I believe in God. Not because I worship at a prescribed time and place, nor because I come from a particularly religious tradition. Rather, my belief is grounded in facts irrefutable to me. Outcomes where in no way, not even through the exercise of my free will, did I play even a small role. I choose to believe and I am comfortable in that choice. I also choose to believe that money doesn’t change hands between handlers, exhibitors, judges and AKC Reps to secure wins. I believe the governing body of our sport has heard our cries for change and though it has taken a long time to wake up, they have at least turned over and are stirring. There are cynics who certainly disagree with me, just as my atheist friends swear there is no God. But, I choose to believe. I am compelled to.
When the new AKC Gazette arrived I began my reading with the Secretary’s pages. This report of the latest delegates’ meeting along with the breed columns are the pulse of the fancy. The Secretary’s pages also contain listings of disciplinary actions taken against those who have run afoul of the AKC rules. This small glimpse into the workings of the Board often prompts more questions. So it was with this issue. Sandwiched between various sanctions against a couple of ordinary people whose sentences were meted out for registration violations and cruelty convictions were the suspensions of two AKC judges.
A little internet snooping yielded the details of the offenses as well as the fact that both judges had appealed their much more weighty sentences and had negotiated something more livable. The fact that action had been taken against these judges seemed to strike a blow for the core of the fancy: the owner/handlers. Judges are often viewed as bullies, camouflaging a genuine lack of knowledge or concern by the display of a cavalier attitude toward their assignments. Judges seem to forget that we watch them closely. A friend of ours has an email from a judge her breed chapter club worked with for their specialty, blatantly describing how the use of a certain judge from Australia in 2012 would secure a juicy assignment for him in Australia later that year. In writing! While this doesn’t involve the exchange of money, it is nearly as egregious. It is well-known in the fancy that judges trade assignments. Usually this presents no problem to the occasional exhibitor. Most people enter local shows regardless of the judges. Many lack the committment and funds to criss-cross the country seeking out judges most favorable to their current special. Those of us who enjoy competition and send our dogs on the road are offended by these back stage shenanigans. Fair judging is the cornerstone of the conformation ring. If judges feel free to be so open about their ethical mis-steps what else is going on with their judging? Does the AKC notice?
What is interesting about the disciplinary action of these two judges is the nature of their offenses and the weight of their punishments. One judge was able to negotiate a five-year suspension from judging privileges and judging application privileges, along with a modest fine. The other was able to bargain down her punishment to a reprimand and an even smaller fine. Were either of these decisions by the AKC Trial Board a victory for the core exhibitors? I’m not so sure. Distilled from the facts available in the dog press, it is clear that the more meaty punishment was levied against the judge who chose to do battle against the AKC itself. The reprimand was given to the judge who displayed “disregard for and failure to adhere to both the “Conflict of Interest” and the “Ethics, Honesty, and Common Sense” guidance in the Rules, Policies and
Guidelines for Conformation Dog Show Judges.” Something that potentially affects every exhibitor’s perception of judging and judges. Basically, this judge awarded Best in Show to a dog she had bred and made the fact well-known to her peers through an extensive ad campaign. The other judge’s beef with the AKC did not involve exhibitors, nor his performance in the ring. It was a dispute of some years and ironically stemmed from his whistle blowing on a dollars-for-wins scheme that resulted in the permanent suspension of a professional handler and another judge.
The AKC is a club first. It can choose who can belong, that is who can be a judge, which clubs can be sanctioned and how many shows a year can be held. There is no governmental oversight and the final authority rests entirely with the body’s governing Board. The AKC choses which offenses are more important and more damaging to its reputation. The organization is multi-layered and self-preservation is near the top of the priority list. It must carefully balance the interests of exhibitors, breeders and judges because it takes each of these groups to form the foundation of the AKC. Those of us who breed the generations of show dogs and enter weekly shows have come to demand more of the organization than it seems capable of giving. We expect absolute accuracy in record keeping and immediate answers to our questions about rules. We expect fairness in competition and nearly immediate action to our complaints. Listen to people at shows most weekends and it becomes clear the state of judging is on everybody’s mind.
I choose to believe most judges try to do their best with each assignment just as I believe most exhibitors show dogs they really consider good examples of the breed. To most of us, a judge’s dispute with the AKC is less concerning than one who awards a coveted Best in Show to his own dog. A public display at the Westminster Kennel Club show a few years ago, featured two dogs in the Terrier group bowing out to avoid a conflict of interest with the judge. This action only angered those of us who knew the back story. While the announcer was extolling the judge’s virtues and the sportsmanship of the exhibitors involved, many of us at home were seething. Similar conflicts of interest were rampant in the Terrier group during the season and nobody seemed to bat an eye. Now, when the AKC was under the scrutiny of a nationwide audience, it suddenly mattered. This selective regard for sport’s ethics don’t help many keep the faith.
So what is the take away, as the cliché goes, from the sanctions against these two judges. I suppose as exhibitors we should take solace in the knowledge that our governing body addressed a wrong against all of us. While the punishment was slight, it still served notice this behavior won’t be tolerated. But, it seems a far worse crime to disrespect the AKC, and its organizational policies. A five-year suspension can effectively ruin a judge’s career. A strong message to the offender and those who show dogs. But, poor judgement and lapses in ethics in judging can permanently ruin exhibitors’ and the public’s perception of our sport. This loss of faith in the system drives people from the ring and translates into still fewer dog show entries. If wins are truly bought and paid for, one way or another, and the perpetrators of this fraud receive little meaningful punishment, why bother to compete at all? Why not just buy a Doodle?
My faith in the AKC to fairly manage our sport remains strong. I choose to believe the Board members are well motivated and struggle to balance the interests of many. While titillating to read of judges being “caught in the act” it is more important for exhibitors to feel their concerns about unfair judging is appropriately addressed.