I love dog shows. I love everything about them. I love the spectacle, the fancy dress, the pretty dogs. I like watching breeds being judged, even if they’re not my own breed. I like listening to people talk, too. Some things get repeated over and over again, and after a while you start listening.
One is that our sport is greying. It’s hard to get young people interested in showing, and it’s hard to keep people in the sport, or get young people interested in breeding. Lots of reasons get thrown about for this: poor judging, bullying, expense, poor behavior by judges and by exhibitors. Some of those I’ve experienced myself. Judges who should have known better leaving me standing waiting for them to finish marking their book and handing out awards, because they were busy talking to people outside the ring. Long-time exhibitors who are flat out rude because I’m inexperienced, and they’re not. The politics. (I love the politics, too, even as I hate the politics. What can I say? I like drama.)
Another reason that gets brought up a lot is the divide between the professional handlers and the owner handlers (or breeders who are handling a dog they bred). Some judges have reputations for “looking up the lead” — giving placements to dogs based on who is on the other end of the lead, rather than judging the dogs on their own merits. In the many Facebook groups devoted to showing dogs that I belong to, this is a huge and contentious issue. Some people are adamant that the problem is not judges judging handlers, that the problem is that professional handlers are professionals. They do this week in and week out, 52 weeks a year, presenting several dogs in a single day. They have nothing but time with which to hone their craft, so of course they’re going to win. They have the skills to take a good-but-not-great dog, and make him look great. Just up your game, owner handlers are told: practice more. Wear nicer clothes (hello? are you judging me or my dog?), get sharper skills, smile at the judge.
I know, though, that perception is a funny thing. So I got curious about whether or not the data would support this idea that some judges only judge faces. I took two names out of a Facebook group that exists for the purpose of sharing notes on judges: one that “the crowd” agreed was a handler judge, and one that “the crowd” agreed would find a good dog, regardless of who was on the end of the lead. I then took the most recent assignments of those two judges, and started counting. For both judges, I disregarded breeds that were single entries, and breeds that did not have both handlers and owner/breeder handlers in competition. If there was no handler listed, I assumed that the exhibitor was the owner or the breeder for the dog. I wasn’t trying to be super scientific, but I wanted as much as possible to be comparing apples to apples. For the handler judge, I needed to cross to a second day of competition to achieve the same number of breeds as the fair judge.
What I found was that each judge ended up at 13 breeds where they had more than a single entry, and the exhibitors were mixed between profession handlers, and owner/breeder handlers. I also found that both judges put up handlers 9 times out of those 13 breeds.
Wait, what? How is it that the numbers can be exactly the same, but one judge has a reputation for being fair, and the other does not?
Perception is everything.
Saturday and Sunday this weekend in Wrentham, Best of Breed in Rhodesian Ridgebacks was awarded to the same dog (a top dog in our breed), who is being handled by one of the biggest handler names in our sport, buuuut … On Saturday, our judge gave us a cursory exam, barely touched the dog during the exam, and didn’t even watch us through the entire movement phase of individual judging. I knew we had lost before I even made it half way around the ring, because the judge couldn’t even be bothered to watch us for a full five seconds of movement. We stayed after Ridgeback judging, and I watched this judge on their judging in several more breeds as well. Same story in every breed: cursory exam, going through the motions. I can’t say for sure that this judge had their mind made up before examining the dogs, but my perception of the judging certainly made me feel that way.
Sunday’s judging under a different judge felt completely different. Our judge on Sunday took his time when going over Loki. This judge was deliberate when going over my dog. They checked the length of the ridge, the quality of the inner thigh muscle. They felt for bones and checked angulation; watched us intently through the movement phase of judging, and gave every appearance of considering each dog on their merits. After examining Loki and watching us on the go around, I thought to myself, “I may lose to this other dog again today, but at least I feel like the judge actually looked at my dog.” Did Sunday’s judge actually give my dog any more consideration than Saturday’s judge? Only the judges themselves know for sure, but my perception is that Sunday’s judge was considering every dog for Best of Breed.
(I also studied the hell out of the professional handler on the top dog. If I have to lose to them, I can at least try to learn something for being a better handler. Afterwards, it occurred to me they probably thought I was glaring at them, but I swear I was just trying to learn!)
We still lost Best of Breed on Sunday, same as Saturday, but I walked away from the ring with a completely different feeling, all because of how I perceived the judging.
Going back to our numbers, obviously this isn’t a scientific tallying, and it’s not proof of anything. I do think that some judges could do a better job of making all exhibitors feel welcomed in the ring, and of giving the appearance of fairly considering each dog in judging. This isn’t going to fix every problem that might be driving away exhibitors from our sport, but it’s a damn good place to start.