Conformation Dog Show Judges Part 2 — Where are we now?

From the November 2019 issue of  ShowSight, The Dog Show Magazine. Click to subscribe.

The process for approving AKC judges has come a long way and may continue to evolve. From an era when decisions were made by a single individual, deciding whether an applicant would receive the breeds they applied for, or less, or more; the process has evolved through use of various methods to ensure expertise. These methods included proctored closed book testing on Standards, hands on testing with live dogs, and open book testing followed by interviews with AKC Field Representatives. In the early 2000s, in order to qualify to apply for regular status for a breed, a provisional judge was required to judge the breed, with dogs present, five times. For a time, the process limited applications to a “one for one” process: an applicant who was eligible and approved for only one breed to start with, was only able to apply for one additional breed after obtaining regular status on the first breed. Those who were eligible for more than one breed could subsequently apply for that same number of breeds. How quickly most judges were able to move forward was, at that point, largely dependent on two factors: how many breeds were approved on the first application and how quickly five assignments with dogs present were completed for each application cycle. The process became generally more objective, but it was, for many, extremely slow, and shows were increasing in numbers and judges were aging and retiring more quickly than they were being replaced by this system.

A new system was put in place in September 2015 based on the theory that anyone who wanted to judge should be able to move forward at their own pace. While still required to participate in breed specific education, the new system provided for applicants to move more quickly to apply for additional breeds. For the first time, applicants were allowed to apply while some breeds were still in provisional status. The process to apply for additional breeds required passing an open book test, engaging in minimal breed specific educational experiences, and passing an interview with an AKC Field representative. New judges were observed by AKC Field Representatives to ensure their ring procedure was adequate and appropriate, and on a yearly basis for how they were making judging decisions in a breed. Judges who had significant complaints or problems could be subject to additional observations. The speed with which some judges were progressing became a concern for some, as did the fact that some of those progressing rapidly were relatively unknown breeder judges whose overall experience with the breeds they were now adjudicating was uncertain.

In response to those concerns, modifications were made to that process as of January 2018 to create the current judging approval process. The educational process is a more stringent process that requires study, testing, and options for many types of education in a breed prior to any interview or consideration of an application to judge for each breed. AKC has continued to move forward to provide study aids within the Canine College and to streamline the application process using that same platform, allowing > applicants to more easily track and ensure ongoing availability of application/education materials via upload to a personal portfolio on the website. The interview is more comprehensive. There is a requirement for an observation and completion of a Judge’s Breed Commentary (JBC) to document the conversation with the AKC Field Representative from both perspectives for any Permit (provisional) Judge who has entries of four or more dogs in a permit breed. A judge must complete three assignments with two or more dogs present and three JBCs with different AKC Field Representatives before applying for regular status for a breed or group of breeds, with the single exception that six assignments with no dogs present for low entry breeds will qualify a Permit Judge to apply for regular status for those breeds.

Where are we today? As of October 2019, we have 742 judges listed who have approval to judge one or more full Groups, with 18 approved to judge all Groups. There are many more who have less than one Group, some who will continue to move forward to gain approval to judge more breeds and some who only want to judge those they are have already. To gain approval for the first Group typically has taken approximately ten years due to a combination of difficulties with the frequency of invitations to judge, and difficulties with having an entry when there is an opportunity to judge. Through September (per the AKC Board Minutes for October), there have been 44 individuals who have been newly approved to judge at AKC shows, for a total of 85 breeds (average of about two breeds per applicant). In that same time frame, there have been 282 individuals who have applied for 1,563 additional breeds, of which two applications have been held (placed on hold), six have been denied, and eleven have been limited (not all breeds applied for were approved), with 264 judges who have been approved for 1519 new breeds by application (average of about six breeds per application).

We currently have judges who were approved under each of the systems referenced above. My belief is that most would tell you that the most important judge’s education they have experienced is judging the dogs—the hands-on evaluation and placing of dogs that are entered in dog shows. All are human and make mistakes. Some have specific expertise in some breeds and are found lacking in other breeds. Although there is no requirement for continuing education for judges, most continue to study and learn about the breeds they are approved to judge as well as other breeds, both because they may see them in the Best in Show ring, and because they have an ongoing interest in all things dogs. Some are very open to feedback/education from exhibitors and others not so much. All have opinions, and those opinions are based on different priorities, which does mean that there may be very different results on different days (and wouldn’t it be boring if everyone agreed), even with well educated, experienced judges. There always has been and always will be concern that priorities for some judges may include factors other than the written Standard for the breed being judged, or may be based in a lack of understanding the breed, but that may or may not be truth, and can be extremely difficult to identify with certainty.

To some degree our marketplace does impact what judges are hired by clubs, but not necessarily in a simple way. If only judges who pulled the most entries were hired, the exhibitors would have a very powerful method of helping to determine who is a popular judge. Clubs must balance budget, potential entries, influence within their Clubs, and workload. Judges approved for less than one Group may be paid on a per dog basis, or be offered a hotel room, or may come at their own cost. There must be sufficient judges approved to judge full Groups to cover all of the Group competition, and each of those judges is likely costing the club expenses plus a fee—making it very expensive to hire judges who have only one or two groups for small shows, and, with the desire to utilize each judge hired as fully as possible, lessens the likelihood that hiring Permit judges (with the work involved in contracting, communicating, ensuring housing, and feeding the day of the show) will be seen as a positive for the Club. Some Clubs make a point of hiring Permit judges, and AKC does give credit to Clubs who use Permit judges with less than one Group, but it does mean extra effort on the part of Club volunteers.

Here we are. We have systems in place with the capacity to educate both new and existing judges. There are AKC Field Representatives observing and providing feedback to judges who have been through the education system and are learning to judge breeds they are newly approved to judge. Our system may favor those judges who have worked to obtain approval for multiple Groups. We want a lot out of our judges. How do we get to a place where we can begin to get what we want? Are there ways to further improve our systems for approving and managing conformation judges? Are there better methods of training judges and assessing their knowledge base and ability to apply that knowledge? More to come!

Hope to see you all down the road at a dog show…. 

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