some thoughts about judging

I dont judge dogs that often. In the past I always refused to judge anything other than Irish Wolfhounds, as all the time I was working the one breed was enough to think about. Some things stick, however, as I have been watching breeds being judged by others for some 43 years now.

The starting point has to be knowing your breed, closely followed by knowing your own mind. How often has one watched a judge “scratching their head” as they decide between exhibits? Its tedious watching someone re-do judging which really they could be getting on with as they first go over the hounds. Ringside doesnt see it as the exhibitors getting their moneys worth, they see a ditherer. How often have I heard colleagues muttering ” just get on with it” or even ” it doesnt get any better the longer you look at it” ! If you really cant make up your mind, move them again and pick the better mover. It gets you out of stasis.

I judge as I go along. The first dog is in  first place in my mind until I go over the second dog, which might go up a place against the first dog seen, or might stay second. And so on. In huge classes I doubt whether even the best judges can hold all the dogs in their heads in this way. I have friends who, liking the european system, grade dogs as they go as either excellent or very good, with the less than excellents not likely to make the cut. Do this by making a quick note in your book at the going over stage, or by sending the dogs to one corner of the ring or another – but this latter choice is rather hard on exhibitors. Remember Miss Pacey judging like this at one of the Olympia shows years ago, we dont often see it nowadays. Even in those far off days I registered that all the old ladies in hats were in the top corner !

I set great store by movement. I cant help this, its the way I have learned to differentiate the well handled from the well made. If the handler makes a set for the corner when you have directed them in a straight line up the middle then they are either novices or they are out to fool the judge. There’s the well known judges dance, when you have to hop sideways to see how the dog is coming towards one. I dont think enough handlers look up when they turn and head back for the judge, and certainly not enough ensure the dog is trotting towards the judge, rather than you the handler. If the dog is a very uncontrolled mover you can expect me to ask it to go again more slowly. I’ve exhibited dogs for over forty years. I too know to make a mess of the trot up and down when I have a dog which isnt worth looking at from that view but has a striking side gait ! I’m not even a good handler – and have made all the mistakes one can make over time.

I am hard over on co ordinated movement. If the dog is crabbing/ sidewinding, why is this? Too often its because the dog cant go on a straight line as its front and rear angulations arent balanced. Maybe its back is too long or too short, or its not in the best condition. This is when its worth walking the dog to watch exactly what the problem is, you can pick it up in slo-mo what you cant see it at a fast trot. I’ve asked a handler to swop sides with a hound before now. Some dogs learn to crab as a response to the speed, or lack of it, of the handler. Asking the handler to move the dog to their right side and go again can magic the problem away – if the dog still does it, then there is still something incorrect in its construction or soundness on that day.

So, you know your own mind and you know the breed, and how it should move for maximum efficiency – what next? That great judge Frank Kane has put it far better than I can in his article on integrity. Be true to yourself. Have courage. You are on your own out there and cant get a second opinion. If there is an ultra fit scruffy hound there with great construction and a handler with no idea, is that hound better than Mr Important’s charge, beautifully presented though his hound is? If you think so, then scruffy unknown dog has to win. Grooming can be improved upon, construction cant. You may well be thinking now ” hang on a moment, isnt it supposed to be a beauty show?”. Er, no it isnt. Handlers are showing the judge that they have an animal which meets the standard of excellence for that breed and ideally that the dog could go out and do what it was bred to do straight after the show. There is a lovely and true anecdote about a famous international champion which was allowed off lead for a wee en route to a dog show. She leapt off and chased a rabbit, returning caked with mud. The exhibitor could hardly bathe her at this late stage, yet the hound still won the certificate. The best dog has to win, not the best groomed, but its true its wonderful when the two conditions converge.

How to be brave as a judge? Have the courage of your own convictions.Exhibitors know their trade and some are wonderful handlers, and none of them go into the ring hoping for a second prize when they have been around for a while. I know I am quite self effacing as a handler, looking down at the dog and looking under my eyelashes for that signal that brings the dog into the line up ( you hope !). Others stare out the judge. You can see some people “willing” the judge to ” look at me, look at me”. Its amazing how often this works. Its why some folks have a showing ” uniform”, so the judge always knows Mr or Mrs Important is the one to seek out by what they usually wear. Red is often used – the colour of a first prize in the UK, look how often you see it on some handlers (!).

It is possible to turn a sows ear into a silk purse in the world of dogs.Exhibitors spend considerable time dedicating themselves to grooming and presentational skills in order to convince the judge they have the best dog. The judge needs to think through the logic if things arent quite as they might expect. If the handler has left a load of hair on a dogs neck, why is this? Disguising a ewe neck, is it? Handler is stringing up a hound so it can hardly breathe – why is this? Make the person loosen the lead and see if the dog 1) stays where it is ( was it on the edge of flight?) and 2) still has any sort of neck and head carriage without this ” assistance”. If the handler is staying close to the dog and you suspect he or she has a handful of dog cheek or throat in his hand, ask  them to drop their hands and look at the dog on its own. Funny old thing, sometimes you find a dewlap or a far- from- attractive amount of loose skin. The same if the handler is sitting beside the dog – are they helping the topline with a hand lifting the underline on the side the judge cant see?

Some dogs are trained to faff around when a judge approaches the mouth. This can happen by accident ( exhibitors spend far too much time wrestling with mouths of youngsters as they figure out whether the bite is going to be correct, and the dog can get into the habit of fighting for its head). It might have been allowed to get away with it in the hope a judge would give up and assume it was ok. The funniest experience I ever had as a judge was getting into a dogs mouth when the handler had curved her fingers over the area where some premolars should be. I could tell the difference. Persist, or downgrade the hound if you dont get a clear view. Always penalise narrow underjaws when you judge wolfhounds. its prevalent enough for the Scandinavians to have added it to their list of serious breed faults as its potentially painful for the hound when the canines are forced into the gum line, or even into the palate. Somehow I have never been able to get worked up about misplaced incisors, as long as the bite ( the set of the canines) is ok. When you judge you will get your own set of priorities about every part of the dog, but do be consistent.

” to their faults a little blind, to their virtues ever kind”, something I wish i were better at. Given time enough its just too tempting to write War and Peace in the critique. Its a novice judge type of thing, to try to list absolutely everything so the mystery critic ( your inner critic?) can see you havent missed anything important. Stick to a few essentials.Its rather nice to put criticisms in terms of ” winner had the better head/ ears/ movement on the day”. Yet why on earth write something anodyne about an animal which is a clearly second rate creature? I once spoke to someone who was thinking about breeding their bitch, a hound which was always last in the class no matter how many were in it. This lovely owner was committed to breeding a litter as there was never a word of criticism the times it was first out of one or second out of two. Not everyone can read between the lines when they start out, know that the  ” what a lovely character, enjoyed his day out” sort of comment equals ” its a pet, retire it”. Judges need to say what it needs to have improved at the very least. If the dog is unsound – do i need to say this? – dont place it.

In some entries, usually at championship shows or overseas, it falls to the judge to be the “baddie”. Mrs Nagle did this in America in the early 1970s, still talked about today. She reacted so crossly to straight rear ends ” stifles like sticks” that you never ever see a rear like that in the States to this day. We hear about ” the drag on the breed” – that fault or faults  which are endemic and which most breeders should be thinking to do something about. In America right now, and in the frequently expressed opinion of UK and Irish judges, that something is mouths. The bite of the dog isnt mentioned in the standard there. This doesnt mean it should be ignored. As one wit put it, the standard doesnt state the dog must have four legs but we can assume it should have them. Wolfhounds shouldnt have to catch up with a wolf and consider then whether its armament would be up to the job – breeders should think about mouths and bites too, as they do everywhere else in the world.

In the UK this “drag” is probably lack of quality and houndiness and beautiful movement.Where is the lovely neck, the clean shoulder and upperarm, the forechest?  There are always too few hounds with this combination, and the judges need to put up those they find. If there are more than two in any class consider yourself fortunate.

Another well known phrase is that you cant please all the people all of the time. The cynics’ truth to bear in mind as a judge is this –  straight afterwards your only friend will be the winner ( and only then if they also got best puppy). Following judging all those nice friendly folk who assiduously ” liked” your least utterance on Facebook will vanish away – with perhaps the exception of the Best of Breed winner. Just as you talk about all the other judges, so people will talk about you. You will have repaid a friend for their last award to you, given a good prize to someone you have always fancied, gone for Mrs X as she always wins everything on reputation…. all this background chatter has to be ignored. If you were fair and judged the dogs as you saw them on the day, then chatter is all it will be and you will know your integrity is intact.

You dont judge to be popular, to settle old scores, to stick out a banner of your idea of “The True Type” (only to be seen twenty or more years ago, and hasnt the breed deteriorated since One last bred Oneself). You judge as a responsibility, to add something back to the breed, be it what you know or at the very least your honest opinion on the day. You judge as fairly as you know how, you are pleasant to exhibitors, you dont dress to scare the horses ( sorry, hounds) and you have the humility to remember you will be back on the end of a lead the next week.You will also possess the secret knowledge that your exhibit really isnt quite as good as the one belonging to Mrs X, which really is a superb hound despite what everyone has been saying. Judging as part of a breeder’s toolkit…… now that sounds like another article one day…..


9 thoughts on “some thoughts about judging”

  1. Wonderful article and applies no matter what breed or group is being judged. Think you should write a book of these blogs

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