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The Best Dog. Is there really such a thing?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

A dear friend called me to discuss an issue that has existed in our community for a long time, but seems to be getting worse — or maybe it is just discussed more now.

In order for us to grow and regain our previous level of importance in the dog world, we need to attract and keep new exhibitors. However, it appears that more and more new exhibitors leave within five years. When asked, most of these — even many who are still active — respond that they quickly become jaded because “The best dog doesn’t always win.”

Why is that? Since I have never backed away from thorny topics, I sent out a survey to many friends — judges, breeders and exhibitors — and I am glad to share some of those responses with you.

The questions I asked were:

Why doesn't the "BEST" (how do you define that?) dog always win?

Historically, we lose new exhibitors within five years. Why?

If you are a judge, how hard do you try to find the best dog?

What if the "best" dog is out of coat or out of condition?

What if the "best" dog is shown poorly?

If you think poor judging exists, why is that?

Who is responsible for poor judging?

Does AKC play a part in poor judges (if they exist)?

I am sure many of you will automatically think that “Best” is something that is completely subjective, and while I do agree that in a class of quality dogs, placements may vary slightly, I do believe that there is a “Best” based on the breed standard. I completely understand when two dogs that are very close in quality can be placed either way, but I cannot abide judging where a dog who should (in my not-so-humble opinion) place last wins the class or group. My mind keeps asking, “What was he thinking?”

For those who think there might not be a “Best,” a respected international judge “kind of” agrees with you when she says, “The ‘Best’? Is there such a thing? We all agree that a ‘perfect’ one is just not possible. I must agree with you that sometimes the difference in quality is SO huge that one is much, Much, MUCH better than the others. It should always win, right? Even if it were on three legs, we used to say. Well, this last statement is simply not true. There are all kinds of different reasons: The BIS judge might be a breeder-judge and profoundly dislikes the style of this dog; it could be groomed with a bit too much foreign substance (which didn’t bother breed and group judges, but it’s intolerable for BIS judge); could have been a looooong day for this dog, and it quit showing at BIS.”

Aha, so there may be a reason that the best dog doesn’t always win. She talks about the style of dog. For example, I think there are two “styles” of Miniature Schnauzers: Working dog style would have more substance, muscling and spring of rib than a more “Terrier style.” This dichotomy of styles could exist in some breeds — but not all. For example, a “racier style” is not correct in Irish Setters when the standard says “substantial yet elegant in build.”

Our international judge believes that we lose many new exhibitors because “Sometimes they calculate the expenses involved after five years, and realize that they cannot afford this sport!”

I believe that is very true – and it doesn’t usually take five years to figure that out.

Perhaps my question about how hard a judge tries to find the best dog was not worded as well as it might have been — more often than not, I think most judges try to do this. As our international judge says, “I’m one of those judges that tries really, Really, REALLY hard. I go to seminars, talk to breeder-judges (breed authorities), read literature (articles in magazines, books, etc.), and, MOST IMPORTANT, always try to watch not only my breed, but also groups and BIS. When in the middle of the ring, I FOCUS on the dogs. Nothing else. I cannot accept a ‘blown coat’ in a harsh-coated breed, but yes! I can accept poor grooming (and poor handling!) as long as I STILL can evaluate the specimen.” Talking about “poor judges,” she says, “It’s so sad. They might be licensed, but they don’t ‘know.’ Others … simply don’t have an ‘eye.’ No matter how hard they work, or try … They’ll never get it! Harmony, balance, symmetry… You don’t study this; you either ‘see’ it, or not.”

When asked who is responsible for poor judging, she says, “Organizations that license judges, and also exhibitors who enter their dogs a second time (once is enough to discover bad judging).

“And what about those ‘grumpy’ judges who don’t really want to judge? They seem to be there only for the fee. So sad! They treat exhibitors, stewards, everyone badly. They certainly don’t enjoy, and rush through their assignment because all they want is to go back home ASAP. And don’t even ask them to do ‘non-regular’ classes: ‘I don’t get paid to do this,’ they state. Show chairs should never, NEVER hire them! They turn into living scarecrows for exhibitors!”

Closer to home, a multi-group judge says, “‘Best’ is in the (hopefully honest and knowledgeable) judge’s eyes and priorities. Other than that, the only reason an inferior specimen would win would be if the behavior of the dog or poor handling did not allow the judge to see its good features. The dog-show game is tilted toward those with the best dogs who present them the best. New exhibitors often don't have the best exhibit, best training or the best handling skills. They also don't have the experience to see that (sad) truth. It can be frustrating. If the dog's coat cannot be evaluated, it is a disadvantage. On the other hand, I have awarded dogs who are ‘out of coat’ when it is still a healthy, proper example, just rotating through coat. … If the best features of the dog cannot be evaluated, it cannot get credit for them. If the best features can be seen (even in just a few moments of brilliance) then it can get credit.”

You can feel this judge’s passion when he talks about the reasons for poor judging: “Laziness, lack of specific breed knowledge and priorities, lack of confidence,” and he blames those judges for these things. Talking about organizations who approve judges he says, “The approval process emphasizes good paperwork, memorization and testing skills. It is hard to evaluate (and reward) good judgment and judging ability. This is a difficult issue, and the AKC does its best. Other countries’ kennel clubs do not do this better, based on how those judges perform (both well and not so well) here. Poor judging, political judging, favoritism, etc., are not new. The good old days were similar to today except that some of the judges were also quite ‘colorful’ or perhaps drunk. Speaking of colorful, I remember a foreign judge (in the good old days) who judged a (very) large Saluki entry at Lompoc. This person only awarded cream-colored dogs. Other perfectly nice colors were ignored. People just shook their heads and accepted it as a fact of life (and a wasted entry). No DNS list or complaints to the rep were filed. Maybe we just remember the good things.”

A breeder-exhibitor who has grown up in our community answers the “Best Dog” question simply and correctly: “The best dog should be identified as the dog that most fits the standard of the breed you are judging. However, there are some instances, maybe more often than not, where personal preference can affect how a judge may decipher his/her entry. For example, a preference over an accepted color, size or another trait.” Her reasoning as to why people leave our community echoes the single word that others have pointed to. “You need a certain level of passion to stick around in any sport you play.

“I’d like to see judges – new and experienced – take the time to refresh themselves with a breed-education seminar,” she continues. “Maybe the lesson has changed, or the presenter can shed some light on what is becoming a problem in the breed. Passion lies at the root of it all.”

For the record, some judges do this when a seminar is available.

Another multi-group judge believes the “best dog” doesn’t always win because “… we are human, and humans err. Although there are breed standards, there are individual interpretations of the salient points. If the ‘best’ dog is out of coat or condition, then it is not the ‘best’ dog, is it?” You can also hear this judge’s passion when he says, “Some judges are in a quest for more and more breeds without learning those they have. The system now favors the Point Collectors, the Test Takers, and not real Dog Men and Women.”

Considering why the “best dog” doesn’t always win, a very successful breeder-exhibitor keeps an open mind and says, “Honest differences of opinion [can exist] among similar-quality dogs that don’t show/look the same each time in the ring. Just because I like dog A the best doesn’t mean dog B shouldn’t win. [We lose new exhibitors because] hearing more experienced exhibitors complain about bad/political judging turns people off. Most judges try most of the time to do their best. You will never get 100 percent of people to agree on facts about anything, let alone subjective choices. Pointing to different dogs does not equal bad judging. Just because my wife and I don’t agree about our own dogs doesn’t make one of us wrong.”

Let’s hear from a new single-breed judge. “Like many others, I often felt that there were reasons other than quality that allowed a dog to be awarded. Now, as a new judge, I must admit that while there are times that choices might be politically questionable, there are other times that the ‘best’ dog may not be presented in the best manner. Sometimes the ‘best’ dog on that day has been shown so poorly you simply cannot award it. And if you do, those outside looking in might assume there were other factors at play. It can be a no-win situation that can leave a judge second-guessing themselves. It is so much easier judging from outside the ring. Stand inside a few times and then tell me if the ‘best’ dog is always evident. Several times I have stood in the middle of the ring staring at a dog (and owner) begging them with my eyes to get it together.”

I understand how this new judge feels, but I must state there have been times that I have awarded a dog who was not shown well, because I could see its quality in spite of the handling. I admit it takes a great deal of confidence to do this — and that comes from experience and an attitude that says, “I am judging dogs, not senior handling.”

Continuing with our new judge, “Adding to the mix is how someone defines the best. That definition may be very different when asked of a breeder versus a judge. The breeder looks at a dog through a different set of eyes. Possibly looking at what needs most improvement in their line or even the breed. Maybe their decades of experience allow them to pinpoint the ‘best’ based on a small, but important, detail that is not necessarily elaborated on in the breed standard. As per the AKC, the judge is required to look at an exhibit through the eyes of the breed standard ONLY. These interpretations can often vary, thus having some question if the judge selected the ‘best.’ Some standards are filled with pages of breed-specific traits, multiple faults and even lists of important features that can be long. Other standards are so short that they don’t even mention important things like temperament. Those miniscule standards can leave new judges scratching their heads trying to figure out what is the priority when trying to find the ‘best’ example in the ring.

“Unfortunately, the conformation community often eats their young! The treatment of fledging owners and future breeders can quickly drive them away. The ugliness and unsportsmanlike comments made on social media have really rocketed negativity to an all-time high. Unless one has a core group of people it would be easy to run away, tail tucked. I also believe there is a lack of mentorship. Gone are the days of the senior breeders and mentors sitting at their motorhomes (or ringside) talking openly about the breed. Now we are becoming a sport where so many finish their first dog and are instant experts. Not willing learn from those that came before them.”

To what do you attribute poor judging? “Oh, this is a hot button issue for me. This may not be a popular answer, but one I believe is important. I have been in the sport of dogs for three decades. I received my regular status for my first breed in late 2022. I am now allowed to apply for up to 12 breeds with my next application. How on earth can a new judge possibly do justice to that many breeds at the same time and so quickly? I have spent nearly three decades going to multiple breed specialties, attending performance events, judging sweepstakes, mentoring with top kennels and talking to as many breeders as possible. All of this, and I still believe I should take it slow and only do a few breeds at a time. The AKC simply allows judges to check the boxes, take the test and memorize the standard for their interviews. Then, BAM, half a group … BAM, a whole group. Yes, I know there are some long-time judges and breed experts that most certainly can do all breeds justice. However, I do not believe that is norm. While I do understand that the AKC is feeling the pinch of longtime judges no longer being available, I do not understand how allowing judges to grab an entire group at once is going to make the community feel more confident in judges’ knowledge and decisions.

“As a new judge, I absolutely feel pressure to apply for as many breeds as possible. This is the only way to make myself more enticing for clubs to hire. Most clubs cannot afford to pay expenses for judges who only do single breeds or maybe only a few in the group. It is more cost effective for them to hire the judges who can do an entire group.”

Finally, let’s hear from a successful breeder-owner-handler who experienced the worst that our judging community has to offer. “I had a judge offer up to me why he didn't use my dog. He seemed to think he was quoting my breed standard. Problem was, it was the exact opposite of what the standard says. Where was this judge educated on my breed? I was simply left speechless as I didn't ASK why we didn't get the top ribbon, but even more, that he obviously didn't know the standard of the breed he was judging. I put him on my DNS list.”

When will judges — especially the bad ones — learn that it is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt? As another breeder said, maybe some responsibility rests with the clubs. “I think show committees have certain responsibilities to invite comments from exhibitors as well as their own members to evaluate their judges panel. It seems many clubs invite the same judges over and over without really knowing the opinions of the exhibitors. I talked to an AKC rep once who said a good panel makes for good entries.”

I agree a great deal with a multi-group judge who says, “I think some responsibility for poor judging may lie with the exhibitors themselves. The existence of so many shows and the ability to ‘make a major’ with [as few as] four entries may mean some exhibitors, breeders, judges and aspiring judges have never seen a good breed representative. So … championships can be won in mediocre competition.”

I do believe it is a very real problem that many judges — and exhibitors — have never seen a really good breed representative, and so they go by what they have seen winning. These “cheap champions” are then bred or used at stud, and the decline of the breed continues. It takes courage and integrity for a judge to withhold championship points when they are undeserved, but isn’t that the responsibility of a caretaker of the breed?

What do you think?

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