How many times have you been standing ringside and heard:
"That's a handler's judge."
"An amateur can never win in this sport any more."
"All the handlers know the judges ... it's rigged."
Chances are, if you attend dog shows as an exhibitor or spectator, sooner or later you'll hear a variation on one of the above themes. And, all too often, those of us who are amateur handlers find these the most convenient excuses for not coming home with a blue ribbon, the points or a silver-plated candy dish. The question we need to ask if we are going to continue to show our dogs is "Are these complaints justified?" The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in between "yes" and "no."
The fact is that there probably are some dishonest judges. I suspect, however, that what some might construe as dishonesty is actually fear. Those judges who make the seemingly automatic act of giving the nod to the pro may be taking the easy way out. Motivated not by dishonesty, but by fear of making the "wrong" decision. Fear of having his or her breed choice ignored in the Group ring. Fear of the reactions of others. Fear of making an independent choice.
If you're a member of a kennel club and have a voice in the selection of judges' panels, or if you have concrete evidence of a particular individual's dishonesty, there are paths you can -- and should -- take. But, the simplest solution to a judge with whom you are dissatisfied is, simply, not to enter under that person again. But, before we blame others for our failure to win, it may be worth considering that very often the best dogs are shown in the most advantageous manner by the most skilled handlers. Period.
There are a number of things to consider when we decide to take our beloved pet into the show ring. The first is, is the dog really show material. You may have a perfectly respectable member of the breed who just can't cut it against top competition. If you look around at the top handlers, you'll find that they generally made their reputations by bringing dogs into the ring who belong there.
And, have you considered what kind of shape your best friend is in? Is she three pounds overweight? What's the condition of his coat? Is that mud from the garden encrusted behind her right ear? Is he too busy scratching that elusive flea to pay attention to your commands?
How about show sense? Style? Presentation? All too often our Norfolks get into the ring and their happy, outgoing personalities evaporate. Your extroverted house dog puts his tail between his legs, his ears start to fly and his body language says, "I am not happy. I am not going to have a good time. I would rather be home!" Or, maybe you've got one who would rather bounce around the ring than trot. In any case, it's pretty hard for a judge to know how perfect your dog is at home! It's the here and now that counts.
It's not always the dog's fault either. There's more to handling than walking into the ring and trusting to Fate that the judge will pick up on all your buddy's sterling qualities while ignoring all his or her "unimportant" little problems.
Another note about judging is that you can't tell what a dog is really like unless you put your hands on it. Muscle tone. Texture of coat. Correctness of bite. Shade of eye color. All these and more go into the consideration of what constitutes a winning dog. Maybe the reason a judge chooses a particular handler's dog over your own is that the other dog bears up better under close scrutiny.
It's probably true that handlers do have an advantage over the casual participant in that, yes ... they do know the judges and their preferences. But that's not cheating, it's good business sense. The fact is, some judges will forgive a dippy topline, but they hate light eyes. Others reject large bitches, but aren't as concerned about size in dogs. No matter how objective the judge is, it is impossible to negate personal preference entirely. Therefore, it's perfectly proper to find out before you send in an entry what a particular judge has put up in the past. The handlers do.
Finally, it's important to ask yourself why you're showing dogs. If your main goal is personal glory, then perhaps you should buy a finished champion - at whatever the cost -- put it in the hands of a top handler and then step closer to the trophy table so you'll be nearby when the loot is handed out.
If, on the other hand, you're "in dogs" for the love of them, if you show because you want to help improve the breed and if you just like an excuse to be out having fun, then you can use every show as a positive learning experience. And, if you truly have a show quality dog, and have conditioned and trained it properly and are well-prepared, then yes ... you can compete against the pros. And you'll do your share of winning, too!
ANTIC, Winter 1988
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