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Getting it right

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From the archives of The Canine Chronicle, May, 2013

By Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones

With the now full implementation of yet another judges’ approval procedure, as perhaps could have been reasonably expected, some people are seemingly quite happy with the way things have recently progressed in this regard whilst others, apparently, remain as skeptical, dyed-in-the-wool doubters. Isn’t this always how things turn out to be? What’s new, one might well ask. Word is that some fine tuning is still in the works but it appears that, overall, the newly-adopted peer evaluation methodology has safely reached altitude and the here-to-stay, more or less accepted, with some refinement, stage. In the cyclical, historical scheme of things, given the considerable past volatility and impermanence in this area, it is as well that the proverbial dust has, once again, at least mostly settled. How long-lasting the present attempt at instituting a functional, effective meritocracy will be remains, however, very much to be seen. This is being said not for the purpose of being necessarily negative but with an eye on the realism of what has gone before. There is, after all, a tradition of evanescence surrounding this subject. The proof of the pudding will ultimately and surely remain, as always, in the eating. The problem is: tastes change. Although the ingredients seem reasonable, rational and perfectly well-chosen, one never quite knows how unpalatable some elements will be found to be in the long run. There are already rumblings out there, some undoubtedly based on misconceptions and misunderstandings, others perhaps, in part at least, legitimate. Inevitably, given the human element in play, there arise concerns about equity, freedom from bias or favoritism, and clean practice of doctrinal principles. Central to this is the matter of trust. Suffice it to say that with a task as complicated as this there will always be room for disagreement on precise details of execution and on particulars of actual fulfillment.

This whole area of appropriate and valid peer evaluation, as it relates to the approval of judges, as I suggested in several previous articles a good while ago now, has always been a somewhat enigmatic and perplexing challenge for those charged with the governance of the sport at any one time. Although cyclically alternating between the front and back burners, the importance of this for the well-being of our sport surely cannot be understated or underrated. We seem, however, to have fallen into the habit of coming back to it repeatedly and, moreover, adopting somewhat differing philosophical approaches. Interesting how the pendulum swings from one mindset to another. Interesting also, despite the numerous revisits, that no one ever seems to get it quite right; or so it would certainly appear. Needless to say, this is viewed by many as highly unfortunate. The design of an effective and acceptable procedure is something that has been attempted a number of times within memory by a succession of individuals in authority, only to be subsequently displaced by another. The inevitable fallout from this pattern of constant revisiting has been a certain degree of dissatisfaction and frustration on the part of the judging community. It should be perfectly obvious by now that it is not altogether easy to get this totally right, to everyone’s satisfaction, for a variety of reasons. There are some tricky intangibles at play. The methodology has to be sufficiently demanding and rigorous but yet there has to be some flexibility and case-specificity involved. A bureaucratic element and content has to be balanced with substantive reasoning; some intelligence has to be injected into the process. This is why, as I understand it, applicants are now expected to make known not only factual information about their background education, familiarity and experience in a particular breed but, most importantly, their understanding of its very essence; hence the critical narrative requirement. There is an attempt being made here, of course, at discovering that which is significant and substantive rather than undergo mere check-the-boxes bean counting.

Although this novel requirement for written, explanatory treatises, as opposed to simple documentation, has apparently caused some consternation and thrown an element of confusion into the process, the reasoning behind it should, by now, be well understood. The aim surely is to generate thoughtfulness and to introduce some meaningful, methodical discussion into the equation. In a way, there is also, of course, a justificatory element in all of this. In essence, an applicant is now asked to literally demonstrate sufficient substance, in terms of breed knowledge, to justify approval. Although this exercise can certainly be viewed as a glorified literary form of an open book test, where the dictates of breed standards are regurgitated verbatim or cleverly reiterated in modified form, it does, one supposes, serve a purpose. Of course, there will be cheating; like getting someone else, with a better command of the English language, to compose one’s narrative. Let me now repeat some of the observations which I made over a year-and-a-half ago when some of the details of what was being proposed became known. Quite clearly the committee charged with generating a revised peer-evaluation process took a rational, in-depth view of the challenge and concluded that some broadening of the canvass and input into decision-making was required. Setting a balance between a measure of open access whilst maintaining rigor and thoroughness obviously became a central goal, as did a perceived need for increased and more sensible, as well as sensitive, case-specificity. Release from a bureaucratic straight-jacket became desirable as did the adding of new dimensions in terms of content and composition of the review-conducting entity.

At the time of its introduction, some commentators were rather quick to point out that the newly-revised process of applying for approval to judge was essentially very little more than a continuation of the same. There were to be no fundamental changes in the way things were to be conducted. In a sense, and at one level, this was perfectly true and was surely what could have been expected. There are, after all, only a limited number of options available for effectively accomplishing this mission. There was hardly a need to start from scratch but rather to widen the interrelated elements, modify the specifics, increase input, and diversify the body charged with assessing qualifications. In reality, these actually amount to quite significant changes. In theory, much of what was decided upon in terms of procedural modifications appeared insightful and logical but one assumes that the jury is still out on how well, or otherwise, the implementation is going. The central elements of any evaluation clearly had to still be more or less similar in type and content. The input of AKC Executive Field Representatives had to remain of cardinal importance. There had to be continued trust placed in their ability to deliver equitable, fair-minded, cognitive and perspicuous determinations of performance merit. Review of documentable credentials and background experience is, of course, the easy part in any peer evaluation. For advancement through the judging ranks, however, rigorous assessment of competence in actual practice, within the dog show ring, had to be maintained as an essential ingredient. In all of this a sort of cumulative body of evidence, a prevailing sentiment gathered from multiple sources and occasions over time, kind of falls into place and is, presumably, given appropriate consideration. Ideally there has to be a certain subtlety and sophistication at play here involving keen insight and highly skillful perception, despite the inherently subjective nature of judging the pedigreed dog in conformation competition.

It can undoubtedly be said that the guiding principles and philosophy of the committee which proposed the judging application changes were soundly based. There surely was a very real attempt made at getting it right. The central aim and purpose was clearly to take further steps toward establishing a true meritocracy. As has been said previously, balancing reasonably open access with across-the-board rigor is a juggling act that is never very easily accomplished. There are always going to be anomalous situations. We’ve all heard such things as “can you believe so-and-so got so-and-so breeds” and “can you believe so-and-so is interviewing for a whole Group,” said. Individuals can quibble with some of the details and the narrative requirement can be seen as onerous by some. Nevertheless, no one should really doubt that the direction taken was anything but commendable. Although there may still be some need for fine-tuning, the foundation of an effective methodology has seemingly been consolidated. It certainly appeals strongly to the mind and reason but there remains the matter of appropriate implementation. Those entrusted with this task obviously bear an enormous responsibility. To put things in further perspective, perhaps it is appropriate to remind ourselves that the more complicated the design and the wider the parameters of a conformation judging approval procedure, the more difficult it becomes to put into acceptable practice. In this the human element has to be taken into account and certain factors such as degree of visibility, personal relationships, influence level, profile characteristics, and so on, must not be allowed to contaminate and tarnish the decisions reached. Perhaps this is stating the very obvious; it has to be a level playing field and fairness has to be assured. The current, partly reconstituted AKC Board of Directors is now apparently fully cognizant and mindful of this. Hence the recently-announced modifications: a moratorium on any new invitations to apply for additional breeds and the identity masking of all judging applicants when presented to the Judges Review Committee for consideration. Interesting development, it must be said! Is there a tacit implication and recognition here that an unfortunate patronage factor has already been surreptitiously creeping in? Pray tell, has cronyism indeed been alive and well and functional? Of course it has, say many. Can it be true that equitable implementation has already run into the unseemly vagaries of favoritism? That the current powers-that-be have seen fit to nip this in the partly-opened bud before the whole business gets totally out of hand is a good sign that perhaps the AKC will eventually get this more or less right.

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