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Another Attempt to Explore
Virtue Judging vs. Fault Judging

by jonathan jeffrey kimes

Since the age of about thirteen when I was first introduced to the writings of the brilliant Raymond Oppenheimer I have used, promoted and expounded on the concept of judging dogs by virtue, not by fault.  In the past I have written extensively on this topic to the point I felt there was nothing left to say or a new way to say it.  And yet, every time my fellow breeders are presented with an opportunity to clearly differentiate their thinking, it comes down to fault references.  When I ask them about their thoughts on this dog or that dog it invariably is a brief conversation about their fault or faults.  When I mentioned this to my kennel partner her response was probably very accurate, “I don’t think anyone understands what you are trying to say.”

OK, I think I can do this.  I find metaphors tend to be fairly successful so let us think for a moment about cars.  To use dramatic examples to explain my point, let us imagine you are given a choice between two particular cars.  Your job is simply to pick which one you would want to own.  The first car is a brand, spanking new Chrysler MiniVan.  It smells new, everything is in perfect working order.  The other car is also brand new, a Lexus Hybrid SUV.  This baby is loaded with everything, except for one issue – the stereo system doesn’t work.  It was damaged in transport.  So given the choice of taking one of these cars home – for the same price – would you want the perfect Chrysler MiniVan or the imperfect Lexus Hybrid SUV?

My guess is that you are going to go with the Lexus with the idea that you can either get the stereo replaced or fixed or come up with another suitable alternative.  (If I'm wrong, stop reading - we have nothing to discuss!)  You want the Lexus because it’s altogether a better car – better looking, more plush, more refined, better engineered.  You know this from a lifetime of exposure to car advertising and possibly from personal experience.  You’ve chosen quality over "perfection"  because the “perfect” car is also a lower quality car. 

First of all, I want to make the point that when I talk about judging a dog on its quality and virtue and not basing your decision on its faults, this car illustration is exactly what I am talking about.  The reason the car decision was so easy is because to your mind the difference in quality is quite obvious.  However, we could narrow the quality levels of the cars to something a true car expert might appreciate but we as semi-ignorant customers would be completely oblivious to.  Then our decision between cars is going to focus more on the obvious differences as we perceive them.  But to a car expert, the differences may be just as great as they seem to us in the Minivan vs. Lexus exercise.  If you do a study on degree of conviction, the car expert will continue to hold strong opinions even as the class of cars converge because there are plainly obvious differences to the expert which totally escape us. 

There is a subtext here of what I am talking about when I talk about the need to have a level of rare expertise to be able to judge dogs on virtue and not on fault.  Even truly supreme dogs can have a plainly obvious fault and truly mediocre dogs can be credited with next to no obvious faults.  But the difference in potential breed progress is profound between the two dogs.  I like to metaphorically think of one’s ability to perceive details – which, of course, is key to being an expert in anything – to that of drawing in your mind with a fine pen versus a thick one.  The fine pen pulls out minute details and exquisite accuracy while the thick pen is a basic, somewhat coarse outline with little to no detail.  I know the difference between a MiniVan versus a Lexus but I can’t really distinguish the difference between a Cadillac and a Lexus.  I draw cars with a fairly thick pen.  But I’m not offering my service to judge cars, either. 

As a bull terrier judge, I experience this exercise on a fairly regular basis.  Because I must critique my entry there are many examples from which to glean.  The difference between quality levels is so obvious to me and yet I don’t even think about it.  I may critique my top winner with superlatives ending with something like, “Didn’t show well,” or “incorrect bite.”  In that same show, I will invariably be presented with one or more exhibits which are almost a strain for me to have to critique, and I often say in my hand-held microphone, “Nothing really wrong, just a boring dog.”  This means the angles are OKish, the bone is OKish, the head is of no particular merit but it’s not horrible,  but basically this dog has no positive, strong virtues to breed on.  To an ignorant bystander, they would walk away from the ring muttering, "My god, he put up a dog who wouldn't even show!"

Perhaps the failing of other breeders to judge on virtue is truly simply a matter of their level of expertise.  Should the concern be less about the concept of virtue judging and more about the recognition of virtue in the first place?  It makes me wonder.

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