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Varying Focus

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle, May, 2012

by Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones

In the not-too-distant past I had occasion to discuss a certain pedigreed-dog breeding program with a very good friend of mine who has been involved with her breed for more years than she probably cares to remember. In this endeavor she has been highly successful and, over time, has managed to establish a lineage of some distinction and prominence. During the course of our conversation the subject of a specific stud dog and how frequently and widely he has been used in recent years came up. Yet another example of one of those flavor-of-the-moment type phenomena, which are rather commonly encountered among the Fancy. You know what happens; it becomes fashionable to do something and this oftentimes snowballs and overtakes reason, especially when rather mindless out-crossing is practiced. Apparently someone, a fellow breeder, had recently asked the individual with whom I was speaking why she hadn’t used this particular dog. The questioner had joined the crowd and bred one of her bitches to the ‘in vogue’ dog despite the fact that there was no pedigree compatibility whatsoever between the two; in other words, it had been a total outcross. There had been an element of surprise attached to the question. My friend volunteered her answer. It went something as follows:’ I exhibit mainly at all-breed dog shows and I don’t want to lose my good shoulders. If I breed to this dog, all I’ve worked so hard to achieve over a long period of time will be lost and my competitive edge, when it comes to good conformation, will be severely compromised. I might win some at Specialties, under certain people, where the breeder-judges predominantly go for ‘pretty’ and don’t care much about anything else, but what good will that do me in the long run?’ She quickly added that maintaining exemplary breed type is vitally important to her but so is the perpetuation of sound structure, that which allows the breed to fulfill its original purpose. As she was telling me about her reaction, some thoughts were generated in my mind concerning the judging process and, in particular, how emphasis, focus and priorities vary.

Quite obviously, when it comes to judging, there occurs a whole lot of variation in the way exhibits are evaluated, largely dependent upon the background and knowledge of the individuals performing the merit-determination process. Depth of understanding is not something which is uniformly possessed. We may argue that this should, ideally, not be the case but frequently there are mitigating factors which come into play, such as different degrees of visual perception ability. As I have said previously, although a judge, if he or she is performing the task conscientiously, evaluates each dog against a standard there is oftentimes, in reality, a good bit more to decision-making than just this. There is some interpretation of requirements taking place, and then there is the weighing of relative importance followed by trade-off making. Although this is in large part guided by reason there is, of course, a subjective element involved, as was discussed in last month’s essay. Instinct, intuition, and emotion are all elements which have an impact, at least to some extent. What is prioritized and emphasized may be quite different and opinion, as well as focus, will inevitably vary. This is in the very nature of the activity. People seemingly feel free to exercise personal preferences and to even, sometimes unfortunately, allow prejudice to taint decisions reached. Hence the view taken by my breeder friend, as mentioned above, that the qualities and virtues looked for in exhibits at all-breed shows versus Specialties are not always necessarily, or precisely, the same and therefore some consideration has clearly to be given to this when it comes to selecting which dogs, according to their respective characteristics, to breed to and what type of dog to show to particular judges. This is not purely some abstract notion and interplay between focusing on type versus soundness.

A discussion of the role of breeder-judges (sometimes referred to as specialists), as opposed to non-breeder-judges (sometimes referred to as all-rounders), is always an interesting topic and it is invariably fascinating to observe how each goes about fulfilling what they believe to be their respective obligations, different though they might certainly sometimes be. Generalizations in this regard may not always carry a whole lot of accuracy but some comments seem pertinent. Quite obviously, the two types of judges oftentimes approach their task from a somewhat different perspective and thereby may almost subconsciously place differing emphasis on the many features that they have to consider. Dogs shown to them are looked upon from a different vantage point and, therefore, the focus will not always necessarily be identical. The one is the more specific, the other the more generic. The relative importance factor, involving one aspect or other, will, for a start, be sometimes weighed variously. In an ideal world it would, of course, be advantageous not to have this divide but we surely have to be realistic about such things. The ongoing concern now is that the dichotomy may be widening as breeds change and breeder-judges seemingly adopt an increasingly narrower, more idiosyncratic view of what they are looking for and rewarding. In some breeds it is certainly true to say that a particular type or look is favored over another. Although all exhibits might be perfectly acceptable in terms of the dictates contained in a given standard there is still a preference often exercised. The ‘in style’ factor is surely alive and well. There is a certain elitism attached to this. This, it can be argued, is not a particularly good thing to have happening. Each category of judge has inherent advantages, albeit different ones, over the other. The respective contributions which each can make to the continued well-being of breeds is something which we should all have in our sights.

So let us review some aspects of this difference in approach and refresh our memories, once again, of the likely implications thereof. It has been suggested that there exists a certain complementarity between the way a breeder-judge goes about his or her business and the manner in which the non-specialist evaluates merit. It has been stated that the two have their place in order to set a balance. There is, in fact, an element of truth to this notion provided that the drift apart does not become increasingly more pronounced as is evidently the case in some instances nowadays, at least when some breeds with which I am very familiar are judged. All-breed judges do, of course, have the comfort and benefit of distance and, in the case of those who have had a long-existing familiarity with a breed and have judged it for many years, are able to view changes rationally and, when deemed necessary, are able to sound an alarm when things appear to go askew conformation-wise.  They are in possession of the big picture, so to speak, of the keen mental perception that tells them when things appear to be going wrong. They see the whole forest clearly and do not become unduly preoccupied with the nitty-gritty details of individual trees. They are a veritable buffer against the results of breeding for extremes, which oftentimes breeder-judges, oddly enough, more often than not respond positively to. You know the things: more neck, more length, exaggerated angles, sloping toplines, overdone rears, more reach and drive. Or, in the case of many Toys, more ‘pretty’ at the expense of soundness. In other words, these judges have the ability, by virtue of their knowledge, background and detachment, to keep breeds honest by their deeds in word and especially in action within the ring. When a well-known and highly respected judge brings up the subject in a written article published in a prominent publication, of the undesirable changes which are currently being seen in the make and shape of a particular breed the situation is clearly serious and the problem needs addressing. When this happens, breeders presumably (and hopefully) take notice and steps can be taken to correct an unacceptable trend. Judges of this stature serve as guardians and the breeds are surely better for it.

It almost goes without saying that all is not well when a non-breeder-judge has to state publicly and unequivocally that some breeders are failing to protect the integrity of their breed and are therefore violating a trust. This is what it really amounts to. In fact, things are pretty bad when this happens. So what about the role of the breeder-judge in all of this? Does such an individual always have the dispassion and distance and objectivity to see what is occurring or are they too close to even realize the seriousness of a situation? There are some who undoubtedly do and others who probably don’t. Is there such a thing as being too near, too involved, too narrow-mindedly myopic to see the forest rather than the trees? The problem is that certain fads and trends get established and almost everyone seemingly jumps on the bandwagon without thinking through the likely consequences. There is surely a herd-type mentality oftentimes in play. There is a disadvantage to seeing things too narrowly because this compromises awareness of the larger picture. Among the specialists there are those who have the courage of their convictions, which enables them to buck a trend, but then there are others who are perfectly willing to go with the flow and thereby continue to do their breed ongoing damage. This is a slippery slope if ever there was one.

The possible downside of knowing a breed almost too well is to remove the focus on the overall dog and become unduly or excessively preoccupied with details, those subtle nuances of breed type. Very close familiarity affords full awareness thereof. Deeper understanding does not, however, necessarily always translate into good, balanced judging. In my own recent experience I have come across exhibits that have done significant winning but yet are not particularly well-made. What does this tell me? That some of the judges who have passed on them previously must be disregarding quite serious shortcomings because the dogs in question excel in one respect or other. Let me hasten to add that I am not remotely advocating fault judging, per se, here. The emphasis, which they placed, was clearly different. A glaring example was witnessed a few weeks ago. At a large all-breed dog show, in a sizeable entry, a novice breeder-judge chose as her Breed winner an exhibit that was so sickle-hocked that it could hardly stand with its metatarsals perpendicular to the ground and consequently had no rear drive or follow-through whatsoever. In the Group competition it was an embarrassment to watch and, not surprisingly, the dog walked under one of our great all-rounders. The thought occurred to me that something other than the respective merits of the dogs in competition might conceivably have entered into the equation when the breed was being judged. Too bad; a disservice surely! So the question which sometimes confronts a judge is as follows: Would you give preference to a well-made dog of good, but average, breed type or to an unsound, poorly-constructed dog excelling in one type characteristic or other? Shouldn’t be all that tough of a call! The two categories of judges alluded to above will probably give you a somewhat different answer? So which one would you go with?


Gareth Morgan-Jones holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Nottingham, England, and a Doctor of Science degree from his alma mater, the University of Wales. Now retired, he carries the title of Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, where he was a member of the faculty for thirty-eight years. He is approved by the AKC to judge Best in Show, the Hound and Toy Groups, sixteen Sporting breeds, and Pembroke Welsh Corgis. He can be reached at

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Posted by on May 9 2020. Filed under Current Articles, Dog Show History, Editorial, 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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