Are Breeder-judges good for the sport?

From the column "Keeping The Focus On Man’s And Woman’s (And Child’s!) Best Friend". ShowSight Magazine, April 2019 Issue. Click to subscribe.  

Are Breeder-judges good for the sport?

As registrations of pure-bred dogs and participation at dog shows decline, recent trends have changed the game. More and more handlers have also become breeders. And many breeders have become AKC judges and then stopped breeding. Finally, while some judges may not breed directly, many are still linked to downline breeders who are virtually co-breeders. The lines between breeders, handlers and judges have always been delicately balanced but now are more and more blurred.

To some in the fancy, breeders who become AKC judges have become controversial. That criticism comes from owners or breeders who compete against dogs bred by breeder judges and felt the breeder judge somehow has an advantage. By definition, breeders who become judges are experienced and established in their breed. They also have a lot to offer their respective fancy. A judge’s opinion should be looked upon as just that—their opinion. Wouldn’t you prefer the opinion of a judge who knows your breed from the whelping box to the Best In Show ring?

Full disclosure. We are current Breeders of Merit, having bred since 1987, still actively breeding; Cathy is an AKC judge, Mike judges at matches and works as a ring steward. Cathy used to handle our dogs, but for over a decade we’ve used terrific professional handlers with great success. So, we are, therefore, biased at every level and impartial at none.

By definition, the AKC demands breeding experience before a person can begin the process of becoming an AKC judge. There are different requirements for handlers. Over the years the road to becoming a judge was always, with some exceptions, been paved with breeding or handling experience. The premise was that these experiences ensured that the new judge had a pool of knowledge that would help them become a good judge. These judges understood their breed standards and what it takes to produce excellent dogs.

Where’s the respect?

Yet, today, we see more and more examples of exhibitors arguing with judges. Instead of talking to the judge to understand the results, many file complaints with AKC reps at shows, and showing little regard for judges when their dogs do not win. Judges used to be respected in the same way that teachers used to be respected. Many respected successful judges in the past continued to be top breeders. There was no question that they knew what they were doing as they judged in the ring. Most of these judges were also very generous with their time to explain why they judged the way they did when asked by an exhibitor. Why? Because they were also mentors and they respected the exhibitors just as they hoped they would be respected.

Breeders as mentors

Good breeders are also great mentors for the people to whom they have sold a dog, whether a show dog or a pet. They stay in touch with their new owner families, recruit new show homes where possible and understand that there are no dumb questions from new members to the fancy. They understand that the future of the sport is dependent upon a growing pool of new dog owners and exhibitors. As breeders we try to encourage new owners to become more involved beyond just having a dog. Where we used to concentrate on conformation competition, we now promote multiple avenues for training such as therapy, water trials, scent work, obedience, agility and other activities. We know that an owner who participates in these areas is more likely to join a local dog club, go to dog shows and become an advocate for 
pure-bred dogs.

Where are the pure bred puppies?

Yet, the sport is struggling and breeders are disappearing. With over a half-million new registrations each year with the AKC, over 5,000 dog clubs with an estimated 150,000 members, there are less than 10,000 AKC Breeders Of Merit in the whole country. Where do we think the dogs are going to come from to support dog shows 
and registrations?

At a recent AKC Legislative Conference on the west coast, one of the presentations dealt with “Professional Breeders, looking to the future—it is time to change the narrative”. The AKC’s relatively new program is to encourage and work with commercial breeders who breed in much larger numbers than the average Breeder of Merit. We get it—more dogs, more registrations. They estimated that of the ten million puppies born every year, commercial breeders produce 30% of the total, while “hobby” breeders only provide 3%, 44% from rescues and shelters, 4% pet stores and the rest—
who knows?

We need more breeder-judges

Unfortunately, the trend has been that once a person becomes a judge, they tend to stop breeding. The AKC has rules that are designed to limit the perception of a conflict of interest for a judge, yet some judges use this as a reason to stop breeding. This does not advance the sport of pure-bred dogs. Judges should keep breeding and by so doing stay current on changes in breeds and continue to mentor new exhibitors in the sport. When a judge stops breeding, all of us lose a huge reservoir of experience, knowledge, and advancement of their breed and the sport 
in general.

The AKC can help

The AKC should encourage judges to keep breeding and stay in the game as much as possible. While many judges were once breeders, times change and breed standards evolve. To become an AKC Breeder Of Merit, a breeder must have been involved with AKC events for five years, earned at least four conformation, performance or companion event titles, be a member of an AKC parent club, certify that application health screens are performed on their breeding stock and demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that 100% of the puppies produced are AKC registered. It is not enough to just be an AKC judge. We all need to mentor, develop and encourage newcomers to the sport if we expect to have a sport in ten years. We’re in the best position to do all of that as breeders; producing dogs that meet breed standards and placing great dogs with new owners who will be the life blood of our sport’s future. 

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