.
Sun, 12/12/2021 - 11:53pm

The Breeder Who Becomes a Judge

Juggling the two roles can be a tough balancing act

Malcolm Willis was a German Shepherd expert, a celebrated geneticist and prolific author. He was one of the few to actually stand up to the British Kennel Club (for which he paid, but eventually he was welcomed back into the fold with open arms!) when he believed they were in the wrong.

Malcolm was one of those judges of substance whose opinion and awards really carried weight. One of the highlights of my judging career was judging bitches at our Bernese Mountain Dog National Specialty. (Bernese was Malcolm’s “second breed” through his wife, and he was much revered in that breed.) Malcolm was a ringsider that day, and I awarded the CC to the winner of the Veteran Bitch class, as I felt she was the most worthy on the day. I later learned that Malcolm had awarded her one of her early Challenge Certificates, and that made me feel very content.

My attention was recently drawn to a piece Malcolm wrote 21 years ago; I have read it many times before but somehow it seemed so appropriate to the present time. Let me share it with you.

Dr. Malcom Willis wrote:

“The qualities needed to be a breeder are not those of a judge and many successful breeders have not had the personality to equip them for judging. When you walk in to the ring you have total power for the day and you have to be capable of wielding that power sensibly and honestly, with the confidence to do so without caring what anyone thinks. We have all met judges who do not like to give one exhibitor more than one or two prizes or who make no secret of the fact that if you ‘won with your dog’ you cannot also expect to ‘win with your bitch.’ There are others who do not like certain colours and will not place them, whilst others seem to overlook any flaw in the colours they prefer. All these represent minor dishonesties in people who ought never to judge. If one person handles the best dog in every class then he should win every class. If your worst enemy has the best dog then put it first.

“One should be cautious of a judge who, in his own country, knows all the dogs and can judge with apparent skill – yet when dropped into the ring in another country, where the dogs are unknown to him, may exhibit a singular lack of ability to identify the best. A good judge should be capable of putting the dogs in the correct order and explaining their placings, wherever they find themselves. In many English speaking countries, if you are a tough judge and outspoken in your comments, however fair, then you are unlikely to command large entries, nor be popular. Dogs are extensions of their owners’ egos and if you penalise a dog, then some owners feel that their ego has been dented. The judges who are gentle in their criticism or eulogistic in their comments and who ‘share the prizes around’ are often popular. But popularity does not make a judge good. Judging is about skilled evaluation, not popularity. Be honest to yourself and you will be honest for your breed – all the rest is fool’s gold. You might be invited to officiate less often but at least you can live with yourself.”

These paragraphs from Malcolm condense so much wisdom very succinctly, which coincides with much of what I was taught by my mentor and idol Nigel Aubrey Jones.

I well remember my very first Championship show appointment in King Charles (English Toy) Spaniels here in the U.K. That day I awarded both CCs and both Reserve CCs to the same breeder/exhibitor simply because I felt her dogs warranted those awards. After judging I was “spoken to” by one of senior figures in the breed, who assured me I would never judge the breed again (she was wrong on that score) and accused me of “favoritism,” to which I took great exception.

I have never understood the mentality of those judges who wish to “share it around,” because if they have that mind-set they are not actually JUDGING. It stands to reason that, if a breeder is dedicated, knowledgeable and consistent in what they produce, their dogs will closely resemble each other in general stamp. If a judge is impressed by one, should they not also be impressed by others if they come from a “cookie cutter” kennel?

Many years ago, when I was actively breeding and showing Beagles, a very successful kennel brought out a litter brother and sister who were essentially identical twins, the bitch being a female version of her brother. If you liked the dog you had to like the bitch, yet, despite amassing a pile of Challenge Certificates individually they never once “did the double,” which totally mystified me. If the dog won the CC, invariably the best his sister did was the Reserve CC and often to something quite different in type.

I have actually heard some judges in the U.S. admit quite openly that they have deprived a deserving dog of Winners simply because they knew “he was coming in with his special”! Words fail me, but again this is not JUDGING. It is more akin to organizing a raffle.

Malcolm also mentions those judges who seem to be able to function quite efficiently in their own country where they know all the dogs, the exhibitors, the winning form and the breeding of most of the dogs in their ring. Yet put them in the center of the ring in another country and they become totally lost and sink without trace. I have seen it happen all too often, unfortunately, when British judges who are great breeders have been invited overseas for the first time.

In his opening sentence Malcolm suggests that “the qualities needed to be a breeder are not those of a judge and many successful breeders have not had the personality to equip them for judging.”

I well remember eagerly looking forward to watching one of our most successful breeders officiating at a specialty show. I had never before watched her judge, but I had awarded several CCs to dogs that she had bred, not all owned by herself. I had convinced myself that this would be a masterclass of judging in this particular breed. To say that I was disappointed would be a huge understatement, as the results revealed line-ups that were of all shapes and sizes (and this was a Toy breed), and at the end of the day I could not for the life of me work out what the lady was looking for.

In conversation with some of the breeders afterward who had obviously watched the lady in question many times previously, I was told that she was a head fanatic and, basically, she judged entirely on heads. Further investigation revealed that when she was establishing her kennel in the early days she struggled with plain, indifferent heads, which she improved dramatically with selective breeding. It seemed therefore that, when judging, the head took on a disproportionate importance and blinded her to other faults and virtues.

Judging should never be a popularity contest. Many judges for whom I have the highest regard have come in for criticism simply because they were a “type judge,” and whenever they officiated they put up the same type of dog throughout the classes, if they were there to be found, even if they were in the same hands.

I recently made a Facebook post based on this particular Willis piece, and one of the comments came from someone who is in my opinion one of the greatest breeders and judges of our time in her own particular Terrier breed. She cited the example of being heavily chastised when she judged her breed at Crufts and awarded both CCs to the same exhibitor. I replied in a comment, pointing out that Mrs. Clark would have swiftly corrected them by saying that she had not awarded both CCs to the same exhibitor, she had awarded them to THE DOGS!



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