Fri, 04/12/2024 - 11:24pm

Ringside Reckoning

Who is responsible for the dogs in front of us?

If you stay around long enough — or maybe just a few months — there will be another iteration of the requirements to be approved as an AKC judge.

It seems there is a constant effort to “improve judging.” I have no problem with this, but I am not sure there has been any improvement. As with anything else, there are good judges and there are bad judges. Maybe the problem is not just the person standing in the middle of the ring.

The latest “judging improvement” program is the Judges Recertification Exam, which judges need to take — and pass — every five years.

Is this exam designed to “improve judging,” or to improve the perception of judging? 

On the negative side, this exam is not designed to determine the judge’s breed knowledge or integrity. (How would you test for that?) Is it, in fact, designed to placate the owner-handlers who complain that judges do not know how to judge this “class”? On the positive side, the exam is designed to improve the judging procedure and knowledge of the rules — especially as pertains to judging the National Owner-Handled Series, which certainly appears to have been the impetus for this program. NOHS has absolutely been around long enough for judges to know how to handle this. Is this test what it is going to take for those few judges to learn how to properly run their ring? 

Whereas I believe the great majority of judges think this exam is to strengthen their understanding of NOHS judging primarily, it may very well be more than that. I got feedback from someone who is certainly in a position to know, and that person shares this: 

“… with all the judges’ breed knowledge — and they may judge perfectly and get the right dog up front — but if they can't mark the … book, or award awards correctly, what is the point of their opinion? The mistakes that are hopefully caught in the judge’s books are astronomical! Just ask any superintendent. You may be the guru of all perfect judges, have expert knowledge on all 200 breeds, but if you can’t translate that to the book — the official records — what is the point? The exhibitors, owner-handlers or pro handlers walk out of the ring shaking their heads when the judge is confused over simply awarding dogs. Do you realize how many judges don't even understand Selects yet? And the NOHS? Still a HUGE mystery. And whose fault is that? Lazy judges who think that the steward will save them or the super will save them or they simply don't care. And it is far from ‘a few’ judges who don't understand NOHS or Selects — it is rampant.”

Wow, I had no idea.

I have no problem with a periodic recertification for judges. This is done in many businesses. But I do wish there was a way to test for what is really required to improve judging: Does Judge A truly know the breed he is judging, and is he judging the dogs in front of him without any other influences — such as where the lead ends? And, unfortunately, there is no way to “test” for dog sense and an “eye for a dog.”

My true concern about the judges’ recertification process is that it is limited to only one aspect of our community. Is that our only problem? I absolutely believe that judges have a responsibility to protect our breeds and to show us in what direction we are heading. What about breeders, exhibitors or handlers? Where do we place the responsibility for the protection and betterment of our breeds? Does the rise or fall of a breed’s quality rest solely in the hands of our judges? Should our desire for improvement be so limited?

Let’s cast aside those few judges who simply do not care about their responsibility and only go through the motions for whatever reason — and they are certainly in the minority. How many times have we heard from judges that “We can only judge what is in front of us”? And who has the responsibility for the dogs in front of us?

Almost every time I have judged Best in Show, I thanked the breeders who sent these dogs to me, because they are truly the most important part of our dog community. Without them, there is no dog community. However, just as all judges are not equal and may not have the same level of knowledge and integrity, so too are there breeders who do not always fulfill their responsibility. To be honest, I am not talking about the so-called commercial breeders, because I don’t consider them breeders — those who are supposed to be concerned about the improvement and preservation of our breeds and their health. 

I believe that, for the most part, our breeders are conscientious, intelligent, caring dog lovers who are the backbone of our community. However, are there “breeders” who sell puppies as “show dogs” or “show potential” who really should know better? Are there breeders who take shortcuts, and may not always check all health clearances before breeding? Are there breeders who don’t take the time to study and understand their breed standard? Are there breeders who don’t study and understand pedigrees, and simply breed to that year’s top winner?

Unfortunately, I believe the answer to all these questions may be “yes.” These so-called breeders are not fulfilling their responsibility, and how often do they blame the person in the center of the ring when their dogs don’t win? Who points to the breeders as a possible problem? Are there breeders who could not pass their breed’s exam?

How about exhibitors? Are there exhibitors who have not taken the time to work with their dog, and to learn how to show that breed properly? Are there exhibitors who don’t pay attention, and after standing outside the ring for three hours, still ask the judge in which direction they should move their dog? (What were they watching?) Are there exhibitors who have not learned the difference between baiting to show their dog at its best and just feeding it? Are there exhibitors who stuff the bait into their dog’s mouth and then put their own head between the judge and dog when the judge is trying to examine the dog’s bite? And when the judge fulfills his responsibility to protect the breeds by withholding championship points from entries that simply should not be rewarded, are there exhibitors who condemn that judge loudly on the dreaded social media?

Again, there are too many “yeses” to these questions.

Professional handlers are also a significant segment of our community. As with our breeders and exhibitors, I have a great deal of respect for true professional handlers. They have chosen a very tough life — no days off, physically and emotionally draining, and the constant pressure of taking care of someone else’s dogs. Are there “professionals” who do not live up to their responsibility? Are there handlers who consistently show dogs that they know do not belong in the ring (dogs that are unfortunately referred to as “gas dogs” or “lunch dogs”)? Are there handlers who groom every dog in a breed the same way, even though their strengths might better be shown if groomed differently? Are there handlers who show every breed the same way, even though that is not proper for a particular breed? Are there handlers who do not realize — or care — that dogs need a break from time to time, and that chasing the (un)holy grail of rankings is not more important than the dog’s physical and mental health in their care?

I am sorry to say that I think there are a lot of “yeses” to these questions, too.

I recently received a phone call from George Alston, and I am glad to report that he is doing well. We talked about many things, including the fact that he did not groom or show every dog the same way, and that there are just a few handlers today that do the same. I was also glad to hear that he is mentoring a young man who is doing very well with his dog. Finding a mentor like this is a very special thing. Although I believe experience is the ultimate teacher, it is important that those experiences be correct, and having a strong mentor is certainly a step in the right direction. Good luck, young man.

Superintendents can help by laying out rings with enough room for our bigger dogs to properly move and by scheduling some time for judges to have pictures taken, so that they don’t have to miss lunch. Show chairs can help by some intelligent breed assignments. Do you think judges can be in top form if they are schedule to judge 175 dogs, three NOHS groups and two regular groups in a day – and the next day be scheduled for just 50 dogs and then have to sit around and wait to judge NOHS Best in Show on the last day of the cluster?

I believe AKC can do a much better job of “marketing” purebred dogs and positioning them properly against designer dogs. Isn’t that more of a responsibility than finding other products in which to invest to try to improve profits? Isn’t saving and preserving purebred dogs what the AKC registry was originally supposed to do, and isn’t that more important than making huge profits? (And, yet, somehow, most of these different products never seem to work out.)

It can be said that we are the people we touch while we are here and the stories we leave behind. It should also be said that all of us have a responsibility to ourselves, our community, those who will come after us, and, most importantly, to our dogs.

How about you? Are you living up to your responsibility to our community and your dogs?

There is a Greek proverb that says, “A society grows when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” It’s time for this generation to start planting trees.

What do you think?


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