Consistency at Dog Shows

From the monthly column "My Dog Ate/Is My Homework". ShowSight Magazine, June 2017 Issue. Photo by The Candid Canine

We often evaluate a judge's quality and knowledge based on their consistency. The logic makes sense – if a judge likes a particular dog, he or she ought to like relatives and should therefore end up with a pretty uniform slate of winners on a given day, and should reward those same dogs on a regular basis.

There are two things that complicate this seemingly simple belief system. First, each dog is an individual, with a unique set of traits. Second, entries vary, sometimes significantly, from show to show, and judges judge what they have. The other problem is that we tend to be overly focused on type when evaluating a judge's consistency, when type is not (and should not be!) the only factor on which he or she is making a decision. 

Just because two dogs are related does not mean that they are of equal quality, or even that they look like each other. I watched three littermates at our National – a male and female that look like a set of bookends, while the third looks nothing like her siblings. All three were similar in movement and temperament. Had the judge put the male and sister A up for Winners Dog and Winners Bitch, everyone would have been impressed by her consistency, but if she had put up the male and sister B, only those who looked at their catalog would have known the familial connection, while everyone else marveled at how vastly different the two dogs were. The judge could very well feel that sister B has the best type, but put up the male because she didn't have a perfect male match and he was still the best overall dog. And I’m sure we all know at least one gorgeous dog with a sibling that is best left at home!

Dogs that are of equal overall quality may be drastically different when comparing individual traits. This can result in a lineup that has spectators asking, "What was he looking for???" But do we really want our judges making all of their decisions based off of one thing? I certainly don't. Focusing on one thing usually causes everything else to fall apart. If a judge's choices at first don't seem to make sense, try looking at the overall picture – maybe that second place dog with the ugly head out moved third place by miles, or maybe the third place dog is missing teeth. 

A judge might be making most of his or her decisions based on movement, but then come to a class where the best moving dog just doesn't have anything else going for it, and put up a lesser moving dog who has other really good traits. The same goes for heads – there might come a dog that has the head that judge loves, but who can't be touched or falls apart on the move. That class's placement is going to look odd compared to the others if you only consider the movement or heads, but the judge has still chosen what he or she believes is the best dog.

Virtue judging rather than fault judging makes it a little easier to trace these sorts of decisions. The first place dog might have an earset fit to make you sell your tack box and quit dog shows, but also have a great prosternum, easy fluid movement, great coat color and texture, and perfect tight cat feet. If you're only looking at that bad earset, the win doesn't make sense, but if you look at all of the other positive traits, it does. Fault judging is easy to fall into, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone, but it is a habit that can be broken. 

That said, if a judge makes a point of looking at a particular trait when picking a winner, he or she should then make the correct choice! A judge several years ago asked me and another exhibitor to face our bitch specials inward so she could look at their fronts. My bitch has good legs and a nice chest, the other bitch was east-west and narrow. She looked at them and promptly selected the other bitch for Best of Breed. There are reasons I can see and understand for putting that bitch first, but fronts was not one of them! 

Moving on to entries: entry size and composition can vary a lot, and that can and will affect how a dog does, even under the same judge. Yes, a lot of the time if a judge loves a particular dog she will put that dog up every time she sees it. But a larger or different entry could bring with it dogs that that judge likes even more. This does not mean that judge is inconsistent. She still likes dog A, and will place it over dog B every time, but she likes dog C the best. 

Behavior and showmanship also play a role. Your bitch might have beaten a dog special under this judge several times, but today she’s in heat and acting surly and not moving out like she usually does, while that male is showing his heart out. If the bitch truly is a better example of the standard than the dog, she should still win, but if they are similar, showmanship could easily tip the scale. 

I can also see judges’ education and experiences playing a role in shifting judging habits. Maybe the judge just read an article on some fine point of your breed’s type, and so that trait is in the forefront of her mind while judging. If that trait isn’t something that judge has paid close attention to in the past (maybe coat texture or eye shape), her choices might appear out of sync with previous judging assignments. Judges should have a solid grasp of each breed’s standard before judging it, but even experienced judges are hopefully still making an effort to learn more. We have also had judges at our National Specialties, particularly breeder-judges, mention in their reports that they were looking at a specific trait that they feel has been slipping in the breed in recent times. 

The only way that a judge can put up a slate of dogs that is similar in both quality and appearance is if those dogs are available within the entry. This is often not the case, especially in breeds with smaller numbers. Even National Specialties can have eclectic entries, particularly if only one or two dogs from any given bloodline attend. It isn’t really fair to label a judge inconsistent just because his Best of Breed choice didn’t come with an entourage of relatives that could be given the rest of the awards. That Best of Breed dog might very well not have any obvious matches in the entry, or the dogs that do look like him had other weaknesses that the judge wasn’t willing to compromise on. And small entries give very little information on what a judge does or does not like – the entry she judged in May might have been the toughest decision she’s ever made, while the entry in June was utterly uninspiring, but there will still have been a Best of Breed winner at each of those shows (pending disqualifications and such). 

We can only cry inconsistency if a judge sees the same entry multiple times, with all of them behaving the same each time, and then proceeds to make completely random selections. And if a judge truly is inconsistent, you have two choices: not enter, or show anyway and hope that you are the flavor of the day.

Kate Eldredge

ShowSight Magazine

May 17, 2017

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