Why Judge Dogs?
As we approach another Westminster, a fortunate group of people will be looking forward to one of the most exciting judging assignments of their careers. Some will be judging for WKC for the first time, others will be honored by a return visit. They will be putting their knowledge to the test in front of the world, filmed from every angle in the age of live streaming.
At a time when judges seem to come in for more criticism than ever — mainly, it must be said, thanks to the explosion of Facebook and other online forums — you could wonder why anyone would wish to put their neck on the line and stand in the center of the show ring with the eyes of the world on them. (And they are with the intrusion of camera phones now into our every activity!)
Occasionally I conduct seminars, entitled "Judging Dogs — An Introductory Presentation," which revolve around an 80-slide PowerPoint presentation. At the beginning of the presentation, in an attempt to break the ice, I ask everyone in the audience why they want to judge dogs. This often results in many varied responses. Some people admirably suggest that it is a way of improving their knowledge, putting something back into the breed and so on, while occasionally I have had people honestly and humorously admit that it would be a rather nice way to see the world at someone else’s expense!
I then try to explain why I personally want to judge dogs: Because every now and again — and it might happen once every two years — you meet a great one, possibly as a Puppy or Junior, or maybe a completely unknown dog with an unknown handler, that makes the hair on your back stand on end.
I tell the audience that if they are lucky enough to encounter this caliber of dog, the kind of dog you want to send around the ring and you never want it to stop, to savor the moment ... because it’s better than sex and lasts a lot longer! (You should always try to get a laugh five minutes into any seminar if it is to work!)
It is my sincere belief that I am not alone in this thinking. In the past I have confessed to my close friends that if ever I was told that, in the future, as a judge I would only be presented with mediocre dogs I would stop travelling and open up a restaurant. It is the anticipation of meeting truly exceptional dogs that keeps so many of us going. Since becoming full-time carer for my elderly mother I have cut right back on my judging activities, and the thing I miss most is encountering these special dogs who excite from the minute you first see them.
The whole judging process is a continuous and never-ending journey. When we start out as exhibitors, often first stepping into the ring with our first pet dog, we have simple goals … possibly just picking up a first-prize ribbon. With our first few firsts under our belts we in the U.K. then set our sights on qualifying for Crufts, as the Kennel Club’s own show still has an attraction unlike no other to the novice exhibitor here. As time goes on, and we learn a little more about our breed, we get a more realistic view of our first dog’s actual potential. Some will plateau out, picking up the odd prize card but never getting near the major awards. It is at this point in their doggy career that most people tend to find themselves at a crossroads.
The more sensible exhibitors are then in a position to appraise their dogs dispassionately. Oftentimes they realize the limitations of their first dog and decide to keep it as a companion, then searching for a higher-quality dog with which they can do more winning. On the other hand some disenchanted exhibitors come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that their dog is not winning because the judges under whom they have judged are all crooks, the same “faces” win, etc., etc. These people tend to leave the sport, and when they have such a jaundiced attitude that is perhaps no bad thing.
Those who stick with the show world, determined to own and subsequently breed better dogs with which they can win, will be noticed by their seniors if they consistently put quality in the ring. Whereas in “the old days” these breed elders may have recommended them for a judging assignment at a small show, today it isn’t quite as simple. Regardless of the breed, all would-be judges have to go through the basis Kennel Club educational process; these days there are more hoops to jump through, but if someone is committed, they will put themselves through the required system.
In days of yore it was frowned upon for an embryo judge to even hint that they would like to officiate, but with the way things have been developed, the British Kennel Club has in a roundabout way actively encouraged soliciting.
So as we begin our judge’s education, we begin in the first instance judging our own breed. This is a sign of the times and possibly why we find such a stark contrast between the new generation of judge and the older. Many of our finest all-rounders began their careers not by judging one breed at a time, but by cutting their teeth at well-attended dog matches, often held in smoky crowded back rooms of pubs or tiny village halls. This led to evening Sanction and Limited shows where they would be required to judge all breeds, and at the same time they would be pursuing a career of judging individual breed classes at Open shows.
My own feeling is that the old way made for better judges, though generalization can be dangerous. When you begin judging a wide spectrum of breeds your initial training is based around overall impression, balance and soundness. If you start off as a one-breed person, determined to become a “breed specialist,” there is the danger of focusing on individual breed points which, while very important, must always be seen in perspective.
It is interesting that, in the present climate, when all judges are constantly being reminded about the overriding importance of health, welfare and soundness, that in many ways this is representing a return to the “old way.”
The great judges, of whatever generation, are those who are able to sum up a dog in an instant, to appreciate its breed correctness, its balance, harmony and that indefinable ingredient — quality. Those judges did not need to maul a dog about for five minutes to determine its merits. They could see it immediately. As Frank Sabella famously said, “When a dog walks into my ring, I want it to scream its breed.”
So, when we step out there to award our very first Challenge Certificate, what are we looking for? Of course we want the nuts and bolts of the relevant breed standard. We want a dog to be utterly typical in every way. It should have the head and expression that instantly conveys the essence of the breed. Although people in some breeds may argue, I believe that heads are important in every breed. It is the head and expression that makes each dog an individual. Those who have attended my seminars will have heard my anecdote about the heated discussion I once had with an American judge many years ago who insisted that hindquarters were more important than heads ... “I have to have a rear!” At that point I asked if I could see her passport and inquired why it was her face that was featured in the photograph rather than her legs. She got the point.
We want an outline that is correct for the breed where everything flows seamlessly, free of any humps or bumps. We want the dog to be in the best possible condition, groomed to the best of the handler’s ability, without being over the top, and of course we want the dog to move soundly, displaying the gait that is correct for the breed, and of course we wants its temperament to be sound, steady and again breed-typical.
Yet secretly we are also hoping for something else. We are dreaming that a dog will walk into the ring that presses all the right buttons and gives us goose bumps. Call it charisma, star quality or whatever, but the truly great dogs have an indefinable quality that immediately catches the eye and holds it. These dogs will be in the peak of condition, carrying optimum muscle tone, be sparklingly clean and whenever they stand they put their feet down perfectly, never needing any manual adjustment by their handler. When they move, they coordinate with that first step and carry themselves with a rhythmic gait, never losing their shape for a moment.
These are the stars of the dog world, the dogs that make an impression that a judge never forgets. These dogs can be identified whether they are groomed or not — they have a natural aura that never leaves them.
Over the years I have had the good fortune to see many outstanding dogs; some I have merely admired from ringside, others I have been honored to judge. It is not hard to look back and remember vividly those who stood away.
Back in the early '80s I recall judging Papillons at Bath where my BOB was Ch. Tongemoor Miss Peppermint, an exquisite black and white bitch who simply brought her breed standard to life. She radiated quality and refinement yet was beautifully bodied and perfectly conditioned and presented by her understated handler Ellis Hulme. She was one of the early “greats” I recall judging and has ever since remained the ideal mental picture of the breed I carry in my head.
Another dog I can never forget was the Lhasa Apso bitch Ch. Saxonsprings Fresno, who I first met at a Limited show in Sheffield when, as a raw youngster, she was giving her clever owner-breeder Jean Blyth a really tough time. On the table I remember how thrilling Fresno was to handle, and although she displayed typical Lhasa stubbornness she had moments of brilliance in that village hall, and for me she was an easy BIS winner. Jean then put her with Geoff Corish in whose hands she blossomed and enjoyed an illustrious career. I was delighted to award her her retirement CC, and to this day Fresno regularly crops up when judges are asked to name their “greats” of all time. Furthermore she was that rare animal that was appreciated by all factions within the breed. To me she was flawless. Incidentally she was one of the most significant offspring of Orlane’s Intrepid, an American import who contributed hugely to the breed here.
Fast forward a decade or two, and another dog who had a huge impact on me was the Cavalier who floated into Open Dog when I was judging the breed at Three Counties. I could not take my eyes off him. I concluded that he was probably a foreign dog as I had never seen him in groups before. In any event he turned out to be no foreigner but Verheyen Tweed, and that day he won, despite being a mature dog, what was only his second CC, and obviously BOB. His owner-breeder Mary Cunningham had him in fabulous bloom and both on the table and going around he simply thrilled me. He was in my opinion the greatest Cavalier I had ever judged, and I have judged many beautiful dogs in this breed. Thankfully he won his title, but died tragically young.
Ironically, some years later I encountered a Cavalier who actually eclipsed Tweed: Miletree Montesuma of Londoncor. Bred here in the U.K., he was co-owned by the young Colombian Cesar Corties, who has now settled in London. He won his second CC & BOB under me when I found him utterly exciting. Some months later he turned up at the World Show under me in Helsinki where I was judging the males of the breed and he was again my best. “Uno” also ventured to the U.S., where he won his title as well as winning the national specialty. When he came through to my Toy Group in Scotland, he was a standout winner, and I took him through to BIS ahead of some other group winners I really rated. Coincidentally he too died young in a tragic accident when under the supervision of a dog walker, but many Cavalier people around the world will never forget him.
The first time I saw Tom Isherwood walk into the ring with Nora, the Chinese Crested sensation Ch. Vanitonia Unwrapped, I figured that she was something special and was a classic example of the charisma I have been talking about. I only got to judge her once, when she was my BOB winner, going on to win BIS, and at close quarters she was every bit as exciting as she had appeared from ringside. She smashed all kinds of records after she became the first ever of her breed to win BIS at a general Championship show in Britain and ended up winning Dog of the Year all breeds.
When I judged at Westminster in 2010 I had some wonderful breeds, but the Standard Poodles were the most exciting. From the first go-around I figured that the breed was probably going to be between a black male and a black bitch. After the hands-on and individual I had the two of them in the center of the ring, both standing proud and free on loose leads, radiating health, well-being and incredible Poodle style.
I asked their handlers to face the dogs toward me whereupon the bitch arched her neck and looked down her nose as if I was something she had just trodden in. The breed was hers and if ever I get depressed — which doesn’t happen very often — I simply look at the breathtaking photograph that Canadian Peter Culuvomic took of Am & Can Ch Dawin Spitfire, and the depression disappears. She was so perfectly handled by Sarah Riedl. I have often wondered what would have happened had she been bred to Ricky — Ch & Am Ch Afterglow Maverick Sabre — the Crufts BIS and Eukanuba World Challenge. I suspect they may have produced beautiful babies!
One dog that made a huge impression on me appeared in the most unlikely place, considering the breed ... Kuala Lumpur. Wishing no disrespect to my Malaysian friends, I had not gone to Asia expecting to find the most exciting Australian Terrier I had ever seen. There was just one dog entered in the breed, a red male, and he was handled by Hiroshi Tsuyuki, who had travelled from Japan. As soon as he came in the ring, I was transfixed, but tried not to get too excited, as sometimes those dogs who fascinate at first glance can disappoint.
This was not the case, however, as he was a joy to go over ... perfect size, correct coat, flawless bite and he was hard as iron. Moving up, down and around he was foot-perfect and a veritable showing machine. He ended up being my BIS winner. It was interesting to discover that Cliftop Gunna Be a Star was actually bred in the breed’s homeland. He had a brief holiday in the U.K. afterward, where he won top honors.
A few years ago I had the great honor of judging all seven groups and BIS at our Midland Counties Championship show here in the U.K. This was something I had always dreamt of, and the experience was as thrilling as I had imagined. Oftentimes you can be faced with a BIS line-up that disappoints when others have judged groups and their winners are not necessarily the dogs that would have won for you. Judging all groups yourself means there is no excuse … you end up with seven dogs that you should love — and I did. When it came to judging Best, it really was one of those hypothetical situations that you seldom encounter when the final award is a case of hair splitting and so it is all down to performance at the moment. As it was, the dog who pushed all the right buttons for me was the fabulous Longcoat Chihuahua Ch. Hollyel Topaz Chancer, who for me is one of the all-time greats.
There are of course other wonderful dogs who have brought me enormous pleasure over the years, but these are some that I will never get out of my head. I do hope that all of you who have started judging will over the years encounter dogs of a similar caliber, and they will have the same effect on you that the dogs I mentioned had on me. If you are that fortunate it will always remind you why you wanted to judge dogs in the first place.