Judges: Back To The Future

There was a time in the not-too-distance past—a time before Al Gore invented the Internet and cell phones, computers and social media were not around. It was the 1970s and there was a sport where professionals and amateurs competed at the same level and people of all ages, shapes and sizes, all social, religious, political, economic and sexual orientations got together to enjoy competing with man’s best friend in a sport called… dog shows.


It was a simple sport with basically three areas of competition: Obedience, Field Trials and Conformation.


From the November 2015 issue of ShowSight. Click to Subscribe.


Most of the competitors were average Americans. Some were single, some were married and often, most had families with children. They were people who worked at normal jobs Monday through Friday. Many of the children went to school during the week except for the summer months and the holidays. All of them had one thing in common—they had a love and a passion for their dogs, their breeds and the camaraderie that was developed by the competition.


For many of these people, the typical week was work or school Monday through Friday and then packing the kids, the car and the dogs and heading out for a weekend of fun and competition with their dogs. The dog shows were thriving with almost all of the shows having entries over 1,000 dogs per day. Shows were held in various local communities on one specific weekend twice a year. This meant that on at least two occasions per year, the local dog enthusiast got to share their sport with their neighbors and friends and introduce a new batch of people to the dog show world. 


The families looked forward to the weekends. The parents and children got to travel to new cities and states. At the shows they met many people who shared a common interest and also enjoyed spending time as a family with their beloved pets. Winning was important and wins were always treasured, but the time spent with fellow enthusiasts in conversations, dinner, showing and training are what made the sport great and thriving.


At that time you went to each show site for just one day. Following the show, you packed up and headed to the next show site. The kids looked forward to swimming and hanging out with their friends at the Holiday Inn, while the parents got to chill and spend time talking dogs with their peers. Back in those days the same dogs and people competed on a regular basis. There was no flying all over the country looking for points or avoiding competition. The competition was fierce and intensive, but when the judging was over it was back to the grooming area where the coolers came out, people had lunch together and then stayed to cheer on the breed winner in the group hoping that tomorrow maybe it would be their dog everyone would stick around to cheer for.


It was a time when people that were not at the show might not know the results for months until the AKC Gazette published the results and people could see who had won and where and under which judges.

Judges were RESPECTED. Sure exhibitors would sometimes be upset that they did not win. They might not have liked the way a particular judge sorted out the entry, but they congratulated the winner and they did not publicly run down the judges or dogs that they had lost to or under. If they did not like the judge, they just did not go back the next time.


People not only wanted to win, but they also wanted to IMPROVE their breed. They studied pedigrees, went out and found mentors they respected and worked at breeding or obtaining a better dog. There were many Puppy Matches where people went to not only socialize their youngsters, but where they also honed their handling skills and learned to evaluate the competitiveness of their next aspiring Champion.


Sometime in the late 1970s and the early 1980s America was going through a change. Inflation was out of control, gas prices were rising and political upheaval was front page news. In an effort to try to cut down on the high cost of gas and travel expenses someone came up with the idea that two or more clubs could combine their shows at one site if it was considered as being “exceptional”. Now people would not have to travel from site to site. There would be a cost savings in sharing judges, cutting down exhibitors extra traveling and so on. Shows were still basically two-day affairs, but the flood gates had been opened. The requirements were at the time you needed an “exceptional site” for these clusters, as they were known. Of course these sites cost a considerable amount to rent—above and beyond the fairgrounds we were all used to. They had electrical connections, air conditioning, lots of parking and many things not found in local fairgrounds, schools and parks.


Next thing you know, shows are now being held “back to back” by the same club eliminating the twice a year exposure the sport had received in the local community in the past. Shortly thereafter clubs were leaving their own territory and joining with other clubs to create two-, three- and four-day weekends in what was described as economic cost cutting. In reality the creation of clusters and these “exceptional sites” were INCREASING entry fees to cover the higher cost of the facilities. Clusters were in some cases eliminating the “local flavor” and exposure of the sport in most communities. 

They were also driving away the average family because the kids were in school during the week and parents were working.


During this time the American Kennel Club also eliminated the licensing of professional handlers and now there was an increase in agents with no regulatory body to oversea their qualifications, facilities or business practices.


Because the average working family could not make all of these new four-day circuits, these agents were soon being used to show all of the dogs for some of the people who could no longer get away to show their own dogs. Soon the shows were filled with huge RVs and the ranks of the professional handler were growing. The cost of hiring these people kept many of the previous average exhibitors from continuing to compete because they could no longer afford all of the costs associated with the handling fees.


While this evolution was taking place, the Internet also came on board and now people were using the world wide web to keep up on things. Websites were popping up everywhere and now breeders—many good and legitimate, but some not so—were advertising puppies as AKC champion show stock regardless of the quality. Unsuspecting consumers bought many a “pet” after being told it was a “show dog”.


The Internet also spawned the dawning of social media like Facebook, Twitter and a variety of other sites. Everyone now has a cell phone with a built-in camera. Many of these people who were sold “show dogs” without doing their research could not understand why my “Fido” is not winning. Suddenly these exhibitors were saying, “The judge only puts up the professional handler.” “The judge is an idiot or a crook” and so on. The results were now known instantly. Often before the winners were even back in the crate the whole world knew the results.


In the past those sour grapes might have been taken back to the grooming area, or to the car on the trip home or maybe even in a phone conversation with a close friend. Although I am sure they existed, individuals and dogs were not raked over the coals for everyone to see. Now people want success at any cost and they want it now. They do not look at the quality of their competitors exhibits, they do not study their own breed standards, they do not even try to follow the judges thought process. If they lose they promptly, and often publicly, trash the judge and the competition online—and even right there outside the ring.


Judges are publicly admonished because they did not smile enough, or seem happy or friendly enough. They are criticized for putting up professionals, even if the professional had the best dog. Judges with many more years of experience than the common exhibitor have their knowledge and integrity questioned in social media without the simplest regard to respect.


From the November 2015 issue of ShowSight. Click to Subscribe.


Just think what all of this has done to the public’s perception of our sport. Where just a few decades ago we were a family sport that was thriving, we are now seeing a rapid decline in our entries. Massive amounts of negative media are on the rise and legislations against our breeders and their rights are at an all time high. What is the answer to our dilemma?


Maybe, just maybe, it is time for us to think about going “back to the future”.


Why do we need large circuits at “exceptional sites”? Why can’t we take our shows back to a club’s home territory? What’s wrong with just weekend shows? Is it all about money? Is it all about giving away more ribbons and titles?


I understand that clustering can help to keep club costs down for facilities and judges. However in many cases, they create other problems because leadership positions and people in the clubs themselves change. Sometimes because of the changes the people and the clubs no longer get along and do not work in harmony. Or the membership of one club declines and they are just hanging on because the other club does the work. Why don’t we look for ways to help the clubs?


I would suggest that AKC take a look at their member clubs. Currently member clubs have very few benefits from the AKC. Member clubs make up the delegate body and spend a great deal of their club funds to send their delegates to meetings and so on. In my opinion, member clubs deserve some extra consideration for their contributions. In an effort to reduce some of the clustering costs and home territory issues maybe AKC should consider this as a proposal: a member club that holds the shows within the confines of their home territory will now be permitted a three-day weekend. The reasoning behind it…


1. Brings shows back into the club’s territory, which allows for exposure in the local community. (Just look at the number of shows being held in Springfield, MA—how is that helping the sport be introduced in the home communities of those clubs?)


2. The Friday show could be used in that community to invite schools, nursing homes, etc. to not only educate many people, but also provide exposure to people who might not otherwise attend.


3. The third day would eliminate the needs of some clubs to share judges as cost would now be a little more manageable and the problems associated with working with other clubs would be eliminated.


4. It is much easier for the average family to take off an occasional Friday from work or school than it is to take off two days. If the average person gets two to three weeks of vacation, they could attend 10-15 longer weekends each year.


5. It will be much easier and healthier for the dogs. At a four to five-day cluster, dogs are more confined to the same ex-pens, exposed to prolonged time in crates—this can expose them to not only more disease, but may also have an effect brought on by the stress involved. Many (not all) do not get the extra exercise and fun time they get when they are at home.


Since AKC already has in place rules regarding public ridicule of judges, maybe they need to monitor the sites and issue suspensions for some of the people who make ruthless and unfounded accusation’s against a person’s knowledge and integrity. I often wonder how many people have exposed themselves to possible slander and libel lawsuits after some of the public statements they make not only verbally, but in print.


As judges, breeders and exhibitors we need to embrace the young and newcomers to our sport. We need to not only create a better environment for sharing knowledge with other breeders and exhibitors, but also a dialog between exhibitors and judges. Back in the 70s, judges and exhibitors often talked dogs and shared opinions with little or no suggestion of impropriety. Now if a judge sees someone and asks how the family is or anything else, they are automatically accused of being political.


Exhibitors need to learn that judges are people to. Each one has his or her own personal demeanor and traits. A happy, jolly, friendly judge may not have a clue in your breed while that stone faced one may be absorbed into his or her evaluation process and almost always get it right. Judges stand on their feet up to 7-8 hours a day. They not only mentally evaluate all of the dogs, they also must physically bend over to examine each one of them. Some will walk several miles during the course of the day, watching the dogs being moved and evaluated.


Judges also take the assignments well in advance of the day of the show. On occasion the judge may be under the weather or they may be dealing with a personal or other issue that could be effecting their demeanor on that day. Is it really fair to make statements about these people that are unrelated to the judging process?


I have been judging for over a quarter of a century and I know from personal experience that most judges are really trying to do the right thing. Each and every judge tries to put up the best dog they can find on that day. For most, the person handling is not the factor in their decision-making process. Are there bad and corrupt judges? 

Remember our sport is a microcosm of society; we have good people and we have bad people, but if you think they are bad just don’t show to them—you don’t need to trash them.


When it comes to judges, we should keep in mind that dog judging is a subjective evaluation of the exhibits in front of them based on his or her interpretation of the printed breed standard. In contrast, the US Supreme court is supposed to be made up with 9 of the most learned legal minds in the country. The court has a black and white instrument—the Constitution—to base decisions on, and yet the majority of the decisions they make are 5-4.


Hopefully we all love this sport. My hope is that we can all try to get back to that simpler time when it was mainly about the dogs, the spirit of competition and the wonderful friends and camaraderie that was shared. At one time owning an AKC registered dog was like having a dog with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It was special to own a purebred dog.


We need to remind ourselves that we are at all times ambassadors of our sport to our friends, our neighbors and our communities. Our actions are always being observed by someone.

If we can all get away from the current trend of worrying about only winning and rankings, we can get back to the grass roots that at one time made our sport so great. Let’s try to go back to what we once were and make our future bright and secure.  


About The Author

Walter Sommerfelt of Lenoir City, TN has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs since acquiring his first Old English Sheepdog in 1972. He is a former professional handler as well as a breeder and exhibitor of breeds in all seven groups, most notably Vizslas, OES, Pointers, Bearded Collies and Weimaraners. Judging since 1985 he is approved for all Sporting, Working and Herding breeds and groups, Junior Showmanship and Best in Show and has had the honor of judging on four different continents. 

Mr. Sommerfelt has judged many of the most prestigious shows in the United States including the herding group at the 2014 Westminster Dog Show in New York City.


Mr. Sommerfelt was the founder and chairman for the St. Jude Showcase of Dogs from 1993 until 2009, a unique event showcasing the world of purebred dogs. This special event was the largest collection of various dog events in one location, featuring an AKC All Breed Dog Show, AKC Obedience and Rally Trials, AKC Agility trials (prior to AKC adding agility NADAC trials), one of the largest Fly ball tournaments in the US, Herding and go-to-ground demonstrations. A main stage featuring performances by canines from television and the movies, freestyle, demos by drug and various therapy dogs, a full room of booths for Meet the Breeds, over 50 AKC judges seminars annually, Lure coursing, a fun zone for children and other dog-related fun activities for the general public and their dogs. Over the years the event not only raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, but also raised awareness of the many activities for people with their dogs as well establishing a voice for dog people in the Memphis area with regard to legislation. Many aspects of today’s AKC Eukanuba show can be traced back to the St. Jude event.


Along with Carol, his wife of 30 years, they have bred well over 80 AKC Champions including Group, Best in Show and Specialty Winners, dual Champions and multiple performance 
titled dogs. During the past 40 years, Mr. Sommerfelt has been active in a number of dog clubs and is currently the President of the Tennessee Valley Kennel Club. He is also a career agent and financial planning specialist with Nationwide Insurance. The Sommerfelts’ have two grown children, both former Junior Handlers and they are still active breeders and exhibitors of the Vizsla breed.


(Photo of "Susie" by Daniel Cartier)


From the November 2015 issue of ShowSight. Click to Subscribe.

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