The Most Important Trait in Judging: Forgiveness

From the monthly ShowSight column "Becoming" . Originally printed in the June 2015 Issue of ShowSight.  Click to subscribe. 

I was talking with a friend after training class a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing my article on the Whippet National, and I was telling her I thought I might revise some of my training techniques to better get the results people want when they show their own dogs.

This owner-handler is progressing quickly up the ranks from novice handler to seasoned pro, and now I am understanding why. She listens well and she stores great information. She has only been showing for about 8 years, but she is light years ahead of many other people who have shown for the same length of time, or even longer. She “gets it.” She understands she has a limited amount of time for the judge to see and evaluate the dog she wants the judge to see, and she doesn’t whine about politics or stupid judging. She keeps practicing on a weekly schedule, and working to make her dogs look great in as short amount of time as possible. She absorbs grooming hints like a sponge in water, even if the hints are aimed at breeds other than her own. She is learning which judges like her style of dog, and which judges don’t. She is a pleasure to have in a training class because she is beyond the basics and is now at a point where smaller refinements in her handling techniques are making a big difference.

During our conversation, this enlightened exhibitor said something to me that I had not heard before. She was repeating what she had learned from long-time judges about what they looked for in the dogs they were evaluating, and what skills and knowledge those judges thought made them good at their job. As a relative newbie in the sport, she was looking for as much information as possible about what she needed to do to be successful. And she was going about it the right way —not defensive or know-it-all, but from a position of curiosity spurred by a sincere desire to be a better exhibitor. She got the usual mix of responses talking about good breed type, balance, correct coats, soundness and movement. She heard about the judges’ need to understand different structures based upon different functions, and the importance of good hands-on reviews. Some judges talked about balancing type with movement and soundness, and some pointed out the one or two faults they absolutely could not live with. But one response puzzled me, then made me grin. One judge told her that the most important trait a good judge needed was forgiveness.


Forgiveness. What a marvelous word. What an amazing amount of insight to use this word to describe the most important trait for judges to possess. What a great concept, not only in dog judging specifically, but for life in general. Forgiveness.


My friend went on to explain what that judge meant when he said forgiveness, but I had already figured it out. We had just been talking about the merits of whole-dog judging vs fault judging, and suddenly this judge’s wisdom became obvious. We all know there are no perfect dogs. So that means, when a person is passing judgement on a class of dogs, that person is going to have to be forgiving at least a few traits not consistent with the perfect dog described in a breed standard. Each judge has their own list and priorities of forgivable faults and imperfections. The list is unique to each person  who judges.


I must admit that when my friend first told me about this judge’s response I immediately thought of lots of things a judge would have to forgive at a dog show. Forgive the rude handler yelling about the terrible judging, forgive the person who brought in a dirty, untrained or aggressive dog, forgive the people for not knowing which armband went with what dog, forgive the steward for forgetting to call in a class or set out ribbons, forgive the show chair for starting judging at 8 am when a 9 am start time would have been more civilized, forgive the exhibitor for not knowing how to show a bite, forgive the novice for asking, “What don’t you like about my dog?” The list was seemingly endless. I was relieved when my thinking shifted to what this judge really meant. Forgive the lack of perfection in the dogs you are judging. That small shift in my thinking made me smile. I immediately shifted from being a child-like whiner to being an adult with a difficult decision to make. I recognized a tool that would help me make better decisions.


As a judge, I need to prioritize my list of things I am willing to forgive in each breed I judge. That list of forgiveness must never include disqualifying faults, but it is a very useful tool to have in addition to my priority of positive traits based upon a breed’s standard. I can easily speak to these concepts in bassets. My “look-for” priorities include soundness in shoulders, profile, soundness and coordination in gait, long rib cage and correct head type. I can forgive small size much more readily than I can forgive big and clumsy. I can even forgive flatter feet if the rest of the picture is there. I cannot forgive knuckled-over (yes, there are still dogs being shown with this trait), or a height over 15 inches at the withers, both disqualifications. I can forgive a slightly longer hock much more easily than a steep shoulder with short upper arm. I can easily forgive lack of parallel planes if the expression, ear set and back skull are otherwise lovely. I can forgive lack of wrinkles, but never wide or elbowed-out fronts. I can forgive a slightly exaggerated turnout of feet on a dog with good shoulders and upper arm, but not a fiddle front. I can forgive balance if the shoulders are great, I can forgive slightly longer legs on an otherwise sound or young dog, and I can forgive a narrow rear if the rest of the dog is nice.


As I wrote this it occurred to me that there were a lot more traits I could forgive than there were traits that I could not live without, and I think that’s healthy. I have always preferred whole-dog judging to fault judging. Any damn fool can see how a dog carries his tail, but it takes skill to understand the difference between carriage and proper tail set. Sometimes carriage is a trained behavior designed to mask a fault, and sometimes it’s an emotional response not a physical imperfection.


Judges always make mental trade-offs as we look at the dogs in front of us. We prefer finding the dogs approaching perfection, but sometimes our entry provides us only the option to find the fewest traits to forgive.


I am so grateful that my thoughtful friend shared her conversations with me. I love the concept of forgiveness because it allows one to be free of defensiveness and entrenchment. Judges don’t have to defend themselves, they have to forgive imperfections in a world where perfection does not exist. I remember once trying to defend to an AKC Rep why I put up a Whippet that was seriously lacking underjaw. My defense was lame and sounded whiney. How much better it would have been to say I forgave the dog’s underjaw, because I loved her free and easy movement. Amazing what a big difference a small shift in attitude can make.


Forgiveness—  a wonderful idea.

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