Mudgomery and Other Junk Science

While checking the weekend’s show results I stumbled across an interesting little featured article on the MB-F website. The headline, printed in bold capital letters proclaimed: “JUDGES ONLY PUT UP HANDLERS”. The teaser line proudly stated, “Using the published stats from 2008 and 2009 see the actual facts.” This of course caught my eye. Finally, what we all have suspected for so long would be proven scientifically from people who should certainly know. After all, the show superintendents, entities who make their living on dog show entries, should be in a position to know who’s winning what, when. Eagerly I clicked on the title and sat back to be impressed.

Dog show people love to exaggerate, both the good and the bad involved in our sport. Talk to 100 terrier exhibitors who regularly show at the Montgomery County weekend and they will all tell you it usually rains and blows at these shows. Every year somebody with no respect for dog show lore, sends the real weather stats to every terrier breed e-list and attempts to convince us that more than 90% of the time this weekend has great weather with no precipitation. Most of us scoff at this Glass-Half-Full person and grumble on about the shows in 1999, better known as Mudgomery, and 2003 where it was 80 degrees and very humid. I have told the story of how I stood in the grooming tent at the old Montgomery site blocking the wind from our veteran bitch by holding up one of the ubiquitous blue tarps every dog show person carries with them for such emergencies. I go on to relate how our friend, who was helping us put a beautiful finish on our bitch, cut 1/2 inch into the dog’s ear leather. I stood for 45 minutes with the tarp and my hand applying direct pressure to the bitch’s ear so she could be shown. Having some degree of self-awareness, I try not to tell this story every year. I save it for every five years much like the historic Morris & Essex shows. Lucky for me, and the 200 people I’ll tell this story to this year, this is a Morris & Essex year.

We all swap stories of shoes left in the mud and how the 1999 show’s weather caused several of the breeds to move their Nationals to indoor venues in other parts of the country. But deep down we all know stories like these are anecdotal with little real fact behind them. As I read the compilation of win stats, MB-F shows only, I realized the data were little more than junk science.  The basic principles of statistical analysis are forgotten and there is no way to even verify most of the conclusions.  The premise of the article is that amateurs win nearly as often as professionals at all levels, except of course for Best In Show and Group 1s.  More impressively, amateurs win far more at the Best of Breed and Winners level than the pros.  All this sounds like it’s still worth it to pony up escalating entry fees and venture out to shows to take your place among the statistical winners.  But before you write the check and pack the van take a look at the definitions of the players.

MB-F, for the purpose of this “study”, uses the criteria of agent listed versus no agent listed.  This was gleaned from the entries they processed in 2008 and 2009.  Seems OK, but this distinction doesn’t account for the fact that people often use handlers and never include this on the entries, or professional handlers showing their own dogs.  Further, the data does not reflect shows where there were no agents in a given ring or no owner/handlers in others.  If dogs with no agents listed win Best of Breed more often than dogs with listed agents, why do more group ones go to dogs with agents?  And of course the gap at the Best  in Show level is even wider!  I applaud MB-F trying to up entries by showing owner/handlers they have an 86% chance of going winners.  If they hang in there, they could reasonably expect to be Best of Breed two-thirds of the time.  But with so many holes in the data an analysis of winning and losing in the dog show game is not possible.

What the data does show is that show secretaries are very concerned about declining entries.  The article and its statistics, meant to encourage many of us, actually point up the inequities in our sport.  The data, imperfect and incomplete as it is, points up very clearly that owner/handlers can take part successfully at the class level, but the higher non-agents want to go, the less success they can expect.  The MB-F analysis seems to prove just what they started out to dis-prove:  dogs with agents ultimately go farther. 

We view finishing a dog’s championship as the starting point.  It is also the end to my handling it.  We would not show a dog, nor keep one, we didn’t think had specials potential.  Group placements and better are the level we aspire to.  In order to get there we believe we need a handler.  If you doubt any of this is true, take a look at the winners of our breed’s National Specialty for the past ten years.  Every one had an agent on it in the ring, regardless of who stood in the win shot.  Using agents is a fact of life in Kerry Blues, not so in Bedlingtons.  As our Bedlington, Peyton, makes his way in the show ring he has a handler.  One of very few showing that breed.  MB-F includes a breakdown of wins by breed.  Checking Kerry Blues and Bedlingtons, the data show these trends.  

I would go to a dog show every weekend, win or lose.  I love the dogs, the process, the drama, the friendships and the work.  I feel it is demeaning for MB-F to try to convince me to hang in there because the statistics are on my side.  I suspect there are many others who feel as I do about the shows.  Those of us who would enter shows in 90% humidity,  suffocating heat, sleet, driving rain and the sucking mud of a Montgomery County weekend.  We show our dogs because there is so much more than just winning and losing. We love the rumors we share, the roller coaster feelings shows can bring about.  When I’m happy or angry at a dog show I know exactly what caused the feelings, not so in my everyday life.  Maybe I don’t want to know that every time I lose with my promising special I fall outside the nearly 61% in our breed, owner/handled, who win Best of Breed.  I don’t need a statistical rationalization for my losing or winning.  I like to think the judge liked my dog more or less than the others entered.   

When human judgement is involved there are too many factors present to produce meaningful data.  People who chose to participate in any venture where winners and losers are determined by their fellow humans are a special breed.  We agree to accept the verdict of  someone who may not have read our breed standard for years or may be the friend of a rival.  There is no measuring or quantifying the quality of dogs in a show.  Just opinions.  How silly it seems to attempt to measure who wins and loses by criteria that is shot full of holes, and how demeaning for MB-F to think anybody entering dog shows believe their conclusions have meaning. 

This year at Montgomery we will all be there, just like we are all there every year. 90% of us will applaud the winners and 80% will console the losers.  We will dig mud out of our shoes or sweat to death in the sun.  But one thing is 100% certain, in our breed and most others I suspect, a dog with an agent will win Best of Breed, Group One and Best in Show.

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