When I started showing dogs on the East Coast, there was essentially no such thing as a cluster. We could drive two to six hours in any direction (except directly east – that is called the Atlantic Ocean), and we had two shows a weekend. Often, we packed up after the first show to drive to the second within a couple of hours. We almost always stayed within our region – primarily because there was no need for us to go anyplace else. Of course, we saw the same dogs over and over. When I moved West (Colorado and Arizona), “local shows” meant they were within an eight- to 10-hour drive.
Over the past couple of decades, our dog community has expanded to be a worldwide family. It has become the norm to have dogs imported and exported on a regular basis. For special shows such as Westminster or the AKC show, dogs are flown in from other countries to be shown. With the ease of using frozen semen, international breeding is also spreading. And yet, it has become apparent to me that while we all share many things in our dog family, we also live in a very tightly closed cocoon.
I love to “talk dogs,” and during one discussion with my good friend, the “South American Lady,” she said something that made me think twice and led to this article. Discussing different breeds and the varying STYLES that we have seen (there is only ONE type), she said, “There’s a world beyond the border!” She, of course, was talking internationally, but I think before we look that far from our home base, we need only to look at the differences in style, quality and consistency among our breeds throughout our own country.
I have had the privilege over almost 50 years of judging to crisscross our country many times to judge all-breed shows and specialties. When I started, travel across the country with our dogs was not done very often – usually only from the West Coast to the Westminster show. Breeding programs were also confined, and usually most breeders only used animals within their geographic area. So, it was not surprising that I would see different styles and – to be honest – varying levels of quality depending on in which region I was judging. Sometimes, this makes exhibitors think that a judge is “not consistent,” but – as the saying goes – we can only point at what is in the ring.
To a large extent this has all changed today. Cross-country travel is much more common, and the use of frozen semen makes it unnecessary to transport a dog or bitch for a breeding. This would make you think that quality and “style” would be more consistent across the country. I have not found that to be the case. From a breeder’s point of view, I think it is good to have different strengths (and weaknesses) available. I understand that foreign travel is very difficult, but, at the very least, an effort should be made to attend your breed’s national specialty.
From a judge’s point of view, the different styles geographically require us to sometimes readjust our eyes and mental trade-offs of what we will accept when we judge in different regions. The standard is the blueprint, but that living blueprint is not always available in our ring – so we strive to reward the breed strengths that we find before us.
Like others, I have had the honor of judging in many countries, including national specialties. I must admit that the first time I was the foreign judge, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality in front of me. I quickly realized that I was being the “ugly American,” simply assuming that the quality of dogs in other countries could not match ours. In fact, for some breeds, I have found very real depth of quality when judging overseas. Actually, I have often put up a new dog, and while having the dog’s picture taken, I would ask about the breeding, only to find that it was an import from Sweden, Russia, Australia or many other places.
Although there have been times that breeding to foreign dogs have brought unforeseen health issues – requiring a great deal of research before doing that breeding – there have been many instances when bringing in “new blood” has been a boon for the breed. As my friend from Argentina says, “I wonder if the American fancy pays enough attention to what happens beyond the borders. Granted: more and more beautiful specimens (and semen) are imported for show and breeding purposes. Certainly a ‘win-win,’ since they not only bring genetic material that, hopefully, will help to improve the domestic bloodlines, but also might reflect a different ‘style’ within the standard in the conformation rings. This is always positive. When there’s only one style being shown week after week, our eye gets used to this style, leading us to believe that ‘our’ dogs are ‘almost perfect’ (also underestimating the good features that a different style may carry). These imported dogs may find some trouble when trying to compete in North American rings, especially those breeds where the AKC standard essentially makes docking almost mandatory. For some American judges, this would have them excuse the dog after examination, stating ‘not meeting breed standards.’ As a result, there are wonderful dogs that never step on this land (since those that did dare to do so were confined to ‘the end of the line’ in spite of their quality). Too bad, since Americans seldom ‘go to the mountain,’ they could benefit from ‘the mountain coming to America.’ I remember the case of the beautiful Doberman, Nello’s Lex Luthor. He was born and lived his whole life in Argentina, but he traveled to the U.S. several times in order to be shown and collected. He was a very impressive dog and prepotent stud who seemed to combine wonderfully with the American Dobes of that time. Lex Luthor sired 40 American champions and 100 worldwide. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had the dog been uncropped or undocked.”
This is not the place to argue how to handle undocked or uncropped dogs in the ring – I have done that elsewhere, and surprisingly, it makes a difference to me what the breed is that is being judged. Let me just say that obviously, the standard is the bible, and the breed should be judged in accordance with it. However, judges are given some leeway as to how they handle “faults.”
There’s no such a thing as a “perfect dog,” and all of us need to watch and continue learning in order to build an educated image of our “ideal” for each breed. How can breeders who confine themselves – physically and mentally – to one region or one “breeding line” (always) ever hope to improve? We all know that oft-quoted definition of insanity.
Certainly, judges have their personal preferences when it comes to which “style” of dog they prefer, but we must stretch our minds to recognize quality in others. To adamantly only reward one “style” – assuming everything else is equal (and it never is) – is not judging. A judge is in the middle of the ring to reward strengths and try to help breeders reduce weaknesses in the breed. Winning the big rosette is wonderful and makes for a happy weekend, but we should still be concentrating on judging at the breed level. Sometimes, we know that the dog that is different from everyone else in the ring won’t do well in the group ring. So what? It might be the correct dog. Find the best breed representative. It is time to recognize greatness when it is upon us, and where it comes from doesn’t matter.
What do you think?