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Judging and Its Affect on Breeding

by jonathan jeffrey kimes

As old as the sport itself there has been a theoretical debate regarding the influence of judging on the progress (or lack thereof) of breeding show dogs.  On the one hand,  breeders complain that judges are not knowledgeable enough about the dogs, that judging is not fair and impartial and that sub-standard stock win prizes well out of proportion to what they should.  On the other hand, judges argue they can only put up what is shown to them and if poor quality animals win, it is a reflection of the population of the show ring over which they preside.

For most of us, it is akin to the chicken and the egg conundrum; one could not happen without the other.  For my part, I feel very strongly judges do indeed make a tremendous impact on how breeds evolve and whether they improve and what direction they take.  Make no mistake, I am by no means a sympathetic breeder.  I pointedly do not exhibit under judges who have proven themselves incapable of recognizing the good ones in their ring; and in this I believe I am in the minority.  How the situation occurs and why I believe it continues is the subject of this article.

American dog breeders are, I believe, more “process” oriented than our English counterparts.  In England, shows are far less numerous, competition routinely far more keen (from a population perspective), and judges are far more specialized.  Specific wins count for much more than they do in America.  Only at such shows such as breed national specialties (or in some breeds, Westminster wins), do American breeders place much stress on single shows.  In the United States specials are campaigned at scores, if not hundreds, of dog shows with win records in the double or triple digits.  We tend to take the “win a few, lose a few” approach to dog shows and I believe this makes us far less concerned about the middle range (read: mediocre) of judging quality which is our bread and butter.

In such a model, a wide range in quality of animal will eventually achieve championship titles.  Most experienced American breeders know a championship is not particularly meaningful or helpful in assessing a dog’s quality.  Poorer dogs may take more showings to finish – especially if they are unfortunate enough not to be showy – but they generally will finish given the owner’s fortitude in pursuing the title.  Even on the specials level, a vast group of quite mediocre animals can reach very excellent heights of success if the correct mix of presentation, campaigning and advertising surround the animal.

I say this next piece with a sort of sad pause, but I think many of today’s exhibitors do not realize show dogs are being judged as breeding stock.  Take away the national specialty wins and the group wins and everyone else pretty much falls into an undistinguished field.  We’ve made it so.  We might look askance at that common, unvirtuous, and completely uninteresting exhibit waiting to go into the ring, but if he wins his championship, what does his owner need to know from ideal?  He gains his title and he is of equal breeding merit to the carefully bred animal from generations of truly virtuous stock.  They both will be bred from.

But what of our serving judge, the long suffering individual who makes decision after decision all day long standing on concrete sustaining him or herself on the occasional cup of coffee?  Why are they to blame?  Easily.  Because in most entries there are the “haves” and the “have nots”.  There are the animals who could bring the breed up a notch, maybe not dramatically so, but in very important ways.  But our judge, licensed in 60 breeds of dogs, doesn’t have, and couldn’t possibly be expected to have, the depth of knowledge to separate those specimens.  Oh I sometimes tell myself anyone who has judged enough to have a full day of entries ought to at least understand a correct forehand, topline, rear, movement, and balance on sight.  Even if s/he doesn’t have a true “eye”.  And they are looking, they just don’t seem to see.  There probably are enough who have some semblance of knowledge to reward these things.  I credit them with rewarding the great American invention: the “generic” show dog.  Breed doesn’t matter; they are clean, well angulated in the rear, clean in front (not angulated in the forehand because even these folks don’t understand that), contain a level or sloping topline, possess a driving rear and god bless them if they are showy.  Name a breed, any breed.  Often, these dogs are “missing it” from the eyes of a true breed connoisseur but the near all rounder is oblivious.  Doesn’t see it, doesn’t know it, doesn’t value it.  I think this became crystal clear to me when I exhibited a fine bitch (who won Best of Winners at a national specialty) who simply had everything one could ask for: type, structure, movement, and showmanship.  Yet even she would get beaten in the ring by utterly forgettable, mediocre animals.  It wasn’t a specific “thing” she was getting knocked on, it was that the judge simply preferred another exhibit.  Such a judge (and they are not rare) just didn’t have the knowledge to appreciate what they were looking at.  To me, the analogy of taking a bunch of people who are uneducated on art into an art museum is destined for a similar outcome.  They will have scattered appreciation for the art to which they have never been exposed, they will randomly select their favorite pieces with untrained eyes, and they will have strong opinions on the famous artwork, like Picasso, Renoir or Van Gogh.  When you don’t know what you are supposed to be looking at, it’s far easier and safer to appreciate what has already been labeled as outstanding.  So be it with the show ring.

The outcome of all of this is that breeders breed to what wins.  A favorite old statement, “be careful what you measure for that is what will get done,” is the perfect theory.  How many times have I seen breeders at ringside, totally unaware of a smashing newcomer on the scene.  He might be outstanding, but no one seems to notice.  Let a dog build a show record, and soon he will draw the attention of the breeders.  How fortunate for the breed if he is a truly good one, how typical if he isn’t.   ‘Show ring success,’ regardless of debates to the contrary, is a very strong argument for including that dog in a breeding program.  And while that model works if the judging is on target, when it is remiss the whole system falls apart.

But not all is footloose and fancy.  There are in most breeds, one or two individuals who seem to have a clue about their breed, who breed what they believe is correct and who very often are the reason for that breed’s true merit at that time.  They are unimpressed, and unmoved by show ring credentials and make their decisions based on their own dog knowledge.   They generally have a long life in dogs, develop a clearly distinguishable “type,” and provide a level of leadership.  But these people are succeeding despite the system not because of it.

Having firmly nailed the majority of the judging population to the cross of circumspection, we can now analyze the current approach to fixing the problem.   Without question, breed clubs and the American Kennel Club have put a great deal of effort into developing opportunities for judges to learn more about a particular breed.  Breed seminars abound.  There are two particular criticisms which can be mitted out to the current environment.  The first one is a study group encounter is not – and should not be considered - some sort of profound experience where someone vaguely or incompletely familiar with a breed will miraculously arise to a level of expertise.  There is no glass mirror that one walks through that changes, instantaneously, the uninformed into the expert.   Sitting through a specialty and chatting with one or two breeders or judges does not somehow make one qualified for a judge’s license.  We apparently think in this country it does.  It takes people up to a decade of involvement in their own breed to gain any sort of credibility, any sort of understanding, any sort of “feel” for their breed.  But once licensed, we for whatever illogical reasons, think two hours exposure makes us an expert.  My other criticism is if you indeed already possess a license in a breed, it is somehow perceived as not only unnecessary but down right undesirable, to sit through a lecture on a breed.  While I believe both models are illogical and beg reality, they are also highly contradictory. 

If we provide allowance for a certain amount of ignorance, as we obviously do when we provide judge’s licenses to people who have attended one or two breed seminars, then it would follow that we should expect that newly approved judge to “get up to speed” as quickly as possible.  One way might be to attend, with a vengeance, many more seminars and many more specialties.  We do just the opposite.  Being seen in a “learning” environment for a specific breed while holding a judge’s license for that breed is considered gauche.  Apparently.  Because it largely does not happen.

The only other alternative for the uninformed judge to learn about a breed is to presuppose continued judging and exposure to the breed will result in better judgments.  Why exhibitors should even be subject to this nonsense is beyond my comprehension, but more to the point – I don’t know of any highly skilled endeavor that is mastered simply by continuing to do it badly over a period of time.  Practice is essential, if coupled with training.  It is that model which does not appear to exist in today’s show ring environment.

“So why?” you might be asking yourself, do exhibitors expose themselves to these miscreants I’ve chosen to call judges?  The answer appears to revolve around the concept of chance.  Many are willing to take the chance the judge will select their dog for points or group placements.  Little pride in the win, but as I noted above, it is the “notch on the bedpost” that matters – the value of the win as in the specific show or the specific judge is not particularly meaningful.

For the three people who have read this that haven’t turned away in disgust and who haven’t spun off a list of self-justifications for the current environment, I propose a solution is conceivable.  I am not even interested in prognosticating what that solution might be.  Just knowing there is a delta between where we ought to be and where we are is an important first step.















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