Fri, 02/23/2024 - 7:29pm

Fifty Years

Sid Marx celebrates a half-century of judging

I recently was honored to receive a letter from the American Kennel Club acknowledging the fact that I have been an approved judge for 50 years.

As I replied to the AKC Judging Operations Department, the AKC and the show community have been a major part of my life, and I have loved my time in the ring surrounded by our wonderful dogs. This letter has caused me to pause and look back at some of the changes I have seen in my more than 50 years as part of this community.

My very unsuspecting start came the day I was walking my first Irish Setter, Scott’s Lady, near my home, and this elderly man came over and started to run his hands all over her. I thought he was a nut, but it turned out that he was an AKC judge, James Wright, and he was the first to even make me aware that there were such things as dog shows.

Although I was not aware of dog shows, I do remember how proud we were to own an AKC-registered dog. It was kind of a status symbol then for most people, and it was respected. I certainly don’t think that is true today.

He became my first mentor, and a few months later, I showed Lady in my first match show. She won a blue (actually, pink) ribbon, and my life’s path was changed forever! At that time, I lived on Long Island, and there were match shows all over the Northeast — all-breed and specialty — held on a very regular basis, with some having entries that would more than rival a lot of today’s all-breed shows. Matches were great learning grounds for dogs, handlers and judges, and it is a true shame that there are so few today. Entries at specialty shows (Irish Setters, for example) would regularly exceed 100, and it was not unusual to have entries nearly that large at all-breed shows. It is sad for me to see specialty shows today with entries of 25 or less.

As with many others, my path started as an exhibitor and breeder. Jim Wright had one of the finest Labradors I have ever seen, and he introduced me to Marianne Cook, who owned White Oak Kennels — a Labrador and Pointer kennel. After a couple of years, I became her assistant. Working with — and hunting over — these great Sporting dogs, I learned to appreciate why a dog has to be built a certain way to perform its function. 

Eventually I went out on my own as a handler, and somewhat successfully showed many Irish and English Setters, Pointers and Labradors in addition to Beagles, Springers, Chesapeakes, English Cocker Spaniels and Basenjis. I competed against some of the greatest handlers ever — the Forsyths, Bill Trainor, Bobby Barlowe and Laddie Carswell — as well as competing against some great breeders: Marjorie Martorella (Pointers), Joyce Nilsen and Ted Eldredge (Irish Setters), Julie Gasow (English Springers), Jerry Weiss and family (Labradors), Helga Tustin (English Cockers) and others.

I still remember fondly the Foley Boys. These were men who worked for the main show superintendent in the area at that time, Foley Dog Shows, which later became Moss-Bow-Foley. They got to know the regulars, and they would automatically reserve a space for you under the tents, and they were there to unload you when you arrived and load you up when you were ready to leave.

In 1973 I was contacted by Len Brumby, an AKC executive officer, who said he would like me to become a judge, and he would start me with four breeds: three Setters and Beagles. That was my start. Moving from a handler/exhibitor to a judge was a learning experience — not just in the ring. At my first assignment, I was walking — with my head down so I wouldn’t have improper contact with my friends and handlers — through the grooming tent on the way to the rings. As I passed Laddie Carswell – a very good friend of mine — he said, “Hey, are you too good to say hello now?” He was semi-kidding, but it was my first lesson. If you are my friend, you stay my friend whether I am judging or not, but in the ring, I am judging dogs — not judging you. 

In the ring, judging the first class that came in, I felt myself just standing and staring. I finally snapped out of it, and I remember the AKC rep at the time — it may have been Connie Barton — telling me, “They don’t get better if you keep staring at them. Make your decision and move on.” I know it took me a little time to finally become fully comfortable standing in the middle of the ring, but I learned something every time I judged — and every time I added a breed — and I still do. That’s one reason I don’t understand those whose goal seems to be to add as many breeds as they can as quickly as they can. They are not doing justice to themselves, and they certainly are not doing justice to the breeds they add as if they were gobbling up a handful of M&Ms. Actually, I think I took more than 20 years to finish the Sporting Group because I wanted to be comfortable — and fair — with each breed I judged.

We have a few judges today who I consider icons, and there were a few many decades ago also. I remember showing to Alva Rosenberg, Beatrice Godsol, Bill Kendrick, Percy Roberts, Winnie Heckman and Anne Rogers Clark. More than anything, the thing I remember most about the judges then is that we respected their position, and showed some class if we didn’t win. That is certainly missing at times today — and both of those things represent their respective times.

We didn’t have clusters then, but living in the Northeast I could get to a show any weekend within 300 miles. We would drive to a show on Friday, show Saturday, pack up after the Saturday show, and drive to the next show scheduled for Sunday. Even though there were no clusters, we still found time to sit around at the show and talk dogs, and pedigrees, and to plan breedings. Today we may be in one place for four or five days and yet most people just want to show their dogs and leave.

I still remember that whenever I had to drive over the Throgs Neck Bridge, there was an exit where I would get off to go buy a bagful of White Castle hamburgers. The timing was perfect on my way home, as usually as I pulled into my driveway, Nature called!

Speaking of travel, we seldom flew our dogs coast to coast on a regular basis. Dogs would be flown from all over for Westminster Kennel Club, but long-range travel of dogs was quite limited. We also did not have the ability for international breeding as we do now, thanks to modern veterinary medicine. Because of limited long-range travel, most breeding programs were confined within a reasonable geographic area. This gave rise to very specific differences in styles of dogs within a breed. For example, Irish Setter in the East Coast were stamped with qualities from Trivelda, Red Barn, Meadowlark, Kimberlin, Bayberry and a few others, while those on the West Coast represented qualities from Thenderin and Rendition, and Draherin (Lucy Jane Myers) represented the Midwest. 

Fifty years ago, the American Kennel Club — and those who owned AKC-registered dogs — considered commercial breeders as the dark side and wanted nothing to do with them. Through the years there seems to have been a wavering love-hate relationship with them. I don’t believe this has been a positive for our community.

For the most part, Junior handlers today are much more polished than when I started — although we had a few excellent Juniors. I remember my oldest son taking his Beagle into Junior showmanship competition that was being judged by Barbara Brodie. Truth be told, Barbara considered herself to be Scott's godmother. After winning that class, he walked out of the ring and never showed again because "That was too easy." 

In those days, judges could ask Juniors questions. There was a time I judged a Junior entry on a stage in a large convention center in Atlantic City, and I asked a Junior what her dog (Golden Retriever) was bred for. She replied, “He is a show dog,” I smiled and said, “I understand that, but what does he do in the field?” She looked shocked and said, “Oh, he doesn’t go in the field. He would get stickers in his coat.” Out of the mouth of babes!

We looked forward to receiving the printed copy of the AKC Gazette, where we would check for show wins, articles and actions taken by the AKC. It is a magazine that I sorely miss in print form, and I think many of us do.

There was no such thing as the National Owner-Handled Series. Owner-handlers and professionals competed head to head (actually, their dogs competed), and although Harry Proctor, Charlie Westfield and Erwin Hutzman started the Owner-Handlers Association, I don’t remember there being vitriolic competition between owner-handlers and professionals. Within the past couple of decades, the National Owner-Handled Series experienced remarkable growth, and as with most things, there are pros and cons to it. There is no doubt that the NOHS has increased entries, and we are seeing quality dogs being shown that may have stayed home before this series was started. However, to be honest, there are a few who take NOHS too far, and are absolutely nasty and poisonous with their attitudes and remarks. 

We also did not have Grand Champions. It is undeniable that the Grand Championship competition has increased entries, and kept quality dogs in the show ring. Both these programs have been positives for our sport. One unusual thing that has happened because of the Grand Champion competition is that many times there are more “specials” entered than there are class dogs. Of course, there are many times we can ask ourselves, exactly what is a special? I think there are many differences of opinion about that, which could be the topic for another day. 

So, is our community better off today than it was 50 years ago? Hmmm, that’s a tough question. The number of shows we have I see as a detriment to having quality dogs throughout entries. Simply put, there are too many. For almost all breeds I think the grooming and presentation is better, but the dogs of today would be considered over-groomed compared to those from 50 years ago. I think coats are healthier and longer, but is that necessarily better? I do think the average exhibitor in the 1970s-1980s knew their breed standard better than many today. I think the fact that more people stayed and watched other breeds and groups than we see today made for better-rounded exhibitors than those of today who show and go. 

So, like with almost anything, we have trade-offs. I do believe we would be better off today if we brought back more match shows.

So, all in all, I am thankful for the more than 50 years I have had in this community, and I have loved almost all of it.

What do you think?



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