Armed with astute knowledge and many years of hands-on experience, judges enter the dog show ring with a challenging task of selecting one winner. And when you're on one of the biggest dog show stages, like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the stakes are higher. A judge must select a single winner out of a great group of dogs, work within the parameters of a TV schedule, and be lucky enough not to stumble while walking on the plush carpet.
"It is a difficult task, but in the end you have to pick one through four," Judge Jason Hoke says, recalling his time judging the Toy Group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show this past February in New York.
"(With Westminster) it's live TV, so there are time constraints. You have to be efficient and have a well-organized ring to get through it. And pray that you don't trip. It's always a fear for everyone. Once you're out on the green carpet, you don't want to trip and fall," he says.
Hoke, who has now judged twice at Westminster, selected (Grand Championship) GCh. Wenrick's Don't Stop Believing, a Shih Tzu, as the winner of the Toy Group this year, who is fed Purina® Pro Plan® Performance 30/20 Chicken & Rice. Panda, as he is also known, captured Hoke's attention by exemplifying what the breed should be. But having one great dog doesn't mean the judging is a piece of cake.
"Even though I didn't pull some of the dogs out, there were really great dogs in there that didn't even make the cut," Hoke says of the group. "I think right now in our country, the Toy Group is one of the strongest groups, so it's always a daunting challenge."
However, before a dog like Panda can even make it to the group level, he must face some serious competition at the breed level. Since conformation dog shows are structured as an elimination event, meaning one dog is ultimately selected as "Best In Show" for that particular show, the competition gets tougher with each round. A dog that wins "Best of Breed" then moves on to face group competition, and if he wins the group, he moves on to the final round to compete for "Best In Show" and "Reserve Best In Show" (second place). This could mean whittling down thousands of dogs to find one winner. The most recent Westminster winner, GCH VJK-MYST Garbonita's California Journey, a Purina® Pro Plan® Sport Performance 30/20 Chicken & Rice-fed German Shorthaired Pointer, beat out approximately 3,000 other dogs to take "Best In Show" in February.
Those winners are chosen by a group of people essential to the competition: the judges. And before a judge enters the ring to make the call, he or she has had many years of experience in the show world and has spent hours upon hours studying the breed standards and purebred dogs.
Perfecting a Craft
Just as a painter spends time working on a brush stroke or a musician strives to play a perfect chord, a dog show judge also has a skill to perfect: measuring a dog up to its particular breed standard. A common point of confusion for the uninitiated is that each dog is judged on how he or she compares to the breed's standard and not how the dog compares directly to the others in the ring. For example, when a judge is looking at the Hound Group, he or she is not directly comparing the Greyhound to the Afghan Hound. The comparison is really the Greyhound to the Greyhound breed standard and the Afghan to the Afghan breed standard. A winner should exemplify his or her standard more than the other dogs represent theirs.
The Greyhound breed standard
To become an AKC-licensed judge, an individual must complete a number of educational requirements (exams, seminars, being a mentee), along with having years of experience showing as a handler. Since becoming a judge is not an easy task (try some of their practice exams here), it takes a dedicated person, with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and a love of the sport to make the cut.
For Virginia Lyne, an all-breed judge and the former president of the Canadian Dog Judges Association, it was her passion for purebreds and love of learning that inspired her to become a judge. Having exhibited Cocker Spaniels in both conformation and obedience, and breeding English Cocker Spaniels, Lyne couldn't get enough of the sport. She became a licensed judge in Canada, her home country, in 1969 and then became AKC approved two years later.
"I found that I was becoming increasingly fascinated by anything to do with the dog game and was soaking up everything I could obtain in the way of information about purebred dogs. Sort of like a sponge soaking up water, wherever I could find it," says Lyne, whose list of past judging assignments includes six Westminster Dog Shows.
But just because a judge becomes licensed, doesn't mean the schooling stops. Knowing the breed standards front to back is one thing, but controlling a ring, providing clarity in decision-making to the competitors, and keeping all of your decisions straight in your mind is quite another.
"We can all judge outside the ring," Hoke says, "but once you step in the ring, it's a different story. When you're outside you can focus on one dog you like, but as a judge you have two minutes to make your decision."
And brushing up on your knowledge ahead of a competition is essential.
"Every judge worth their salt does a review of breed standards before a judging assignment," Lyne says. "I always remind myself of the disqualifications applicable to breeds I will be judging that day."
Visualizing the Picture-Perfect Dog
Each judge has a different system for keeping the placing of dogs top of mind. Some take notes, some have an excellent or near-photographic memory, some excuse dogs from the ring to whittle down the selection.
"Dogs that stand out are filed in my memory by a picture in my mind. I really prefer to keep those pictures in my mind of the ideal dog that I am trying to find," Lyne says. She explains her method depends on a mix of having a good memory of dogs and making cuts when looking at a large group of dogs. "My motto on a very large entry is to cut deep on the second round of cuts, so you are left with truly outstanding dogs."
One dog that's fresh in her mind is CH Belisarius JP My Sassy Girl, aka Lucy, the Reserve Best In Show winner at Westminster this past year. The three-year-old Borzoi, who is fed Purina® Pro Plan® Focus Adult Sensitive Skin & Stomach, immediately caught Lyne's eye during the Hound Group judging.
"The Borzoi floated past me as she came into the ring, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up," Lyne recalls. "Totally balanced, curves in all the right places, in athletic condition, and with a classic head piece, she took my breath away."
Great dogs like Lucy can easily stand out to judges, but what happens when your ring is full of exceptional canines? Seasoned judges make sure to evaluate everything that is presented to them in the ring. However experienced a judge may be, the judging process is not automated; they are still human.
"I wish exhibitors would realize that judges, by and large, want to judge to the best of their ability, to find the right dog, and never, never miss a great one," Lyne says. "I think people are inclined to look for explanations totally removed from the real process of evaluating breeding stock -- thoughts about who likes who, who was wearing the judge's favorite color -- the list goes on and on."
It can be hard for the public to understand that dogs are not necessarily being judged against each other, but individually as dogs that can carry on the best of their breed's characteristics to the next generation. A judge's thought process can easily be related to his or her own breeding programs.
"I always have to ask myself: which one would I use in a breeding program?" explains Elliott B. Weiss, who first entered the ring as a judge in the early '90s after being a successful professional handler for many years. His judging résumé now includes multiple Westminsters.
"What I think is hard for the public to understand is that you're not judging the dogs against each other," he says, "You're judging the dogs against a picture of perfection you have in your mind of the standard."
More Than a Beauty Contest
To the untrained eye, a conformation dog show can seem like a beauty pageant. However, purebred enthusiasts would be quick to tell you there's more to it. At its simplest form, a dog show is a place to have dogs evaluated for breeding programs. The decisions judges make in the ring affect how handlers present their dogs and the decisions breeders make when planning the next generations of their breed.
Each breed was bred for a certain reason—many toy breeds were bred to be lap dogs, while hounds were bred to help humans hunt wild game, and these particular functions formed each breed's standard—a blueprint for how the breed should look and act. In the show ring, a judge evaluates dogs based on how well they fit their standard.
"While judging is about beauty, it is about beauty defined within a breed and about how a breed became what they are and how they look to the judge on that day," Hoke says. "There's a lot of history involved about why certain beauty exists in each breed. History dictates what a breed is, and what it looks like."
Hoke meshed form and function of certain breeds together after experiencing many international judging appointments and exploring various geographic regions.
"I've judged overseas, and it's nice, because you get to see the breeds in their countries of origin," he says. "When they say 'high mountainous terrain,' you see what that terrain is and why (the breeds) were built that way."
However, a good judge will not only see a dog's appearance, but his or her breed personality, as well. A dog that displays a breed's true temperament can help him or her stand out in a sea of great dogs, especially at larger shows like Westminster.
"Sadie (GCH Roundtown Mercedes of Maryscot, the 2010 Westminster Best In Show winner) didn't do anything wrong," Weiss recalls of the Purina® Pro Plan®-fed Scottish Terrier. "Not only did she not do anything wrong, but she looked me back in the eye as if to say, 'I'm above you.' And that's the breed's character showing right through. She was one of the 'aha' dogs in my lifetime. She was not only eye candy, but she also had wonderful breed character and acted exactly the way she should that night."
The Wow Factor
Judging dogs is an art form, a history lesson, and a puzzle all rolled into one. Although there can be stress -- keeping mental notes, the constant learning, defending your choices, efficiently making a decision on live TV -- the process can be rewarding for those who truly love dogs.
"I keep asking myself, 'Why am I doing this?'" Weiss reflects on his judging career. "And you know why you do it? You do it for the 2 percent of dogs that, when you look at them, they make your heart beat faster.
"I've been fortunate enough to see at least a half-dozen 'aha' dogs that have made me say, 'Wow!' That's the thrill of the game, the thrill of the sport."