Behind the Badge, Part 2
Exactly what is a judge? One of the many definitions appearing in the dictionary for the word judge is a person who can decide on how good a thing is. Or in our case, how good a dog is — or is not. Opinion is also one of the many definitions appearing for the word "judgment."
A dog-show judge, then, is one who decides on how good a dog is when compared to its breed standard and its competitors. And that opinion is a judgment call that becomes a part of the dog’s permanent show record. Breeders are able to depend upon great judges for valid opinions to help guide them in the selection process. Unfortunately, breeders also are at the mercy of others whose opinions might serve to mislead them, taking the breed in the wrong directions.
Learning to sort out opinions of true value and appreciate them accordingly is part of the process of becoming a master breeder. Learning to sort out dogs that belong in the gene pool and value them accordingly is part of becoming both a master-judge and a master-breeder. Vital to the process is to understand that everyone has an opinion — for better or worse. If you question this, just stand at ringside with your mouth closed and your ears wide open.
Consider the judicial branch of our government. American history usually identifies John Marshall as the greatest judge of them all, even though he too had his detractors. As a young man, Marshall greatly admired the general who was to become our nation’s first president — George Washington — while serving under him at Valley Forge. Chief Justice Marshall became famous for his acute knowledge of the law, his keen intellect, and his fairness for just decisions. Marshall’s lasting contribution to his country was the role he played in creating a nation ruled by law and not by men who set themselves above the law. During these formative years of our young nation, he confirmed that the Constitution would be the blueprint for government that we must follow and, therefore, the law of the land.
In the world of dogs, we have the AKC breed standard as the blueprint for interpreting the worth of the dog. The late highly respected judge Percy Roberts believed that the breed standard was the blueprint for the breed; the breeders were the builders for the breed; and the judges were the building inspectors. Like those who operate in our court systems according to the Constitution, dog people operate in their breeding programs and show rings according to the breed standard. Both documents serve to keep us all on the right track.
In the world of great justices, there is a range as strange as in the world of great dog judges. On the one hand, we have very proper intellectuals such as John Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and on the other hand, we have such colorful characters as Judge Roy Bean, the dispenser of "law west of the Pecos" in Texas folklore.
No sport determined by a judgment call is a true sport, according to an important sports-announcing expert at the 2004 Olympics in his statement following a controversial call in gymnastics. Evidently the announcer felt that winners should be identifiable without the necessity of a judgment call. Certainly the outcome of a judgment call in the 2019 Kentucky Derby won by Maximum Security — deprived of his victory by stewards and placed 17th — was the most controversial judgment call in Derby history. And as previously stated, everyone at the dog show has an opinion. And of course each person thinks his/her opinion is the right one. Judgment calls are a part of the outcome in all sports, whether rendered by referees, umpires, racing officials, or dog judges. Most sports combine judgment calls and actual excellence of performance to determine the outcome, while dog show results are determined totally on opinions.
Nonetheless, dog people think of their passion as a special sport. As such it is best to have a variety of intellectuals, characters and delightful people who bring so much to this enterprising activity shared by man and dog. Their personalities include the serious, the studious, the humorous, the intense, the bored, the fascinated and the fascinating.
These are their stories — their thoughts, their fears and their feelings in their own words — on what it’s like to be a judge.
It might sound corny, but I really wanted to put something back into the sport that had done so much for me, so I applied to judge. I thought I could do good things for dogs by making all the right calls. Little did I know that all my friends out there would never see it that way. To them, I became one more former handler whom they ought to be able to count on to put up their dogs. Ouch! For a couple of years, some of my best friends turned on me. In time, they learned what to show me, and I guess we’re okay now.
A lot of guys who get into judging come from the professional handling ranks. When their legs are no longer able to take the punishment week after week, they become judges. Dogs are all they ever knew. Many of them enjoyed only modest success and had few financial resources to fall back on. It was hard for them to make it at first, so they had to rob Peter to pay Paul in order to buy airline tickets in advance and stuff like that. They also had to count on their friends to get assignments. Sometimes their judging reflects their financial needs, as they tend to judge in a way designed to get them lots of assignments. Most of them don’t have any other options – it’s either judge or quit dogs cold. Because they are addicted, and there is no life after dogs for them, they judge.
Some of them were really big winners in their day. And everyone assumed their handling talents would make them talented judges. In time, they re-define themselves and become either exceptional judges or one of the “good ole boys” – sometimes successfully combining both.
Then there are those who desire to wear the badge because it is more attractive to them than the competition of the show ring. Sometimes they just don’t have what it takes in their breeding programs, or their strings of dogs, or handling skills to make it. Judging beckons to them as a safe haven for one who wants to be protected and stay in the game.
Pekingese seem to be a breed nobody agrees on. I’ve listened to the experts sitting at ringside during group judging all over the country for a number of years. I wonder how all these different big-winning Pekes could be either as good or as bad, depending on the dog and on the speaker, as the comments being made. About the time I became aware of this, there were at least four Best in Show Pekes out there being advertised on a regular basis. According to the person giving the tout, one was right and three were wrong. I’m glad I don’t do Toys!
When I first started wearing my badge, I was very impressionable. The VIJs (Very Important Judges) kept my head spinning with their differing messages: Such-and-such, a big winner, was wrong for the breed. How could all these fools put it up? Everyone knows the other one is the best the breed has ever had!
Later, I heard a person who bred that breed successfully say that the dog in question is a pet. I got so confused that I did not know which way to point! It made me realize that consistency in judging would never happen. It’s a crapshoot. So I try to prepare properly and do the best I can.
As a fledgling judge, I was terrified of the hallowed judges the entire dog fancy puts on pedestals. As the day approached for me to judge a prestigious show with such powerful people, anxiety set in – what to wear, what to say, and how to conduct myself became almost as terrifying as actually judging the dogs. Later, I found that once I walked into the ring and focused on the dogs, much of the anxiety disappeared.
Anyhow, that night I arrived in the hotel restaurant and saw there were none of the respected judges there. I was seated by myself at a table for two, had ordered, and started on bread and beverage when the judging greats arrived. Wonder of wonders! They invited me to come and sit with them, pulling tables together and making me feel welcome. They were amiable and warm and even included me in their conversations. When the evening ended, I felt as though my forehead had been stamped “approved” – at least provisionally.
For years, nobody knew my name. My husband was the visible professional handler, and I was in the background, running the set-up, grooming the dogs, and making sure all of them got to the ring. When it was time for us to start judging, his unfortunate death prevented him from joining me in this endeavor. Immediately, those who had walked by me before began addressing me by name, and for decades this was prefaced respectfully by Mrs. In time, social customs changed, people got chummier and chummier, and began calling me by my first name. As a maturing senior citizen, I guess I should be offended. But at least now everyone knows my name.
When you first start judging, one of the things that shocks you the most is the realization that not everybody thinks like you do. I like to picture myself selecting dogs that belong in the gene pool – the traditional “selection of breeding stock theory.” Others seem to select for dogs that please them because they are fault free – dogs that they simply can’t pick apart. Others have their own reasons for selecting entirely different dogs. The longer I judge, the more I realize that maybe this is somewhat healthy for the sport of dogs. At the same time, while it injects a wide variety of opinions into the sport, it also keeps the exhibitors from getting discouraged, because tomorrow is another day. After all, if all of us who judge saw them the same way, there would only have to be one dog show!
It was one of my first judging assignments in my original breed. When the judging program arrived, I was delighted to see I had gotten a huge entry. My breed is a measurable one, and a trusted handler friend of mine told me to be prepared to judge some big ones in this area. So I obtained the wicket from the superintendent and took it to the ring with me, as I planned to measure every entry.
My ring steward and I were both amazed at how rapidly exhibitors began returning armbands before the breed even started. What had been a five-point entry all around dropped to three, but at least the majors held. The good news was that from then on, only the uninformed showed me oversized dogs!
I was thrilled to be invited to judge at a very prestigious outdoor show considered a classic by the fancy. For months before the show, I shopped to find the perfect outfit to wear, and when I did, I really couldn’t afford it. I bought it anyhow, on credit, because it was an ensemble with a raincoat over a matching dress, and I figured this designer outfit would be in style forever.
The weatherman’s prediction of rain was right on target, and my new outfit proved just as utilitarian as fashionable, keeping me dry all day. When the sun finally came out at group time, and it warmed up enough to take off the coat, I removed the purple judge’s badge from the coat so I could pin it on the dress. Much to my horror, it had “bled” all over the coat and the cleaners never could get it out. The coat was ruined.
That was when I learned why judges wear their own customized, personalized badges. It’s not about ego at all; it is to protect their clothes from damage.
It was my very first judging assignment after retiring as a handler. The very first dog in the ring was a Rottweiler puppy that tried to bite me! Ouch! I had to disqualify it. At the time I wondered if it was some kind of bad omen.
Fortunately things quickly improved, and it’s been some time since I’ve had a similar problem. Nonetheless, from time to time I still think of this upsetting incident: What a way to start!
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.
For more Behind the Badge confessions, click here.