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An Eye For A Dog

By Amy Fernandez

So, I was talking to my dentist the other day–you know how they always wanna launch into conversation while jabbing sharp instruments into your mouth? Anyway, he also teaches part-time at the NYU dental school, which prompted this (one-sided) chat. He referred to it as tunnel vision–the way students become fixated on a textbook approach to a particular treatment or procedure. As happens generally with educational resources, the academic presentation describes an ideal situation, which of course, never happens in real-life dentistry.

Actual patients, being far less committed to academia, tend to come waltzing in with all kinds of strange variations on the theme that never got a mention in the book. From the perspective of someone who filters everything through the lens of purebred dogs, I instantly realized that his frustrating dilemma correlated perfectly with the realities of learning to judge dogs.

I’m referring to the formal process. Regardless of which facet of the sport anchors your perspective, you are always judging dogs. Whether planning a breeding, grading a litter, choosing a show prospect, importing the next big thing, etc., discerning quality is the bedrock of this entire business. And to maybe overstate the obvious, we’re all still here so we seem to get it right most of the time. However, as my dentist noted, very rarely are those critical choices made under ideal circumstances.

Selective breeding is the sterling example. Somehow, we manage to pick the star out of a riotous litter of pups or recognize greatness lurking within an untrained, un-groomed, truly dubious canine renegade. That accounts for 90 percent of the purebred selective process, and it’s been working for centuries.

So, finally getting to the point, why does everything go haywire in the show ring? From the perspective of analogy, it is the dental school textbook case. Nothing deviates from the predictable procedure except breed quality, which is the thing under scrutiny in this scenario. Theoretically, the individual presiding over this ritualized affair is thoroughly indoctrinated with every minute detail of that breed’s standard of perfection. In contrast to actual dentistry, the professional side of this business is tailored to ensure ideal conditions when making crucial decisions.

The current cynicism regarding the state of dog show judging is not news. The disillusionment of this nature has marked the sport from its inception. Nobody gets up at 3 AM and drives 400 miles because they’re okay with losing. Disgruntled losers will always be part of the package. However, things have improved substantially since those lively days of ringside bribes and fistfights. It’s been a long time since dog show crimes earned front-page coverage.

And that has been due to the slow, steady influence of AKC regulations and requirements. Mayhem has given way to high professional standards. Their role in judges’ education/approval has also steadily morphed from oversight to ownership of the process. At this point, they own it.

And you can’t say they aren’t conscious of that heavy burden. They’ve continually tinkered with the system over the course of a century while approving 10,000 judges (approximately 3,000 of them are currently active in some facet of the sport.) But nothing attests to their diligence more than the endless revisions to judges’ approval methodology. At this point, much of it might be called intuitive troubleshooting–heading off potential problems.

Human nature naturally focuses on what’s wrong but I recall the good old days of when my breed was recognized and every judge then approved for that group was immediately granted status to judge it. It didn’t matter if they had ever read the standard or seen one personally. They were let loose to do damage, and they did plenty. Possibly it wasn’t so consequential back then since AKC almost never approved new breeds. That’s also changed, thankfully.

These days breeds flood into every group with Westminster being their big reveal. In the meantime, any judge previously approved for that group- sort of a holy grail of this deal- must demonstrate competence to judge this new arrival or lose their coveted group status. Likewise, instant approval for entire groups has gone the way of myth and legend. So yeah, entering that mystical circle is way more challenging these days.

Still, some truly alarming cynicism is pervading the ranks. And like most things involving actual human discernment, it’s tricky to lay blame. AKC doesn’t have many organizational objectives. All of them cluster around their responsibility to ensure the betterment of each breed they take on.

Mostly things run smoothly–we don’t even notice most of it, which is the ultimate proof of stuff going according to plan. Until of course, things hit the ditch, which is where our entire sport has been stuck for over a decade. And consequently, our time-honored trust in AKC’s ability to ensure our survival has never been at lower ebb. And, good times or bad, AKC bears the ultimate responsibility for pulling this sport out of the fire.

There’s always been an untouchable echelon of that executive hierarchy. There’s no sense denying that fact. For decades, this opaque administrative approach worked in the sport’s favor. Nothing proves that more forcefully than that golden era from the ‘50s through the ‘80s. AKC business picked up and the popularity of competitive conformation not only surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations, the sport was blessed with judges that will forever rank as icons. Alva Rosenberg, Percy Roberts, Langdon Skarda, Derek Rayne, Isadore Shoenberg, Bea Godsol…it’s a long list.

Likewise, and certainly not accidentally, it also heralded show ring superstars that changed the entire course of development in many breeds. Ch. Bang Away of Sirrah Crest, Ch. Brentwald Joshua, Ch. Rockfall’s Colonel, Ch. My Own Brucie, Ch. Legend of Gael, Ch. Rancho Dobe’s Storm, Ch. Vigo of Romanoff.

While it’s impossible to separate the precise cause and effect elements of those synergistic decades, it’s clear that great judging was the linchpin. In retrospect, it now appears that the system became a victim of its own success.

All the factors responsible for its exponential growth also created an insatiable demand for expert adjudicators. Nigel Aubrey-Jones was among the first critics to rant about the coming disaster back in 1956. In a vituperative and lengthy Dog World diatribe, he argued that spiking demand for more judges was heralding an approval process characterized by checklists, mandates and a dangerous overreliance on measurable factors. He called them journeymen, not judges.

Just like dentistry, dog judging involves countless variables. Every day truly is a new surprise. Tom Horner put it very well in his 1975 classic Take them Round Please. He wrote, “Knowledge, decisiveness’ integrity and the rest of the necessary qualities are useless without one vital possession-an eye for a dog, which is the ability that every good judge has to recognize at a glance whether a dog is right or wrong, good, bad, or indifferent. A priceless gift, without which no one can make a real success of judging, it is acquired by long and painstaking study of anatomy, breed standards, high-class dogs and poor ones.”

Ultimately, of course, it’s that leap of faith that separates the expert from the wannabe in any sphere. As my dentist noted during our unilateral conversation, at some point, you must forget the book and deal with the patient. Otherwise, don’t plan on becoming a dentist.

It’s that ability to navigate the objective/subjective tightrope that elevates anyone to expert status. Unfortunately, that visceral fluency with the nuances of type cannot be instilled by any amount of rigorous classroom instruction or rote experience. It’s a rare skill set… intuitive appreciation of the interplay of traits that define a breed, along with plenty of patience, stamina, boundless curiosity, confidence, and decisiveness. It’s impossible to define, but you simply know it when you meet it.

But everyone does seem to agree that it is crucial to any breed’s progress–and this sport’s success. Of course, that’s been the hard edge of this dilemma all along. Nothing proves that better than the fact that most of those aforementioned iconic judges never passed a test or impressed a show rep. Their approval was strictly a closed-door, star-chamber kind of deal.

Formally evaluating prospective judges really wasn’t an issue until the sport abruptly outgrew the natural process that historically minted true experts. At the outset of American dog shows, there were a grand total of FIVE individuals universally acknowledged as capable of the job.

It requires an unpredictable mix of perfectionism, obsession, integrity, and artistic sensibility. Basically, the whole package is comprised of disturbingly human traits that are impossible to quantify. But that’s true of many revered skills and somehow we manage to produce competent rocket scientists, brain surgeons, dentists, etc.

AKC has inarguably created a workforce that knows the rules. In the meantime, it appears that a far more alarming problem has crept into the mix. Some would say that things went south when AKC instituted fees for various stages of the judging application process. That’s now a routine feature of every phase, which opens the door to varying perceptions of exactly what you’re paying for…proof of expertise or certification of attendance? The ossification of regulations and the resultant view of their irrelevance is a recipe for disillusionment and corruption in any walk of life.

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Posted by on Oct 8 2019. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  • June 2020