Behind the Badge
Ever wonder what goes through a judge’s mind? What was he or she thinking?
Truth is, judges are real people just like you and me. They have aches and pains; they have good days and bad days; and they have likes and dislikes. Judges put on their pants just like everyone else, one leg at a time. Judges eat one meal at a time and wear one outfit at a time, too. And judges can be as different as night and day, even the same judge on the same day!
Like everybody else, a few judges are set in their ways and close the door to improve their performance. Yet many more are not only willing to keep open minds, but eager to do so when it comes to learning more about the breeds. With the judges who talked to me, it truly is about dogs. To the precious few I think of as national treasures, judging is a calling.
Because I always wondered what did go through their minds, I started collecting these stories when I married a judge and started judging myself. Personal stories from the heart were spoken with candor and on condition of anonymity. They are being passed on to you as they were told to me. In sharing their experiences, judges also share their passion for the wonderful world of dogs in stories that are shared with you just as they were with me, in the first person.
I found out judges are warm, sincere, have a great sense of humor, and work hard to learn their breeds. They care about dogs, they care about dog people, and they treasure their extended dog family of friends. I also came to learn that we make too much of our differences in assessing dogs and people who judge them, and we make too little of our similarities.
To you, the more than 100 AKC judges who freely shared your stories, go my unending thanks. By trusting me to keep your identities confidential, you have brought the fancy treasures of special moments and memories.
Because of you and your stories, dog shows become more meaningful to all. One universal message that comes through loud and clear from each and every one of you is this: “I want to get it right.”
Below are these judges' stories, in their own words, just as they told them to me. — Pat Trotter
I hadn’t been judging very long when I was asked to do a specialty show in a breed I knew well. Trouble was, I knew the players well, too! Anyhow, I got to the Open class and everybody important in the breed was in the ring, including a well-known breeder with a truly nice dog. Unfortunately, a teenage girl I had never seen before had one I liked even better because it was more correct in head properties and feet.
Alas! What to do, what to do? Anticipating a backlash from the “rich and famous,” I went ahead and did the only thing I could do — I put the kid up.
After it was all over, I saw the breeder — who had gone second — headed in my direction, and I wished the ground would open and swallow me. Wonder of wonders, she smiled and said, “Well, you passed the test. You put up the best one, and I am proud of both my granddaughter and the dog.”
It was a new breed the AKC was bringing into the loop, so several of us went to a seminar on the breed held right at one of the show grounds on the January Florida circuit. The seminar was a little late starting, so we used the time to study the new breed standard to get ready for the lecture.
After an extended talk and displaying several specimens of the breed, the presenter asked if there were any questions. Since the demonstration dogs all had differing key characteristics and none of them looked alike, a judge asked which one had the correct croup. With that question, the presenter looked blankly at our audience of judges and asked, “What’s a croup?”
Who educates the educators?
When it came to doing homework, no one could match my late hero, who was a true intellectual on dogs. His well-stocked library on dogs was a constant source of his attention as he studied and applied the knowledge accumulated from the past. Once he told me that a Terrier I was showing needed to be thrown in with some rats to develop a keener expression! When I started judging, I realized that he combined the best of all worlds – that elusive “eye for a dog” and the integrity and knowledge that gave him so much wisdom to apply it. He was truly a self-educated man, and I still wish for him back to discuss many issues of concern.
I’ll never forget how surprised I was the first time I attended the breed seminars sponsored by the Dog Judges of America in conjunction with Westminster. (These seminars are no longer held at the Garden.) I was a new judge of one breed and was trying to accumulate the necessary educational experiences to provide the paper trail to advance, as well as learn more about dogs. I expected to see other newcomers like myself in attendance.
What really astounded me was seeing all-breed judges, judging icons and multi-group judges participating with peons like me to learn more about each breed. Not only did this knowledge give me new respect for the process, but it also gave me even more respect for those judges.
When I attended the American Kennel Club’s Judging Institute, I learned that part of your preparation to become a judge means learning to deal with the public. Judges must use their authority with fairness and calmness, being polite to exhibitors through the entire judging procedure. After all, it is supposed to be a civil sport.
But judges are only human, and, just like exhibitors, they can have a bad day. Things could be in turmoil at home, a judge can be ill but push on anyhow, and life can be taking a most unpleasant turn.
I personally try to keep in mind the wise advice of one of the AKC reps who spoke to us about this personal issue. If you are not up to conducting your assignment properly on a given day, don’t go. Allow the club to find another judge rather than putting yourself through an ordeal that reflects poorly on the sport in general and yourself in particular. Certainly it is admirable when those who are able to do it right keep on in spite of personal setbacks, but not everyone is up to that. A recent event in my family had me so undone I did miss a show. I was grateful for the guidance of the rep at that particular AKC Institute, for it saved me from embarrassing myself.
Long before I started judging, I ring-stewarded for some of our really prominent judges. It was a great learning experience. Following the judging of a large Rottweiler entry at a humongous benched show, a handler came back to our ring and caught the judge on break.
He asked this Southern gentleman, “How much emphasis do you place on heads?”
“Sir,” replied the judge, “I never put up a dog without one!”
One of the things you have to love about all of us who judge is our willingness to share our ignorance. A new Best in Show judge wanted all to know he was eagerly studying breed standards of the group winners at ringside while waiting for the grand finale. However, the studying of the Sealyham standard would be of limited value to the judge on this occasion, because the West Highland White won the Terrier Group!
Taking tests terrifies me. I have only an elementary-school education and am not a good reader. Closed-book tests had the power to keep me from judging, so I welcomed the AKCs open-book tests on breed standards. I have since realized that many educated people who are very capable “test-takers” are not good judges. The ability to memorize and quote things from the breed standard is not the same as the ability to understand what the breed is about and how to evaluate it. I am lucky because I think I can do that and sort the dogs out correctly.
Even when I was still a high school student, I knew there was a lot of difference between school and real life. A lot of so-called educational activities such as seminars sometimes confuse the issue as much as they help. Not all of them are bad — a lot of them are very good. Still, there is a big difference between make-believe decision-making and the real decisions you make in the ring. It’s so much easier to judge the judge from outside of the ring than it is to take the ultimate test: judging dogs from inside the ring!
When I first started judging, having a dog library was important. In addition to the other things expected of you, the AKC wanted you to read books on dogs. I kept my nose buried in a book on one breed or another for years (and still do!) and felt it most productive in helping me learn more about dogs. In those days, people found time to discuss dogs, learn from the experts, visit big kennels to experience “hands-on” learning, and become well-versed in canine expertise.
Today it seems you can do fifty percent of your preparation on more than one breed in a single day. If you follow up with an in-ring observation and attend a specialty or judge a sweepstakes, you are ready to apply for those breeds. Even the testing has changed from closed-book, monitored testing to open-book testing done in the privacy of your own home. I guess the world of the dog show is not immune to the dumbing-down of America.
The dog fancy that developed the concept of the dog show serving as a place to select breeding stock is no longer the culture that the dog show serves. Often people at the dog show do not want an opinion, even though they paid for it, and you have worked hard to be able to administer a proper one.
No, what these people want is a given win that meets their standards rather than the breed standards. Respect for the process is lost in this quest for personal goals. There are more educational requirements than ever before for the judges. My question is, “Who’s educating the breeders and exhibitors?” Judges can only judge what is brought before them.
The AKC was still giving hands-on tests when I started judging, so I had to take a hands-on in Whippets. The testers were a multi-group judge, a breeder judge and an AKC rep. Unbeknownst to me, one of the Whippets was an aging former national-specialty winner. She was overweight and out of condition. I did not use her, much to the dismay of the testers. Needless to say, I failed the test.
I felt I had been unjustly treated. After all, the bitch had lost her underline, her cleanliness of neck and shoulder, and the “look” that had won her the national. I decided to appeal my case by writing a letter to the AKC. In stating my case, I described all of it in detail, including how anxious and tense I had been about taking the test right from the start. By the time I traveled to the show and began the test, I was a nervous wreck. I described the lineup of dogs in detail and explained my reasons for my choices. I closed my letter by stating that I was so nervous that day that I doubted if I could pick my own wife out of a line-up of six other women.
Guess what? They gave me Whippets!
For Part 2 of "Behind the Badge," click here.