By Peri Norman
One of the first questions people ask when watching their first dog show is, “What is the judge thinking? All the purebred dogs are all so beautiful, how does the judge choose between them? “Every Boxer, English Springer Spaniel and Bichon Frise looks the same—what’s the difference?”
These are excellent questions. Of course, we can never be inside someone else’s head as they are working, but some things are universal about judging.
Like judges in our courts of law, judges for champion dog shows and other livestock judging events begin their careers as participants. Dog show judges start as breeders, and some also handle dogs professionally. To breed and exhibit quality dogs worthy of winning in the show ring requires following a plan, or a breed standard.
Every breed club establishes this standard, or written blueprint, for its breed. The standard describes the overall appearance of the breed and what attributes are most important. It also describes some basic behaviors related to function the breed was bred to perform.
From Showing to Judging
Moving from the level of exhibitor to judge requires the following:
- Expertise in discussing and interpreting the words of the standard for one or more breeds of dogs.
- Documented years of experience.
- Some level of success as measured by numbers of Champions produced, owned, and handled.
- Passing American Kennel Club tests on the breed standard the applicant wants to judge.
- General knowledge of canine structure.
- Understanding ring procedures, such as weighing and measuring dogs if required to perform, and managing the judging agenda.
Knowing Purebred Dog History
Dog show judges also need a clear comprehension of the breed’s development, its historical and present purpose, and how the job the dog was bred to perform affects its physical and mental attributes.
Judging dogs is a responsibility acquired based on an individual’s experience in the sport and commitment to on-going education and leadership.
The Judging Procedure
The judging procedure is far from simple. The American Kennel Club has certain requirements the judge must perform at every show. These include:
- Physically examining every dog in the ring.
- Maintaining fair and consistent ring procedure for each exhibitor.
- Staying on schedule.
- Giving each exhibit and each class the appropriate amount of time to allow for a thorough evaluation, but not so long as to delay the show for other exhibitors.
- Completing paperwork that records placements, wins, excusals, and disqualifications. Experienced judges develop a system that meets all the requirements. They become so skillful at going through the process that it is like muscle memory for an athlete.
The Judge’s Examination
Judging is an abbreviated, and importantly objective, version of a breeder evaluation. Each dog receives a complete breed-specific examination. This includes:
- Evaluating all the details in the standard starting with the shape of the head (including ears, eyes, and teeth) size, coat color and texture, the amount of bone and details of body shape all the way down to the end of the tail and the tips of the toenails. These details are different for each breed. Some breeds have specific color or patterning that require more thorough evaluation, like a Dalmatian, which requires evenly distributed spots of a particular size over the entire body of the dog.
- Observing the dog gaiting or walking from the front, back and side. The way the dog moves reflects its soundness and functionality and fulfills the requirements of the standard and the job the breed was bred to perform.
- Looking at the dog’s profile when it is stationary. This view allows the judge to consider the overall quality, symmetry and balance of the dog.
Judging the Class
After the judge finishes evaluating each dog and mentally catalogs its strengths and weaknesses, the judge is only half-done.
The next step is comparing all the dogs to one another and taking into consideration the standard, history and function of the breed. This part of the procedure can be the most challenging and contentious part of the judging.
From outside the ring, spectators only observe the dog from one perspective and can’t see all of the strong or weak points, such as the dog’s bite, the way it moves, or expression. The structure under heavily coated dogs, such as a Leonberger or Old English Sheepdog, for example, is especially challenging for observers to evaluate because the hair covers a multitude of faults and virtues. TV, video or photographs show even less information.
It’s a fact. Judges have preferences. Some judges place more emphasis on beautiful heads, or bone, body and substance appropriate to the job the breed performs while others value mental and physical soundness over a cosmetic detail. Within every standard, it is the variation of an opinion that makes the sport of dog showing so intriguing.
The job of the judge is a complex process of evaluating and comparing individual dogs to the standard of perfection and each other. At the same time, the judge must adhere to the policies and procedures that contribute to a fair and objective evaluation of every exhibit.
Peri Norman acquired her first show dog, a Gordon Setter, as a young junior handler in 1971. Her love affair with “all things dog” continues today. She is an AKC Breeder of Merit, an AKC licensed judge, and an award-winning freelance writer.