Fri, 03/29/2024 - 4:59am

Heavy Handed

A firm but gentle touch is best

I have heard judges described with many words — most of which I cannot print here. Two of the more colorful — and self-explanatory — are masseuse/tickler or heavy-handed.

Let’s start out by agreeing that the correct way for a judge to examine your dog is with a firm — but gentle — hand that gives him the feedback he needs to determine the dog’s structure. Anything more or less than that is simply for show or icing on the cake.

The “masseuse” or tickler is the judge who barely touches the dog — actually, may even be tickling him. I think this judge barely touches the dog (some don’t even do that), only because AKC says he must. These same judges will tell you that with many short-haired breeds — such as Pointers, Dobermans, Beagles, etc. — “what you see is what you get.” To a certain extent, that may be correct, however: (1) Every dog should basically be examined the same way, and (2) There are times that a judge is surprised when the dog’s shoulders or length of rib cage are not what it would appear from across the ring, or (3) The substance seen may be the result of what little brushed out or blown-out coat there is, because today’s handlers and groomers are magnificent.

I have also seen comments by exhibitors that a few judges appear to be afraid of their breed, and barely touch it, much less check the bite properly. This is inexcusable, and that judge should simply not accept an assignment to judge this breed. Of course, this assumes that the handler is able to properly control the dog that is being examined.

At the other end of the spectrum are the judges considered to be “heavy-handed.” These judges are definitely ones to whom I would never show a dog — win or lose. Certainly, some breeds — such as the Old English Sheepdog — require a judge to “dig into” the coat, but there are right and wrong ways to do that. A dog should never have to flinch or yelp because of how a judge is touching him. There is no reason to dig fingers into a dog to feel the shoulder layback, or to “smack” it on the back when done examining it. Let the handler do that if he wishes to do so. The judge has no idea what that “slap” might mean to the dog.

There is absolutely no reason for a judge to be heavy-handed when examining a dog. Those of you who are showing young dogs or puppies should be acutely aware of this. 

How many of you have the integrity that one of my best friends has? He won the group under a judge whom he felt was very heavy-handed on his dog. This person never complains, but he was so upset by the judge’s examination that he even mentioned it to the AKC representative. And guess what? This same judge is shortly judging another big show where my friend’s dog should certainly have a chance to win, but he is not going to enter because he does not want his dog to have that experience again.

Would you show to the heavy-handed judge who just put your dog up? By the way, just because it is a bigger dog does not mean you have to handle it any rougher or be more heavy-handed. 

A dear friend of mine just reminded me of how important it is for judges to understand the proper way to examine a coat. There are breeds whose grooming took MANY hours: Poodles, Terriers, to mention some. I so hate when judges go over them and "destroy" their grooming. NO NEED! No need to flatten their coat; no need to grab a full leg with one hand, spoiling the furnishings; no need to flip topline hair against the grain (which, BTW, tickles the dog or simply makes it uncomfortable!), forcing the handler to re-comb the whole dog again before moving. I always thought that this was a lack of respect of the judge for the work of the handler, AND lack of knowledge about proper procedure to examine this particular breed.

I am reminded of when I was learning to check proper coat on a Terrier. Very often on a Sporting breed, a judge runs his hand backward against the coat to see the quality and how it lays back down. One of my wonderful mentors — Bergit Coady-Kabel — was teaching me about Terrier coat (on a Miniature Schnauzer), and as I went to run my hand backward on the coat, she grabbed it with much more force than I expected and said — as only she could — “They will kill you if you do that!” Lesson learned.

My wife just stewarded for a judge who was faced with a young dog who was obviously frightened and/or nervous. This dog simply did not want the judge to go behind him. To this judge’s credit — and experience — he stayed near the front of the dog, talked softly to him, started petting him from his head back and slowly allowed his hand to move closer and closer to the dog’s butt, until he finally was able to examine what he wanted. Thank you to a good judge.

At the other end of the extreme was a judge who had to examine a Saluki in the group. This dog also did not want the judge behind him, and kept spinning around to get away (no teeth were shown or growling). The judge tried a few times, but there was no change. Finally, instead of just properly excusing the dog, the judge told the handler to “just hold the dog tightly and I will grab him from behind.”

NOT! This is an instance where an AKC rep should have immediately stepped in and had a discussion with the judge — maybe even leading to a suspension. This is a judge who has absolutely no “dog sense.”

To the handler’s credit, she said, “Thank you, but I will just excuse my dog,” and she walked out. Good for her. Although we would prefer not to allow a dog to “get away with” poor or improper behavior, it is better to excuse the dog rather than ruin it forever. The time for positive training can come later under less stressful circumstances. There are too many shows and too many good judges for you to place your dog in a difficult position.


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There is also always talk about judges who will or will not allow bait in their rings. The problem for most judges is not the use of bait — it is over-baiting, or what is commonly called feeding in the ring. Imagine trying to check the dog’s bite when his mouth is filled with liver or some other gross bait. And, of course, it is always special to step back to get a good look at the dog’s head and expression while he is gobbling down a piece of chicken. So, I have no problem with the proper use of bait; however, if you throw the bait, I will wait while you go fetch it — even if you threw it out of the ring.


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Then there are the judges who most exhibitors believe will only put up a dog that is very well trained and expertly shown. I am sure there may be judges who do not look kindly on untrained or overly excited dogs in their ring, but I would hope they are in a very small minority. None of us started out as extremely competent handlers who were lucky enough to show a perfectly trained dog. Of course, most of us were lucky enough to grow into this community when there were a plethora of match shows and training classes available. Unfortunately, most of those are no longer available, so young or inexperienced dogs are now started at specialties or all-breed shows out of necessity.

Here are my two caveats when it comes to showing young or puppies to me: (1) Let it be a puppy and enjoy itself, and (2) Don’t put too much pressure on the dog to stand still. That does not mean that I will ignore the puppy when looking for my Winners. I have put up many puppies because, in spite of the lack of perfect stacking, the puppy had better breed type, and deserved the win. After all, I am judging the quality of the breed — not Senior Showmanship. 

Finally, when we are talking about young or inexperienced dogs, take the venue into consideration also. There are some show sites — especially those inside — that are very noisy with a lot of echoes. Actually, I have a dog like that, and when I was showing him, I would walk him through the building as much as I could, and then try to limit his showing to outdoor rings. Use a little (not so common) dog sense. 


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And now, let me get back on my soapbox to discuss two issues that need to be addressed.

First, it is unfair — and bordering on animal abuse — to leave a dog unattended in a crate, barking and whining. Not only is this annoying and unfair to those around him – including the judge in the ring — but the poor dog is frightened and unhappy. Is this really what we want for our dogs? I truly believe if an AKC rep sees this — or is advised of it — action should be taken. If a warning doesn’t seem to do anything, I would call a bench show committee. 

I have had occasion where a dog was left outside the ring in which I was judging, and the poor thing kept barking and whining. I waited until the “handler” finally returned to the crate and went to address the situation with her. She told me she was a professional handler and had other dogs to take care of.

I told her (1) You are not a professional handler — you are simply someone with a show lead. I will find the owner of this dog and tell them how their dog is being protected. (2) I will now go to the AKC rep and report you for animal abuse. “Now, young lady, you can either learn from this and get better, or you can tell me (not out loud) to go to hell, and continue what you are doing. How do you think the animal-rights people would report this? I will see that the other judges hear about it also. Make a wise choice.” I never heard one of her dogs left alone and barking again.

What do you think?



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