Breeder Judges: Salvation or Ruination

The AKC recently reported an increase in dog show entries across all disciplines.  With the inception of the Grand Championship program, an estimated 40,000 dogs returned to the ring in pursuit of the new title.  This was exciting news given we may have more chance of seeing dogs back in the show ring as mature adults instead of the two-year olds they were when they finished their championships.  Most dogs leave the ring after attaining their title only to slip into obscurity.  No wonder it is common place to see breeders using the same stud dogs over and over.  If nice specimens retire early, how is anybody to know what their potential contribution to the breed could be.  Sometimes, it is joyful to see these returning dogs.  They seem to love being back out in the spotlight, gaiting beside their owners or handlers.  Some of these retirees prove the skill and care the breeder took in producing her dogs.  It’s valuable to see the dogs seeking the new title that haven’t matured so well.  Every dog you see contributes to your understanding of the breed. 

Judges profit from the influx of returning dogs, too.  Since these 40,000 were returning to the Best of Breed ring one can  presume that several judges saw fit to reward these dogs with enough points to finish their championships and therefore, they are cut above the unfinished class dogs in the entry.  The more decent dogs any judge has to choose from, the better trained his eye becomes.  This is what we hope for as exhibitors.  A kind of continuing educational opportunity for everybody right there in the ring.  If this truly went on, most judges would become better at appreciating the nuances of what makes a Kerry Blue distinct from the other long-legged terriers in the Terrier Group.  They would realize there is no such thing as the generic terrier front and that our breed doesn’t move like a big Fox Terrier.  If those judging applied themselves, the gap between breed specialist judges, better known as breeder judges, and the all-rounder judges would narrow.  Eventually their decisions would be closer and exhibitors would have less to gripe about.

We are many years away from this nirvana. Until then, as we scrutinize the list of upcoming shows and make decisions about how our dog show dollars will be spent, we wrestle with the old question:  breeder judge or all-rounder.  While judging is based on the written standard, there is a distinct difference between how these two types of judges apply it.  It is an old axiom that all- rounders rely on the overall picture of the dog to make their decisions.  They tend to exclude that one damning fault in our dogs we can’t get out of our minds.  On the other hand, it is a general perception among long time exhibitors, many of whom are breeders themselves, that breeder judges focus on the breed’s nuances and tend to favor type over everything else.  The dichotomy created by showing under both types of  judges in one weekend can make anybody crazy.  We enter the ring, on Saturday, with the hair expertly fluffed and sprayed to hide the slightly dippy topline.  We have spent $300.00, in the off-season, for a well-known handler to “fix” our dog’s tail to more correctly conform to the standard’s definition of its carriage.  The all-rounder will appreciate your efforts and probably be more forgiving of these deviations from the standard.  Instead, he may look at the lovely side gait and conditioning your dog presents and give you the nod.  Returning to the ring on Sunday, you take a loss from the breeder judge who can’t get past your dog’s coat texture or less than elegant head type.  Both perceived by this judge as current problems within the breed. 

Currently, there are discussions about the need for more breeder judges in our breed.  Many exhibitors believe the all-rounders abdicate their responsibility to hone their knowledge and make decisions based on factors deemed contrary to the interests of the breed.  Those subscribing to this philosophy point to more handlers, with  better trained and better presented dogs, getting the picks more often.  The breeder judge, with an over reliance on maybe too much breed specific knowledge, including who is on the other end of the lead, can hardly be any better.  Seeing someone on a panel who you have battled in the ring for thirty years, neither fully appreciating what the other has produced, doesn’t inspire much hope for winning that all important major.  Breeder judges more often have an agenda.  They are acutely aware of the current problems within the breed and tend to zero in on that one aspect of each dog before them.  If heads are a problem, dogs with beautiful fronts and powerful rears place second to the ones who have the better heads in these judges’ opinions. 

There is no question breed type is, and probably should be, the most important factor in judging.  A dog or bitch possessing a great deal of typiness will by definition, fit the standard better than an animal with less typiness.   The written definition of type, the breed standard,  is the same for both the all-rounder and the breeder judge. The problem lies in the interpretation of what makes up breed type.  Breeders consider most of the dogs they show to have a large degree of type, and erroneously assume the breeder judge will be their friend.  An interesting point to consider is that most judges are breeder judges, or believe themselves to be.  Certainly they may never have bred a litter of Kerry Blues, but they may have bred twenty litters of Dobermans.  As exhibitors they struggled with the all-rounder vs breeder judge argument themselves and may have vowed to remain true to their roots.  There is one very well-known, and hugely popular, breeder/owner/handler/judge of a certain hound breed.  Most people believe she judges movement above all else.  This would make her an all-rounder in style.  Exhibitors flock to her ring with the best moving dogs they own, sure of a win.  She disappoints many by judging like the breeder judge she is and selecting animals with the most breed type and the best structure.  Often her major winners and Best of Breed dogs aren’t the best movers in her ring.

The battle in the ring between breeder judges and all-rounders should be won, for most exhibitors, by the judge who is the most adept at applying the written standard to the dogs before him.  If an exit poll was conducted immediately following the judging, a majority of those polled should comment that the judge was thorough in the exam and gave each dog an equal chance to move.  Professionals and amateurs should both feel they got value for their entry fees and be able to understand why the eventual winner was selected.  Consistency across every class should be evident.  At the end of the show day, no clear difference between the number of professional handlers rewarded versus amateurs leaving the ring with the purple and gold ribbon should exist. Exhibitors can urge their parent club to choose judges for nationals and travelling specialties who have a lot of specific breed knowledge, but not so much that they fixate on one or two components of the standard.  When judges are encountered who do an excellent job, write a letter for the judge’s file.  Let him know his work is appreciated.  Let the show giving club know what a pleasure it was to show to the judges on the panel, if it was, and let them know if the experience at their show was a disappointment.  Parent clubs should encourage members to hold breed workshops at cluster shows and solicit judges to attend. 

Poor judging isn’t cured by rejecting all-rounders in favor of breeder judges.  The assumption that breeders, who have made the transition to judging, are more qualified to  judge their breed is disproven every show weekend.  If you doubt this, ask a few breeders at your next specialty to quote you three or four things about the breed from the standard.  Surprisingly few can actually do it.  Are these really the kinds of people you want judging our specialties?

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