That’s What I like About the South…
South Korea, That Is.
A large portion of the rewards that come from the sport of conformation dog showing lie in the friendships and relationships one gathers along the way. If you stay with it long enough, say half a century of so, you get to share the successes (and more than a few failures) of good friends and associates. Back in the day, that was limited to the tri-state area (about a day’s drive), but now, with the Internet, we are a worldwide community joined at the hip by our “devices.” That’s the good news.
The bad news came with the pandemic when we were forcibly torn away from both our friends and our sport. If your friends happened to be an ocean or two away, the removal was even more pronounced, and one found oneself looking back on old photographs and memories. I had enjoyed my dog show adventures in far-off lands, but never forgot the friends and dogs that made up those reminiscences.
Like the American canine world, shows around the globe were canceled, litters went unbred, and the challenges to the survival of the sport seemed to multiply. Clubs that had formerly relied heavily on foreign judges to both educate and adjudicate began to use folks from their own ranks (with varying degrees of success). An invitation from the Korean Kennel Club in May of 2022 was thwarted by my own positive COVID test. I was forbidden to fly, even though another test proved negative.
That was the setting then, when I received a kind invitation from GuiCheol Shin, the President of the Korean Kennel Club, to judge at their Classic Dog Show on September 09, 2023 in Seoul. The Korean Kennel Club, founded in 1988, sponsors numerous canine activities, including world-class grooming competitions, a very active Search and Rescue operation, a huge pet expo, and training programs for handlers, groomers, trainers, and judges. Anne Park, the seemingly tireless Vice President, manages many of the activities.
Unlike China, which is about 14 hours away via United’s Polar Route, the flights to Korea enable you to enjoy a cram-packed plane on the way to San Francisco. After that six-hour fiasco and a quick game of departure gate roulette, you’re comfortably ensconced in a larger aircraft still headed west. No “hop across the pond” here, but twelve hours of engine drone across the mighty Pacific. Still, the food is pretty good and there’s free wine. Korea has simplified its entry procedure so that it’s a minimal hassle for Americans. (South Korea has never forgotten the aid rendered by the United States during the Korean War.) But the best part of the arduous trip is the smiling, waving presence of “Harley” Wookhee Choi, KKC’s ever-present translator, hostess, tour guide, chauffeur, ring steward, and concierge. Harley’s a great dog person who’s equally at home in Korea and the US.
The Asian judging assignments of yesteryear included some memorable sightseeing opportunities which are missing in today’s challenging environment. Fewer shows, less commercial support, and other factors have led to less time “in country.” Still, the clubs are mindful of the trials of travel and most allow you a wonderful day or two of recuperation. For this trip, it was spent learning the difficulties in combing out the fake dogs used by the Taiwanese grooming team for the competition. I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to apply the skill, but I’m available if you need me.
But hey, let’s get to the important part. The dogs. When I was a small-time Beagle breeder back in the 1960s and ‘70s, not many Americans were game to sell puppies to Asia. We sold freely to South America and Europe, but only a very few did business in China, Japan, or Korea. Fortunately, that began to change in the late ‘80s and ‘90s with some very fine breeding stock making its way into the growing Asian kennels. For the most part, the Asian breeders have preserved and, in some cases, improved on the imported stock, and dog show entries today include some very fine examples of the breeds that clearly mirror the quality of the original imported lines. Moreover, the “Asian breeds” such as Pekingese, Chow Chows, and Shiba Inu are frequently of obvious superior quality that is to be rewarded.
The American breeders who paved the way in several of the breeds favored in Asia, such a Bichons, Pomeranians, Cotons, and the very few terriers, have found that their dogs used as foundation stock have been very well bred indeed. Many of the Asian breeders frequently show their dogs in the US with great success. A Korean dog placed in the Non-Sporting Group at Westminster this year. These breeds present a challenge to any judge in Asia, foreign or otherwise.
Overall, the Asian shows contain fewer entries than we are used to here in America. There seems to be fewer mediocre dogs entered and that, in itself, makes judging more difficult. While a few dogs are obviously not in contention, there are difficult choices for the top honors. It can be harder to make a choice between two or three outstanding dogs than a class of 12 less deserving dogs.
Although KKC shows are conducted loosely based on AKC procedures and rules, an American will need a very good steward who speaks English to get through the process. It’s never a worry though, since there seems to be an abundance of capable stewards and many of the exhibitors speak and understand some English.
The biggest surprise of this trip, though, is the new dedicated show building operated by the KKC. The venue offers huge rings which are big enough to move even the largest dogs effectively, with plenty of reserved and open grooming space, a combination classroom/judge’s lunchroom, and more. Adequate lighting, perfect ring surface, and well-maintained equipment round out the facility. KKC also uses the building for grooming competitions and other activities, but it is a show venue first and foremost and a very good one indeed. It’s easy loading and unloading and, thankfully, air-conditioned. The footing is easy on a judge’s feet. At this show, literally dozens of vendors were located outdoors in an adjacent field which can be utilized by KKC’s many outdoor activities. The club’s executive offices and extensive library and memorabilia collection are located nearby on the same grounds.
Since I started judging in Asia, I’ve had a particular admiration for the Chows shown there. I’m in awe of these dogs, and a brief consultation with Chow expert Desi Murphy confirmed that impression. In 2017, I was among the judges who placed a spectacular Chow, whom I later learned was named Eastern-Magic Wash Your Mouth (better known as “Hei Hei”), Best in Show. After a long and successful show career in Asia, Hei Hei’s owner gave me the honor of retiring him at this show. Although he didn’t take top honors this time around, he was the recipient of my “most want to take home” award. His owner told me later that they had been awaiting my return for his retirement. Many thanks to his owner, Tom Kim, for this privilege. A number of his well-bred pups will continue the dynasty.
My Best in Show was the Toy Poodle, Melody Line Triple Crown (“Joy”), which also went Best at the first show. Joy was Best of Variety from the classes for a five-point major under Elaine Lessig at Orlando in 2022. This dog’s movement made her an easy choice. Reserve Best in Show went to a very nice Welsh Terrier, Ch Malibu’s & Shiloh Morning For Hymn. That dog goes back to the American Teritails and Shiloh lines.
As many of you know, there are competing kennel clubs in some nations, including Japan, China, and Korea. Some of those clubs are aligned with FCI while others lean toward AKC’s methodology. The non-FCI clubs have formed the Union of Asian Kennel Clubs (UAKC) which was holding its annual meeting at the KKC headquarters at the same time as this show. At present, the members come from Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Although the club presidents had meetings throughout the days, there was opportunity to socialize and make acquaintances during the dinners arranged by KKC, which were informal affairs but included interpreters (again provided by KKC) so that we all could communicate freely and share ideas and experiences. While the organization itself is symbolic of healthy growth, the enthusiasm and dedication of the leaders of the individual clubs is the secret of its success.
So, if you get the opportunity to share your American experience and expertise in the international arena, rise to the challenge. Once you get past the horrors of current-day air travel, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the warm hospitality and the wonderful dogs that make this a singular learning experience for even us oldsters.