As you sit judging from ringside you sometimes wonder why certain dogs win time after time. If you have never gone over the dogs you don’t know what the judge feels. But, sometimes you have gone over the exhibits and you know what you felt. You are, therefore, surprised when one you considered mediocre gets the pick. You watch the dog climb in the stats and you wonder how this is happening. A famous dog show judge wrote, in his monthly column, that he judges 85% with his eyes and 15% with his hands. This was stunning.
Being somebody who fancies themselves a person knowledgeable in their chosen breed and has attended seminars and read books about canine anotomy, I thought most judges approached their picks from that same point of view. But clearly more judges use the 85/15 model to make their selections than you would believe. But I’m not so sure this is the worst thing a judge can do.
I do a fair amount of photography from ringside. I don’t really enjoy this kind of photography since it’s not too creative and you are perpetually in the wrong location to get really interesting shots. Also it’s very monotonous. But since there is so much I don’t know about my hobby, I use this as practice. I try to shoot photos that are a little different and depict the feeling of the event I’m shooting. Last year, at our national specialty, our breed was ramped outside. The ramping was both wonderful, from a photographer’s point of view, and provided me with an epiphany. As I stood in the prime location I had managed to secure, I became aware of two things: I didn’t have much time to get the shot of each dog on the ramp and one of it moving and some dogs were easier to shoot than others. As I panned the line up of dogs in the ring I noticed something: some dogs never looked bad. I could never get a bad shot of some of the exhibits. Some of the dogs were nearly impossible to show in a positive light. It had little to do with conditions, and everything to do with the grooming, training and presentation of the dog by the handler. I’m not talking about the “big ten” handlers vs. the amateurs around them, because at this specialty there are few incompetent handlers. And certainly as I stood there with my camera firing shot after shot I wasn’t even aware of the leash holder. All I saw was that I never seemed to get a bad shot of some dogs and those were the ones I enjoyed shooting the most. What if a judge looking at the same exhibits I saw and used the same criteria to select the winners?
Really if you look at it, how could this not be the case? As I stood there trying to document the litany of the dogs entered on that most auspicious show of all the shows that year, I grew weary of trying to contort my body to get a flattering shot of some dogs. It was too much work. In fact, when I was putting the DVD of the event together I was surprised that I had indeed taken a picture of every special in the ring. I finally understood the 85/15 principle at last.
I don’t want to say judges know nothing of the breeds they judge. Clearly, not every judge uses this method to place dogs, but how often have you heard that judges judge dogs in the classes and people in the specials ring. This actually fits into the afore mentioned rule as well.
In the classes, the dogs are green and so are many of the handlers. There is an obvious push pull between dog and handler. Often, if a dog can be stacked, and stand there facing the right direction for 20 seconds, everyone later congratulates the “team” saying how well Fluffy behaved. Because the dogs are young, their coats are usually not ideal for a spiffy trim and since being controlled is the last thing on the dog’s mind the movement is difficult to evaluate. So the judge, even if he has recently read the breed standard, attended a seminar or has a particular interest in the breed before him, has to pick his winners as he views them: posting, spinning, bucking, sitting, shaggy and racing. This is obviously a lot of work. Too much work for most people when you consider that with 175 dogs to judge that day he has to keep things moving. So what to do. Look around the ring and pick the exhibit who, for the moment, is standing still and appears to present the best picture of the breed. What about the actual conformation of the dog? Who knows when it was so hard to see through the distractions surrounding them. Better yet, with the exception of a few of the exhibitors, most actually appear to be relieved it’s finally over. A class of four can take 15 mins and feel like a lifetime.
As the judge moves on to the special ring. Everyone breaths a sigh of relief. The dogs enter under control in and orderly manner. Sometimes there are some ringside fights between the dogs or sometimes their handlers, but as soon as their numbers are called, everyone puts on his best behavior and enters the ring. The judge, already battle fatigued from his encounters with the class dogs, scans the line up and starts to make his decisions.
You look too, and your eye will come to rest on the animal that presents the best outline and seems to fit your idea of the breed. Usually it is a typey dog with just a little more style or presence than the others. The grooming is beautiful, making you want to touch the dog, he has a proud carriage and the handler seems to fade into the background. Merely a supporting player. You can bet the judge sees this, too. He is so relieved to have this one dog he can point to and not look like a fool, who will help him regain some of his sanity he almost has no choice. As he continues to go over the other dogs, he keeps checking down the line. Everytime he looks toward this dog it looks great. Prepared, interested in its job, hard to catch him looking bad. He does notice that the young open dog, who was such a hooligan a few minutes before, has great shoulder layback and nice movment, though better controlled, he still looks like he might erupt at any moment.
He backs away from the lineup of hopefuls and looks at each one again. Usually he will move the whole line around the ring either individually or all together and then make his final decision. 85/15….85/15….do what his eyes see and his hands felt match up? The scale is weighted in favor of his eyes. How can it not be. There before him stands a “special” that defines the word. All this time in the ring the dog and handler never put a foot wrong. Why shouldn’t they be rewarded. This is a dog show, not a college anatomy lab. The beautiful to look at dog wins…..again.
Before you shake your head and call me jaded, or jealous or assume our dogs always come up short under the 85/15 rule, know that this is not entirely a bad way to judge. We can all become better handlers, or hire them. We can groom our dogs better, or hire that done. And certainly our dogs can be better trained. For many judges 85/15 is the most expeditious and pleasant way to get through an assignment. It’s why certain dogs win all the time. Sometime happily, no matter what principles are used to judge dogs, a truly great one rises to the top and we are all pleased.
But after the judging, where do you often find the breeders, true afficianados and those interested in learning more about the breed they just saw in the ring? Clustered around the young open dog and the pretty bitch that was Best Opposite Sex. When you decide to breed your nice bitch and sit ringside looking for a candidate, you can also use the 85/15 rule. Only in that case it must be 85% what you feel and 15% what you see. Winning is always nice. Sometimes, though, you don’t have to get a ribbon to be a winner. And that’s 100%.