It’s one of the most withering things an exhibitor can say about a judge – lips pursed, eyes narrowed to credit-card-thin slits, words spit out like a major leaguer unloading a tired wad of chewing tobacco:
“She doesn’t like my breed.”
As stinging a rebuke as that is, it may actually be true. Because who’s to say that judges have the same level of affection for all the breeds they judge?
Consider the math: The American Kennel Club currently recognizes 195 breeds, and counting. (Add still another this summer, with the arrival of the Belgian Laekenois.) Even if you judge only a dozen breeds, is it realistic to think that you will have the exact amount of passion for each?
Plunk yourself down in the middle of this metaphor: You’re at the wedding of a friend’s daughter. Naturally, you’re going to gravitate toward the parents of the bride, and any friends or family you have in common. If you are seated at a table with unfamiliar faces, a little small talk might reveal someone with a similar hobby or profession, or perhaps you just “click.” Delighted, you settle in for a lovely evening of conversation in between ear-blaring renditions of the Chicken Dance.
Just as likely, however, you don’t find anyone with whom you would share two words in a different context. But, unless you were raised by wolves – which, actually, is unfairly disparaging, as those wild canids have very precise social structures – you put down your smart phone, and do your best to be polite and make as much conversation as you can muster. The more well-rounded you are, the better job you can do of drawing out your dinner companion, and you just might find some common ground that wasn’t immediately obvious.
Let’s leave our wedding table (and, yes, if you must ask, I did snag the floral centerpiece), and return to the ring. Sensibly, the AKC dictates that we start our judging careers with the breeds we know best. Some who survive the experience find the pluck to judge others –understandably and wisely, usually related ones.
Unfortunately, this approach often runs afoul of group classifications. If you judge Greyhounds and Whippets, for example, Italian Greyhounds are a natural progression, despite the fact that they reside among the Toys and not Hounds. (Yes, that’s a bone of contention for some, but, moving on ...) Similarly, as its name all but shouts, the Bullmastiff is a cross between the Mastiff and the Bulldog, though the latter is in Non-Sporting, not Working, as are the other two breeds in the equation.
Eventually, even the purest of souls realizes that it’s time to buckle down and focus on completing an entire group. This isn’t just a matter being “marketable” to bottom-line-focused show chairs, but also being willing to go outside your comfort zone: It’s exponentially more work to learn about an unfamiliar breed with which you have no point of reference. There’s nothing to do about it except summoning up your self-discipline and wading into the shallow end of the pool, shivers and shrinkage be damned.
But all the good intentions in the world don’t mean you’ll fall head over heels for a breed. If this was so, arranged marriages would be far more popular. Even Annie Clark admitted there were breeds she had difficulty with, and not for want of trying. Some breeds, like olives or sushi, are just an acquired taste. Learning to appreciate them comes from burrowing into their history to find some point of connection – just like our awkward wedding reception – and being exposed to them multiple times, ideally with a talented mentor.
Back to our irate exhibitor. While I understand her anger, she’s chosen the wrong verb. A judge doesn’t have to like a breed in order to judge it – at least, not at first, as any relationship is a process. But a judge does have to respect that breed.
Respect, after all, doesn’t require a deep dive into breed lore. It’s simply a nod to the validity of a breed and to the dedication of its fanciers. It acknowledges that the breed has its own culture, its own idiosyncrasies. And it doesn’t expect a breed to hit the same bar as another, unrelated breed; instead, it accepts a given breed on its own terms.
Perhaps the greatest insult that can be lobbed at a breed is to suggest that it does not appear purebred. In conversations both real and virtual, I’ve heard that derogation leveled at a number of breeds, from Sloughis to Chinooks, Cesky to Glen of Imaal terriers.
Not every breed has had the benefitted of a great, transforming presence in its ranks. Not every breed gets a Julia Gasgow or a Doug Johnson, someone whose vision and obsession with quality tramples any reservations from the connoisseurs who decide what breeds are enshrined in the pantheon, and which are lesser gods. But in order to even start the process of American Kennel Club recognition, a breed must have verifiable pedigrees that go back a minimum of 40 years. (And usually far longer.) That’s four decades in which some dedicated souls took the time, energy and resources to sustain a breed they believed in. To keep that kind of a commitment, “like” does not suffice. You need love – crazy, unmitigated, passionate, reality-obliterating love. And such dedication demands due regard, regardless of the state of the breed at the moment.
The root of the word “respect” goes back to Latin: re, meaning “again,” and specere, which is “to look back.” And that’s all respect is, really: Just the acknowledgment of all that has come before to will this breed into being, and then to sustain it against all obstacles. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of a breed’s history – or a warm feeling in your tummy – to muster that.
So channel your inner Aretha Franklin when you’re confronted with a breed you don’t like – or, better put, that you don’t completely understand yet. If you read the lyrics to “Respect,” the Queen of Soul’s not asking for a house in the suburbs or a trust fund. She’s asking the inattentive man that she bankrolls to not treat her like an utter and complete piece of nothingness.
Sock it to me, indeed.