Interview with Stephanie Hedgepath – 2023 WKC Dog Show Breed Judge
What does it mean to be invited to judge at this year’s historic Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show?
Stephanie Hedgepath: An invitation to judge at Westminster is undoubtedly a high point in any judge’s career. I was delighted to receive the letter inviting me to judge several Herding breeds at the 2023 Westminster Kennel Club show. Since its founding in 1877, the history and traditions of the Westminster Kennel Club have placed it firmly in the public’s minds as the country’s most famous show. When a new acquaintance discovers I am an approved AKC judge, the first question often asked is: “Have you judged the Westminster show in New York City?” Since my first judging assignment at the Westminster Kennel Club was in 2006, I have been delighted to inform them that I have. I was thrilled to be invited in 2006 and just as happy to be asked to return this year. There is no other show like it!
I was thrilled to see the crowds coming in to watch the Breed judging. It was wonderful to hear people in the stands clapping and cheering for the dogs they liked as they were being judged. The last two years were so oddly quiet during the day. I did not realize how much I had missed the enthusiasum that people brought with them to the show.
Can you share your thoughts on your various Breed assignments? Please be specific.
Stephanie Hedgepath: In the seven breeds I was privileged to judge, I expected the quality to be high simply because Westminster Kennel Club is unique in that it is an all-champion show where the top five dogs in each breed are invited to enter. With that in mind, one would expect depth of quality in every breed—and I was not disappointed.
I started my day with a lovely entry of Pyrenean Shepherds. Although it is an ancient breed in the Pyrenees mountains of France, the Pyrenean Shepherd is a relative newcomer to the AKC, gaining full recognition in 2007. The Breed Standard describes two varieties of the breed: the Smooth-Faced and the Rough-Faced dog. The diversity allowed in the Standard between the Rough- and Smooth-Faced dogs is not only in coat, but also in height and profile. This diversity evolved due to the differences of the terrain and climate in which each variety worked. I believe I had almost every type of coat allowed in the Standard, and I must say I enjoyed seeing them.
Overall, the entry had correctly presented coats of proper texture, with only a few undergoing seasonal changes. BOB and BOS were similar in outline and coat. They were clean coming and going, and both had excellent side gaits with feet close to the ground when they got well into their gaits. The other exhibits in the ribbons had smooth, flowing side gaits and were clean coming and going. Several of the dogs had acceptable side gaits but were not as balanced in front and rear angulation, throwing their gait off a bit and causing them to show faults when coming and going. Overall, I was pleased with this group of dogs and look forward to seeing more of them in the future.
Australian Cattle Dog
This was a strong entry overall. The BOB dog was an excellent representative of his breed, and the BOS was lovely in all ways. The dogs awarded on the day had the correct proportion of height to body length and moved with a free, tireless trot. A few of the dogs were a bit too long in profile (or short on legs), and several were faulty in motion, both coming and going.
As one of the newest breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, I was happy to see several Laekenois entered. In Europe, the four Belgians are considered varieties of one breed, differing only in coat and color. AKC recognizes them as four individual breeds. The Laekenois carries a rough, tousled coat colored in shades of red or fawn with grayish tones. The coat and color are essential as they are hallmarks of the breed. Most dogs entered had the correct coat texture, but a few lacked the must-have beard on the muzzle.
The BOB went to a lovely bitch with a beautiful profile carrying the correct course texture and a tousled-look coat. What I most loved about her was her head, proper beard, and fluid side gait. I think she could have kept going all day. BOS was a handsome male with an excellent outline and correct proportions of height to length. He, too, had a proper coat and beard.
This entry of Malinois showed solid depth in quality. The dogs were similar in outline, and all fit very well into the square form called for in their Standard. There was just enough difference in the movement between the dogs to allow me to determine which dog I thought had most of the virtues to allow him to fulfill the tasks for which they were developed. No wonder this versatile, agile breed is often seen working security in airports and as a police/military dog.
My BOB was a dog I had never had the pleasure of judging before. He was in hard, lean, working condition and his energy relayed that he was ready for any task. He had the correct outline and a perfectly balanced side gait. Every time he stopped, he walked into a perfect stance. My BOS bitch was very feminine with a lovely head and expression. The Select Dog, Select Bitch, and the AOM were good representatives of their breed. The Select Dog was a handsome, plush dog who impressed me and pushed hard on the BOB dog.
The black Belgian Sheepdog was right up there with the Malinois in quality. Their silhouettes were lovely as I walked the line for the first time. The dog I chose for BOB was balanced in angulation front and rear, with a handsome head and beautiful profile. He floated around the ring and was the cleanest-moving dog in the breed that day. While the winning photograph was taken, I was thrilled to be told that he had won the Herding Trial at the National Specialty the week before. Every dog which was presented a ribbon that day was a beautiful representative of its breed. The uniformity of this class of Sheepdogs was outstanding.
The Tervuren has always been well represented at most of the all-breed shows I have attended over the years. The Tervuren, with its regal carriage of head and neck and rich fawn to russet mahogany body color with a black overlay, has always caught my eye, even before I was approved to judge them in 1997. My BOB dog was a mature, very handsome, masculine fellow. His easy side gait caught my eye on the first go around. He stood squarely on all four legs, and his neck carried his head proudly when in motion. I loved his well-chiseled head and his intelligent and alert expression. He was clean both coming and going, and had a balanced, easy side gait. As with the other Belgians, the dogs I placed in Tervurens were all good representatives of their breed.
German Shepherd Dog
In 1969, I purchased my first “show dog” and it was a German Shepherd Dog. At that time, the average entry of German Shepherds at all-breed shows was routinely over 100 dogs. They were almost always judged in an outdoor ring. A very large outdoor ring! Were it not for a few German Shepherd breeders (Patricia Parsons, Scootie Sherlock, and Dr. Charles “Chuck” Kruger) who took me under their wings, I’m convinced I would not be where I am today. Listening to their conversations at ringside, I was introduced to the assessment of movement as the proof of structure in the canine.
At that time, the German Shepherds in the US and those in Germany were very similar in type and style. Dogs were imported into the US from Germany regularly. Since then, the breed has changed in both countries to the point that they are very dissimilar. In the individual exams, I asked for a loose lead during the side gait.
The Standard states three times that when in motion at the trot: 1. “the feet must travel close to the ground”; 2. “on forward reach and backward push”; and 3. “still close to the ground in a smooth follow-through” and “the forelegs should reach out close to the ground in a long stride.” The Standard also states, “When the dog is at attention or excited, the head is raised and the neck carried high; otherwise typical carriage of the head is forward rather than up and but little higher than the top of the shoulders, particularly in motion” (my emphasis). All of this can only be assessed on a loose lead. I was pleased that all handlers tried their best to present their dogs on a loose lead on the go-around.
I was very impressed with the BOB dog and the BOS bitch. Both had correct profiles and proportions of height to body length. Both dogs moved cleanly, coming and going, and had easy, ground-covering side gaits.
Now that it’s over, what are your thoughts on the 2023 show year? Any thoughts on the year ahead?
Stephanie Hedgepath: Due to circumstances beyond my control, I have not attended many shows this year. Those I have attended have had good numbers; in a few, I have seen major entries in some lower entry breeds that I’ve found encouraging. I hope the entries will continue to rise and the highly sought after majors, often scarce even in my popular breed, will be found.