Dog shows are just a bunch of hypocrites prancing their pretty dogs around so they can sell puppies!
Shows are all fixed; all political.
Show breeders keep tons of dogs and send them out with professional handlers because they don’t care about the dogs themselves.
The same dogs win every week, which is proof that the whole thing is rigged.
Dog shows ruin breeds because the dogs become all about looks and not about structure!
Look at that poodle; it’s ridiculous. Who could do that to a dog?
Those are the kind of comments you’re going to hear a bunch – from people watching the show after the football game; from friends; and a LOT from irresponsible breeders who don’t show and would like you to think that not showing is a virtue, not a vice.
I realize that for many people who read this blog this is old information, but I was thinking today (as I tried to have a civil discussion with one more person who said I was abusing my dogs by showing them) that we who have been in the show world a while forget how nonsensical it seemed to us years ago, when we felt like the judge spoke in the language of whales or beavers and that the whole thing was a loud ferris wheel featuring barking dogs.
So forgive me for making this a bit of a beginner’s guide. If I forget anything, please remind me so I can put it in. This is part 1 of who knows how many – I’ll stop when I run out of steam!
1) What is a dog show?
Most fundamentally, it’s a place where we bring the dogs we either have bred or will breed or are breeding, in order to have them examined by experts. Those experts will give us their opinion of whether our dogs are average, above average, or exceptional members of their breed. This lets us make better decisions about breeding those dogs; we hope to always breed to either preserve what we’ve got (if they are outstanding) or improve what we have (if they’re above average). The dogs rated as merely average, especially if that opinion is consistent among many judges, are usually not bred at all.
2) Who are the judges?
Judges are experienced breeders. You cannot become a judge without breeding a minimum number of litters and putting championships on a certain number of dogs. Many judges go straight from a lifetime of breeding into judging; they consider it the logical goal of decades of education about a breed. Others have been professional handlers in addition to breeding. However, even those who come to it from handling must satisfy the breeding requirements. You cannot be a judge without being a breeder.
The prospective judge has to also learn about ring procedure, help out at many shows, and learn how to judge by judging sweepstakes (which are special non-point-achieving shows for puppies and veterans) and matches.
Finally, the prospective judge has to meet with the AKC representative in his or her area and take a few tests to prove that they know their breed and dogs in general.
If all goes well, the prospective judge’s name will be published in several consecutive AKC newsletters (so that any who have information or objection have a chance to do so) and then they are designated a “provisional” judge for a certain number of shows while they are mentored by the breed’s judges education committee. Eventually, after mentoring and lots of shadowing of more experienced judges, they get the provisional label removed.
3) Who are the judges who end up at Westminster?
Many judges apply for their original breed (whatever one or two they are most experienced with as breeders or handlers) and then never go any further. They enjoy being able to have a voice in their breed or breeds, and may get just a few assignments a year.
Other judges want to have a role not just in their breeds but within the entire group or across all the groups. After they reach proficiency in one breed, they begin to apply for additional breeds, with (for many) the goal of picking up the entire group. Being approved for these additional breeds dos not require the same amount of breeding litters, but the AKC does require that the prospective judge be mentored and attend shows and judge sweepstakes and so on, all with the goal of understanding how and where that breed is unique and how it should work or function.
Those who are eventually invited to judge at Westminster are generally breeder-judges (that is, qualified to judge that breed based on a lifetime of breeding) of at least one breed in that group, and are considered specialists on the entire group. It is a great honor to be asked to judge a group at Westminster.
After a judge has mastered several groups (not necessarily all of them) he or she may apply to judge Best In Show. The Best In Show judge should have a great deal of knowledge not just about discrete breeds but about dogdom as a whole.
4) But if a person can judge when they’re not experienced as a breeder of that breed, isn’t that unfair or prone to errors?
Believe it or not, no. There is much more that unites dogs than divides them. A great Australian Cattle Dog and a great Pekingese are not really all that disparate; the parts are just different sizes. A judge with little specific experience in a breed (often called “all-rounders,” since they judge “all around” the group or groups, though of course an all-rounder in one breed is a breeder-judge in another) may miss certain breed distinctives – for example, they are less likely to award a dog with a very unusual head shape, even if that shape is more correct for the breed than the more average other members in the ring. All-rounders are also more likely to ignore (or be confused by) color and coat nuances. But they will usually do a perfectly good job in finding and awarding a sound, good-moving dog, and most often that’s the best dog there. I’ve very, very rarely thought that an all-rounder didn’t put up the best dog.
5) Why do the dogs all have to do that stupid parade around the ring?
Aha! That is a GREAT question.
The answer is that the written standard for each breed, which is developed and maintained by the parent club of each breed (so, for example, the Great Dane Club of America) describes a certain dog, and the judges have to put up (point to, or award) the dog(s) in the ring that most closely resemble that standard, and (at least hopefully) in the order in which they decreasingly resemble it.
So a dog who gets first is closer to the standard than the dog who got second, and so on.
Dog standards describe each part of a dog IN THE WAY, AND TO THE EXTENT, THAT IT DIFFERS FROM THE GENERIC. So, for example, no standard says “Dog will have four legs” or “Dog must have a head.” There is a certain expectation of common sense, and where a standard is silent on a subject (for example, the Cardigan standard has nothing about the shape of the dog’s nostrils) the judge isn’t supposed to ignore it but should expect the dog to have a normal doggish nose. Some breeds go to great lengths to describe the right nose shape, so a judge of those breeds knows that the shape of the nose should not just fall under “generally doggish” but should have a distinctive look that says “Great Dane” or says “Bulldog.”
So why the parade around the ring? Well, the standard, where it describes a body part, will have a line something like “front legs are perfectly straight and parallel to each other” or “Rear and front legs are thrown neither in nor out” (both of those are from the Doberman standard). If you look at a group of dogs relaxing or playing together, it can be REALLY hard to tell how well each dog resembles the standard. A dog running after a ball is going to be throwing their legs every which way; a dog sitting relaxed will often splay the feet out and the legs are anything but parallel.
In order to judge all the dogs equally and to give each one its best shot of showing off its body the right way, a certain standard ring procedure was developed to give the judge a chance to accurately see whether a dog meets the standard. It goes (roughly, with each judge throwing in a flavor of their own) like this:
a) The dogs enter and stand in the ring, usually in catalog order (i.e., according to the armband numbers, which usually correspond to who entered the show earliest). This is mainly just to get people organized and allow the steward to figure out who’s present and who’s absent, but most of us will try to make the dog look good, alert, and confident (and stacked if possible) even at this first stage. Many judges go on first impressions (which is not invalid when it comes to dogs) and so you want to make a good one.
b) The judge sends the entire class around the ring at a trot, usually one full time around. Some judges use this as the best time to evaluate the dog when he or she is moving; others just want you to warm up and relax. You never know what the particular judge you’ve entered under is thinking, so you try to keep the dog together and moving nicely.
c) The judge calls each exhibitor up in order, and the handler (who can be the owner but often is not) stacks the dog for examination. This is the time you KNOW it’s for real, so you work really hard to have the dog’s body as correctly placed as possible so the dog can show off what it actually owns. For example, if you put the front legs too far forward the topline tends to dip, making your dog look like it has a saggy topline (which would certainly not be correct to the standard) instead of looking like it has a good straight “hard” topline.
d) The judge sends the dog at a trot to one end or one corner of the ring and then the handler and dog trot back. This is done to assess how well the dog holds his body when he is moving and to see the front and back legs (and tail) moving under the dog’s body.
e) The handler has the dog stop a few feet before the judge, usually facing the judge, and the judge looks at the dog’s face. This allows the judge to evaluate what’s called “expression,” which is a complicated topic, but honestly about 90% of it is looking alert, perky, and pretty.
f) The judge then sends the dog around the ring at a trot, covering the same ground alone that he or she covered as part of the group earlier.
That’s it – the judge gets three basic views of the dog. Standing still, trotting away and toward him or her, and trotting parallel to him or her.
6) That’s stupid! How could standing and trotting show ANYTHING?
The answer is that standing in that particular pose – what we call a “stack” – and trotting are THE HARDEST THINGS A DOG CAN DO. Those two poses actually put more strain on the dog than any other. Try it – go stand very still and very straight with your hands at your side. How long can you hold it? How long before you have to step forward, or steady yourself on a chair, or relax that gut you’ve been sucking in? Now ask yourself – how long could an Olympic gymnast do it? Probably an hour, versus your three minutes. It’s the same thing for a dog. A stacked position is something that can be held (at length) only by the most well-built dogs. The others can do it for a second, but they want to step forward with one back foot or they slouch or they want to put their heads down. A truly great handler can disguise it to a certain extent, but most judges were once truly great handlers, and they know how to make the faults show up. They’ll ask the handler to walk a dog forward, throwing off the dog’s (assisted) balance; or they’ll move the dogs around and shift positions. Pretty quickly, the faults make themselves quite clear.
The MOST well-built dogs not only stack, they are the most comfortable when stacked. Their bodies actually fall into that position as a default. That’s another thing that a judge looks for; when the handler isn’t micro-managing the dog, does it kind of shamble to a stop and look weird? Or does it put all four feet down square and balanced?
Trotting is a similar strain on the dog. Trotting, because both front and rear legs are scissoring, requires the widest range of motion of the joints, and the dog can’t “cheat” by moving both sides of its body at the same time. A poorly built dog can get a TON of speed and drive going by galloping, because they can fling their entire front section forward and then their entire rear section. That same dog may be able to barely move at the trot, because a trot can’t be performed without every joint working.
Trotting also shows whether the dog’s structure is correct from a skeletal standpoint. A dog whose elbows are not close to his body will have a twist and a “flap” to his movement in the front; you’ll be able to see it as the dog is coming at you. A dog whose topline has been maneuvered level by a talented handler will pop it back up again as soon as it is asked to move. And so on and so on. Movement shows the faults that are not apparent on the stack, and it showcases the virtues of a dog whose joints and skeleton are in proper relationship.
As with stacking, the best-built dog will choose to trot over any other gait. That’s not to say that they never walk or gallop, but their preferred “travel around the house” gait is a trot.
7) Ok, I think I get it now, but it still doesn’t make any real-world sense to me. Why the heck should I care whether my dog’s elbows are against her body?
Well, to a certain extent you shouldn’t. Your dog is your dog, and you should love her no matter what. What we’re talking about is not whether your dog is worth being in the universe; we’re talking about which dogs are best suited to produce the NEXT generation.
Most dogs in this country live a life of pleasant (or not so pleasant) leisure and are overfed and underexercised and very rarely have ANY strain put on their bodies. But that does not mean that we should ignore the fact that dogs are supposed to be able to work for their entire lives and be fit and pain-free into their teens. A dog who is “out at elbows” has additional torque placed on the elbow and wrist joints every time he moves his front legs. He is much more likely to have arthritis in his old age than a dog whose legs are under minimal pressure. A dog whose topline sags in the middle will get backaches when in late middle age, just like you would. A dog whose neck is too short to reach the ground would not be able to feed himself in the wild.
Can we compensate for these faults with medication, with decreased exercise, with elevated bowls? Of course, and we SHOULD. Every dog who is here on earth deserves to live a life as happy and free of discomfort as we can provide. But we should try to produce fewer unfit dogs in the next generation if we possibly can. And that’s where dog shows come in – they are the valuable peer review that forces us, as breeders, to ask those questions and try to make the best moves in the next generation.
NEXT: Are dog shows just about looks?