I grew up in the incredibly small state of Delaware – the butt of many jokes mostly made up and perpetuated by other Delawareans. My joke has been that Delaware has three degrees of separation instead of the six degrees supposedly existing everywhere else. Everyone in Delaware appears to be either related, a graduate of the same school or has worked at the same bank (in one case, I actually worked with a cousin at a bank, reducing the separation even further).

So if you were a plumber or a contractor who did a poor job, chances are your days were numbered. One bad experience with said plumber would be told to a co-worker, who would tell their sister, who would then tell their old college roommate, and before you know it, there was no repeat or new business for that plumber. I lost this when I moved to Pennsylvania, and I was amazed at how many small businesses did poor quality work.

And then this little thing called the Internet really took off.

Tell Me How You Really Feel
Now you can find ratings on just about everything. My particular favorites involve hotel ratings, where with a few clicks of the mouse, you can separate the wheat from the chafe. I would bet most of us check out these ratings before booking a trip, and it’s not a single person’s comment that drives our choices, but the trend those comments are indicating. As we all know, there is usually that one person who says their stay at Joe’s Motel was great, while another will tell about the horrible spider they found in the corner of the shower. It’s between those two that the truth usually lies. We look for commonalities like “unfriendly staff, slept in my clothes, room not clean, a/c didn’t work,” etc. It is the majority of opinions that drives our choices and lets us know our chances of heading to Shangri La or the Bates Motel.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that you can now find ratings of dog show judges posted on the Internet.

The author with one of the dogs she handles herself. Photo courtesy Rhoda Springer.

One of my personal favorites is a Facebook group which now has more than 10,000 members. From what I can tell by the spirit of the postings on a daily basis (admittedly that work thing makes it hard for me to keep up with all of them), the majority of the members appear to be owner-handlers, breeders and breeder/owner-handlers – my kind of people. As is common in social media these days, there is more than one trip down a rabbit hole on a fairly regular basis; but in between all that, there is a genuine exchange of experience. Exhibitors will report that this or that judge “likes good movement, prefers more substance, puts up tri-colors, is a stickler for dentition” and other observations along the gamut of breed particulars. If a poster is speaking specifically to your breed, this may be invaluable information and can help you make a decision about which one of your dogs to take to that judge and which to leave home that day. Other good hints involve the judges’ ring procedures and pet peeves, information that if you know going in, you can avoid a pitfall. I call that good stuff.

But what I find most remarkable, and terribly telling about our sport, is how often we are looking on this social media page for judges that will simply give the non-professional handler a fair shake. And just as in our hotel ratings, it is the trend of the comments that gives the heads-up. I look for common phrases like “looks at the wrong end of the leash, puts up faces, is inconsistent on type” as indicators whether a judge will consider anything not presented by a professional handler. So if there is one “gave Fluffy a 4-point major” for every “didn’t even watch OH entries on the down and back,” you are left to wonder if this judge is worth the money or the bother.

The other trend that I look for that should give pause has to do with the judges’ manner in the ring. Things like “heavy-handed, unpleasant, seemed like she didn’t want to be there” over and over again make you want to give that judge a wide berth.

And our swapping of experiences is getting some notice.

The Judges Weigh In
Judges are starting to respond – on the internet at least. Recently there was a flurry of judge postings about what they prefer to see in the ring from exhibitors. I almost get the impression that they had a conference call to arrange it (which must have complicated the whole secret handshake thing), but it reinforced my suspicion that there are more than a few judges in the 10,000-member group. It created some good dialogue, and it was interesting to see one judge after another post his or her views on the site. There were also judges who responded to the judges. The discourse was entirely civil. Would that this could be said of all interchanges on the subject.

And Then There Was This
This month, one of the splashy dog show scene magazines published an article written by an ex-professional handler lambasting the public for daring to be critical of judges. He used the word “stupid” to describe those 10,000 or so members of the one group I am fond of (although it was not mentioned by name) and perhaps many more in other groups and forums. “Stupid.” He used that word multiple times.

The basic logic of that author was that all (or most if I am being nice) exhibitors like a judge if they win and think the judge is terrible if they lose. If this were the case, the author would have a point. And there has been more than one time that I have heard this very logic bandied about ringside. I don’t really need an Internet forum to hear this sort of opinion on a weekly basis.

But there is a big difference between the exhibitor who realizes that a particular judge doesn’t like his or her particular dog, and the exhibitor who has a bad experience with a rude judge. There is also that terrible feeling that we never had a chance in that judge’s ring merely because we make a living doing something other than handling dogs in the conformation ring. And if someone else has experienced either of these things, I want to know. Telling each other to be on the lookout for this kind of treatment is not “stupid.” It’s actually quite intelligent. It’s the equivalent of warning someone not walk alone in certain neighborhoods after dark – or heeding that advice.

What’s Old Is New Again
History tells of times when kings and emperors suppressed ideas by confiscating or destroying printing presses. It is part of the origin of “Freedom of the Press” in our Bill of Rights. As the public became more literate and the written word more widespread, ideas could be disseminated more rapidly and broadly than before. The exchange of knowledge and ideas became much more fluid, and that threatened those who wanted to rule absolutely.

Recently, whenever citizens in countries around the world have tried to change tyrannical regimes, the first thing those regimes do is block access to the Internet. They work to prevent the free flow of information and communication between the common people. And they definitely want to keep people from unifying.

Thankfully, nothing this oppressive is happening in our society, but whenever someone is trying to discourage the free flow of information, even if it is opinion that should be viewed as such, my radar starts to go off, and I remember these lessons from the past. It kicks questions in my mind. Why would you want people to stop reporting information? What would be the ultimate purpose of quieting a certain group? These are questions we need to ask anytime someone says that communication is “stupid.”

The simple reality is that a professional handler is going to show to every judge on the panel the day of the show. And the handler will want every one of his or her clients to OK the entry under those judges even if the client believes the judge will not like that type of dog. Otherwise, the handler won’t get paid. Period. The professional handlers want us to show under those judges as well because if we don’t there won’t be as many points. Then the clients will get frustrated and perhaps go to another handler. And keeping the owner-handler crowd from knowing that a judge only likes professional handlers is a bonus. We may as well write our checks to the pro handler instead of the kennel club.

So while I can fully accept that we cannot know the mind of any particular AKC judge, that there may be things that we haven’t seen and need to re-evaluate in our own kennel, that is not enough of a reason to give up the idea of evaluating judges in a forum. Because if the judge truly does have a prejudice, our own evaluation of our kennel is beside the point. My money is the point, and I need to spend it wisely.

Information as Power

For me, this exchange of experiences from people around the country that I have never met has sped up my show strategy planning process. In the past, I would show under a judge perhaps three times, observing his or her selections, jotting down notes that I would later transcribe into a spreadsheet. This is still a valuable tool, but it was trial and error, with more than one episode of head scratching, sometimes followed by a more senior exhibitor telling me that I was wasting my time – the judge will put up whatever Joe Pro takes in the ring. Sure enough, I would watch (in horror) as Joe Pro would win under that judge with a three-legged dead cat – well, nearly.

Now, if I read that a particular judge only puts up pros, I enter once, and if the judge holds up the observed trend, that judge will never touch my dog again. That judge makes it on to the dreaded, DNS list: “Do Not Show.”

I have two DNS lists: one for when I am showing in the classes, which is fairly short, and one for when I am Specialing, which is unfortunately getting longer all the time. I am sure my list is different from everyone else’s. We are a diverse group, in various regions of the country, in different breeds, so we have all had different experiences. But there are names that keep cropping up over and over again in our group. And although there is always a defender of these judges in the mix, there is a majority building on a few names.

And when those judges show up on a judging panel at a local show, we can choose to stay home. If these judges are brought up in our kennel club meetings as possible judges at our next show, we can voice our objections based on the many experiences we have had ourselves and on stories heard from our fellow exhibitors.

That is perhaps the reason we are seeing this pushback. If a consensus is built about a certain judge, he or she runs the risk of getting fewer and fewer assignments, and the professional handler may have to work a little harder for wins (I do not deny that the pros work hard already). And some people will not be happy with that.

But there is no denying that the owner-handler and breeder/owner-handler communities need to be smart about this. We need to refrain from personal attacks on anyone. We need to avoid the “crazies,” perhaps ignoring them and not throwing fuel on their narcissistic bonfires. We need to be businesslike and specific in our public evaluations. But we also need to be open and brave, not allowing ourselves to be cowed by name calling and fear of reprisal.

In the end, it is important to remember as a community that dog showing and hotel stays actually have some things in common for the owner-handler (ignoring for the moment that we often are doing both those activities on a given weekend). Just as we don’t have to stay at any particular hotel, we also don’t have to enter under this or that particular judge. Vacationing and dog showing are optional activities for us. And just as hotel chains may make their costs on business travelers, they probably make their profit on vacationers. Just so, the dog show sport may have the professional handler covering part of the entry, but it is the owner-handler who makes the numbers.

Just as we don’t want to waste our money on a fleabag hotel, we don’t want to waste our energy on a judge who won’t give us the time of day. And we will look for ways to maximize our money and our chances. The Internet and social media help us with these goals. And you’d better get used to it because I think this Internet thing is here to stay.

Rhoda Springer is an owner-handler and a regular contributor to Best In Show Daily. Her most recent article was “Breeder/Owner-Handlers Are Not the Minor League.”She penned “Short Circuits Benefit Owner-Handlers” earlier this summer.