Where Do You Sit at National Specialties?
It is national-specialty time!
Excited to attend each year, we plan our vacations accordingly. The show committee prepares years in advance as to location and activities. Selecting judges is a big deal, and club methods vary. We do not agree with everything, but nationals taken as a whole – like the whole dog, rather than in parts – are great! I personally believe these events provide an opportunity to see the best of the best and provide the greatest learning experience for breeder and judge. Most of us agree on this, but there are threads of differences, and our experiences are varied.
Some nationals run for days and there is an opportunity for observing all facets of our sport, from field trialing and rally and obedience to conformation. Some nationals provide worthwhile discussion of the various disciplines and allow hands-on practice. Some provide special educational events where there are give-and-take panels, often consisting of breeders discussing the difficult path to success. However, though there is camaraderie and reunion, insight and “ah ha” moments, it seems we have different responses to what we see.
Quality and Quantity
First, the quality is usually high at nationals, often quite different from an average all-breed show. There are numbers of quality dogs and styles within breed type from which to choose. All have their virtues and faults. A question arises: “Does the judging always stand up to the high quality of the entries?”
After personally drifting from one area to another at the nationals I attended, eavesdropping a bit, I readily conclude that one’s perception of what is happening depends greatly on where one sits and with whom one sits, what camp one is in, and whom one is talking to at the moment. In addition, there are as many points of view as there are seating areas.
What I saw and heard: whispers, grimaces and groans, shouts of glee, eye rolls, absolute quiet at pointing to the winners, cheering and pointing to the winners, surprise, shock. All of these responses are muffled for the most part, our sport in many ways being a conservative one. This quiet response is good, as we could dissuade newcomers from wanting to become involved if this confusion is what they first experience. New people to dogs gradually learn that we can be brutal in competition of the moment, but in crisis mode or need, most of us “dog people” come forward with support and assistance.
Of all the reactions to judging, perhaps a dead silence is the most telling at a national – not a sound for the winner. At this point, not merely a few camps are in shock, but there is consensus: The best dogs were missed. This situation happens rarely, but happen it does.
Clans and Camps
Clans are bonded by bloodlines and ownership relationship. There is a stud-dog owner and his court; this clan sticks together, lamenting losses and relishing wins and/or placements. Between classes, or as dogs wait to be judged, there is the judging from ringside. There is the quiet evaluation of one another’s exhibits. Instead of considering the whole, someone is stating how bad the rear is on this one; the front, the head, the topline on the next. He may actually see this dog every weekend in local competition, and he knows its faults better than anyone. His own dog has a less serious fault, of course!
Occasionally, on the other hand, everyone seems to like a certain dog. He is a standout and is different from the rest. He transcends bloodline; whatever his fault, it is trumped by virtue. This dog fills the eye. No part stands out because his features “fit” the total package; he exudes type aesthetically and functionally. No one is commenting on individual traits such as ears, tail, front or rear. There is less chatter; the decision of the judge is acceptable to most. Everyone applauds this winner and is happy with the judge’s decision.
I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what three long-time breeder/owner/handlers feel is typical or atypical of their nationals. I have asked these Hound fanciers, who have both won and lost at their nationals, to tell us how they see it, from judge’s selection to dogs that win. They have not been asked to name dogs, and some of you may recognize who the breeders are. My questions were posed a few years ago.
Irish Wolfhound Breeder
Please tell us a little about yourself, your breed. Approximately how many nationals of your breed have you attended over the years?
This breeder became involved in purebred dogs in 1968. In 1972, after “looking for a breed with a consistently mellow temperament,” she acquired her first Irish Wolfhound. They whelped their first litter in 1973; they have had only 14 more litters since then and have finished 48 of the 107 Irish Wolfhound puppies they have produced. Their dogs include multiple regional specialty winners, all-breed BIS winners and a national-specialty winner – all owner-handled. A daughter breeds, shows and judges today.
Do you prefer breeder/judges exclusively? All-rounders exclusively? Why?
“We have plenty of breeder-judges to choose from inside the U.S. and around the world. We like having both breeders and all-rounders. It gives you judging from both perspectives and allows you to observe different judges’ opinions on the state of our breed.”
Do you go to the national strictly to win, or to show/compare your stock with others?
“Our first reason is to go and see other breeders’ dogs and share our dogs with them. We never go to win, but we always go with the hope of having our dogs recognized in some way.”
It is said, “Sometimes when you lose, you win.” By this I mean your exhibit, in the opinion of most of your peers drew major approval, but your dog did not win. Is their approval any consolation?
“Yes, we believe this because we have had it happen! Your peer approval is tremendous consolation and, quite frankly, feels just as good as winning.”
Do you feel the judging is better at a national, where there is usually depth of quality, than at regular specialties or all breeds? In other words, do judges select only the best or sometimes select mediocrity from among really good dogs? Does the cream always rise to the top? If not, why do you think the judges fall short?
“In the case of Irish Wolfhounds, the quality is deepest at the national level. We feel both the breeders and the all-rounders have found the best dogs. Many of the final cuts have had more than one worthy winner of a national. In looking back over the years, we really can’t think of a ‘mistake’ being made on the selection of the Best of Breed winner at our national. All in all, we have had good breed representatives found by obviously qualified judges.”
Since it is a great way to learn, should judges have to attend a national not just before, but after they have judged a breed a while to add to their store of knowledge, or attend a performance event to continue their learning curve?
“We would highly recommend any judge of Irish Wolfhounds attend a national before they begin judging Wolfhounds, and then again after they have been judging for a while. This would be very helpful to expand their knowledge, and share thoughts and concerns they may have about what they are seeing around the country in the show ring.”
… about yourself, your breed.
“I have bred Beagles for 30 years. This has included more than 150 AKC champions and four #1 ranked dogs (three Beagles and an English Foxhound).”
Is your club large enough to have a cadre of breeder-judges?
“We are very fortunate to have some good breeder-judges. Breeder-judges are my preference by far. Even if I don’t like their judging, I can still appreciate their winners.”
Do you go to the national strictly to win, or to show/compare your stock with other?
“For me, the national is all about showcasing your breeding efforts to your fellow breeders. The judges whose opinions matter the most are OUTSIDE the ring.”
… sometimes when you lose, you win. Do you believe this, and why or why not?
“When a judge cannot find your dog but all of ringside can, I find this a special kind of annoying. I have observed an interesting phenomenon that goes along with this: On more than one occasion, usually in the Winners class, I have seen the judge struggle with what should be an obvious choice of a truly outstanding specimen in the class. As the judge sends the dogs down and back and around repeatedly, trying to make up his mind … the ringside gets behind the good dog with clapping and cheering, ‘Yes, this is the best one!’ I am not talking about the unsportsmanlike screaming done by individual camps to try to give their candidate the advantage: I am talking about the grassroots swell among the observers where polite applause is given for every exhibit, but they go increasingly wild for the outstanding individual. You can feel the frustration of the crowd, having watched some less-than-stellar class placements leading up the Winners class. And if you are close enough, you will hear the murmur, ‘Come ON, at least get THIS right!’”
Judging … better at nationals? Does the cream always rise to the top?
“The cream does NOT always rise. Many good dogs are left out of the ribbons and lots of mediocre ones are rewarded. The former is often due to sheer exhaustion that judges sometimes experience with such an overwhelming assignment. The latter is usually due to their desire to reward dogs based on their prior accomplishments instead of what they are seeing in the ring on that day.”
Afghan Hound Breeder
This breeder chose not to talk about himself. He is a very modest, serious individual, as anyone who knows him will attest. He has been in dogs for 40-plus years.
Breeder-judges and national judging.
This breeder feels that there are plenty of breeder-judges and/or people who have loved or been involved with the breed for many years who do a great job judging their national.
“In my opinion, no other event can match the national … the entry is usually large and has depth of quality. The winners are usually standouts, although there should be a margin for individual preferences. My own assessment is to try to find the best overall specimens and, after that, decide based on which one I would like to take home if I could.”
When the question of politics at nationals he arises, he says, “Unlikely. I am just not one of those people who thinks that politics plays the huge role that so many want to think is does … I believe if you can breed good dogs and present them well, you will win.”
He has been to about 25 or 30 nationals and says it took him 30 years to win one. He laments the fact that the national has lost some of its childlike excitement and atmosphere. Perhaps, he concedes, it is due to the need for new people in the breed and for the new people to be guided. He feels newbies are often fed information that is self-serving when they need to be guided/mentored toward understanding the standard so they can think for themselves. He loves the latitude of the Afghan standard and laments the fact that so many talk as though their own interpretation is the only one. Newcomers need to talk with many and extrapolate what feels or sounds right to them. He says it takes time to digest some of what is said, and the rest has to be hands on, with tried and true experiences.
Attend to win or…
“For years (some 30), I have gone to nationals and still go just to see the great dogs and talk with other breeders from around the country and even the world. Do I go to win? Well, you always hope to do well, but it was 30 years in the breed before a win at a national happened for me. The Afghan Hound Club works hard to put on a great national every year. Whether you are exhibiting, spectating or judging, it is an honor and a sight to behold. I love to have judges attend the national after they’ve been approved for a while, as most will never see more than one or two together at any given show outside of nationals. That way they can refresh their memory on what a variety of styles we have within the breed, so as to not get stuck on only one style being ‘correct.’ I also think it would be hugely beneficial for judges to attend performance events for breeds to more firmly cement the form-follows-function mantra we try to instill in judges at educational programs.”
So, as one sees from this small sampling of responses to similar questions, we have a good deal of optimism, and a bit of pessimism, but all careful thoughts and opinions from those breeders of experience. How would you answer this set of questions if asked?