Fri, 03/31/2023 - 12:30am

Finding Your Own Level

Breeders, exhibitors, handlers and judges aren't all on equal planes

I am certainly not alone, but I am one of the strongest advocates and supporter of our dog-show community. Yet all is definitely not perfect. I like to think we all compete and are judged on a level plane. However, I must admit there are different levels in our community. We have different levels of breeders, exhibitors, handlers and judges. 

When I first came into this community, it was toward the end of the big-kennels era. Some of the top handlers – such as Bob and Jane Forsyth – were fortunate to handle for a few of the remaining large kennels. Joyce Nilsen handled dogs from her own Irish Setter kennel (Thenderin) and those of others who primarily had bought dogs from her. Competing against the choice dogs from these kennels was no easy chore, but it could be done at times. The large kennels – often with the assistance of their handlers – could pick and choose which dogs to keep and show (and to which judges) and which ones to sell off. 

Finances and social thought today have made it practically impossible to have a kennel of any significant size, so much of what we see are the products of what is commonly called “backyard breeders.” This is by no means meant as a derogatory term, as many of these breeders have consistently produced high-quality breed representatives. There is a fine line between someone who is considered a consistent quality breeder and a “puppy mill.” There are certainly different levels of breeders, ranging from the person who breeds one litter – and I don’t necessarily consider them a breeder – to those who produce consistent high quality. As a judge, I can usually recognize dogs that come from quality breeders, and I appreciate them. So, if a judge seems to consistently reward dogs from a specific breeder, is that a bad thing? I think not, if they are good dogs. That is the goal, after all.

As we, hopefully, welcome new exhibitors to our community, it is often difficult for them to recognize the different levels of amateur exhibitors and how to react to them. The “newbies” are important to our survival. They are easy to spot in the ring, since they are concentrating so hard on what they think they are supposed to be doing that the stress seems to emanate from them. I would hope that judges – and fellow exhibitors – try to help them relax, and help them where they can.

At the other end of the spectrum are the exhibitors who have shown for many years, and are certainly competitive no matter who else is in the ring. These exhibitors take advantage of the fact that they only have one or two dogs to show, and so they are groomed immaculately, and practice allows dog and handler to work smoothly as a team. This is the level that the new exhibitors should strive to attain, and they should watch every move they make.  

By the way, Junior Showmanship judging should always be scheduled to allow the more accomplished juniors go first so the newer juniors can watch them. Show chairs can do this by instructing the superintendent to schedule this way. 

Some might think there are not levels to professional handlers, but there absolutely are. The bottom level is those who have a show lead and advertise themselves as professionals. They may win from time to time, but they are not what I consider professionals. Next are those who have earned their stripes by being an assistant for a while, and have learned their craft. The third level are those who have been professionals for quite a while, have all the necessary equipment, facilities and assistants to help. These do quite a bit of winning.

For me, the top level is where the real pros reside. These few have all the qualities of level three, plus they know when to give their dogs a break from the ring (even if they are on a winning streak), can sense when their dogs are not up to their best, and their dogs obviously love them. These are simply the best.  

Judges also fall into different levels – or tiers – and that have nothing to do with how many breeds or groups they are approved to judge. They range from maybe two or three that I would not allow to judge a rock to those whose opinions should be valued and used in your breeding program. Theoretically, all judges have had the same opportunities to learn, but in reality, some have worked the system to add breeds as quickly as possible, while others have chosen to take their time to make sure they understand each breed for which they are approved. There are also those who desire to be approved for all breeds (for whatever reasons), and there are others who only want to judge their own breed or within that breed’s group.  

It is costly – both in terms of money and time – to get approved to judge a breed. Some immerse themselves in understanding a breed, while there are a few who appear at the seminars to get the “box checked,” and then seem to disappear as the class goes on. Judges know who these are, and they deserve – and get – very little peer respect.

Although there may indeed be some instances of poor judging, I believe most judges are knowledgeable and try to do their best to get it right. Of course, opinions may differ, but that is vastly different from plain bad judging. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to get rid of the out-and-out bad judges; clubs can stop them by not hiring them, and exhibitors can simply not show to them. I enjoy watching the good judges. I may not always completely agree with their decisions, but I can understand their choices and often learn from watching and speaking with them.

I think the two toughest things to do as a judge are to maintain your enthusiasm when you are tired or judging a poor entry. In a former life I was the training director for a large organization, and I would remind my trainers that although you may be teaching this class for the 200th time, the class in front of you is seeing it for the first time. This is how good judges approach every class.

Unfortunately, I think too many people consider the results of judging to simply be the placements; they take their ribbons and then move on to the next class with no further thought. In reality, judging is supposed to be the natural evolution from when you had your puppies graded. The placements should be showing breeders what is good – in this judge’s opinion – and what needs a little more attention in your breeding program. That is what our good judges are doing – judging the results of breeding. It is important because we have all seen where a dog becomes a big winner – maybe because of showmanship, flash or … whatever – and he may not be a proper representative of your breed standard. Unknowing people then keep breeding to this dog, and the breed goes into a downward spiral that is very difficult to reverse. Sometimes there are things we don’t want to know but have to learn.

There are judges who consistently judge generically because they have not learned the breeds they are judging in depth or because they simply do not have “the eye.” There are also judges who may have never seen a good representative of breed type for a particular breed, so all they can point to is what they have seen, and if a good dog is in the ring, he may look different, so is not used. You also will find those who – in both breed judging and group judging – either because of a lack of confidence or knowledge will “follow the leader.” But it is just as bad for a judge to be a “giant killer” just to be different. Simply put, all we need to do is just judge each class on that day as if we have never seen any of the dogs before. 

As A. R. Rahman said, “Success comes to those who dedicate everything to their passion in life. To be successful, it is also very important to be humble and never let fame or money travel to your head.” 

We meet many people as we grow and move through this community. Take the best of the people around you as you move on. 

So, there are different levels, yes, but all deserve equal and quality judging. 

What do you think? 



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