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The Internet Empowers Owner-Handlers

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.

Written by

  • Jerome Elliott September 7, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Hey Rhoda,

    Thank you for an extremely thoughtful, thought provoking, and well written article.

    I have been an owner/handler and breeder/owner/handler since 1973.

    I look forward to seeing the various posts that will be made in support of your article, as well as those who may call it “stupid,” and I am sure you know exactly what I mean.

    My belief is now, (and always has been,) that if owner/handlers and breeder/owner/handlers WERE on a level playing field at the shows AT ALL TIMES, your article would never need to have been written. That, however, is very clearly NOT the case, so kudos to you for just saying so. Anyone who disagrees probably uses the services of a professional handler…

    I have been involved in several breeds for many years, most notably English Toy Spaniels. One could always tell the moment a judge started to go over the dog, exactly how much experience they might have had with the breed previously, or whether they had any idea of what they were actually looking for (some simply have a routine that might look okay, but tells them nothing…). You could tell when you turned around at the end of the down and back if they were still looking your direction, or gazing off to one side, glassy eyed, thinking, “Prime rib or chicken for dinner tonight?”

    Facts are facts, some judges consider certain classes, and certain breeds, only to be steps toward their accumulation of enough to judge a group or groups. A recent discussion with one AKC Field Rep led me to believe that she agreed that approval for some Breeds and Groups should be taken away from people that really only admitted that they “liked” judging certain breeds, or parts of groups, because they voiced their hatred of other breeds. She was in favor of the AKC not allowing such judges to judge those breeds in the future. Most of the time you KNOW when a judge feels that way about YOUR breed. It does not make for a pleasant experience, and it is one that you don’t repeat.

    I sincerely hope that your article has given everyone lots of food for thought, exhibitors and judges alike. Of course, there are two sides to the coin. Your article gets a “Heads Up!” from me.


    Jerome Elliott

  • kristiburrus
    Kristi Burrus September 7, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    Very well said Rhoda Springer!

  • Crystal September 7, 2013 at 10:44 AM

    Thank you Rhoda!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anne September 7, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    Excellent article. I have been doing this on and off for years. I do know a good dog. I have a breeder/owner handled BIS to my credit, National Specialty class winners, Specialty winners, multiple champion litters, a Brood Bitch of the Year from our National Club. I have done this while raising children, working full time and do not do a lot of breeding.
    I recently showed under a lady who ended up putting up a very mediocre dog with a pro on the string for WD and same thing in bitches. I walked with reserve. Not only was I incredulous that I had lost to what I did but my peers who were sitting at ringside were shocked. The intel on the WB was gay tail, horrible rear, long, skinny hairless legs, snipy muzzle, no under coat, just not pretty.
    There was even one person who got on a cell and called a long time breeder to tell them what had gone down. If I hadn’t been so irritated it would have been extremely funny.

    Normally, I don’t go talk to judges afterward. I certainly know a lot of handlers that either go and gush or go and ream judges afterward. I usually just shrug and say “another day, another dog show” and go on. I went to ask the current days judge why. Her answer….after frowing at me and telling me I had paid for her opinion (?) was better balance than my entry and shooed me out of the ring. I guess I must be confused because I thought I was paying for a judge’s education interpretation of my breed’s standard. I guess I was confused about her role in that day’s process. I guess beauty, movement, hair, head detail, correct tail carriage, etc, etc, etc don’t matter. Or was it the skinny handler in the tight dress that did it? HMMMMMMMMMM!

    Another illustrative story about the lack of parallel playing field in this “game” would be about a few shows prior to the one above. In the class my girl beat 5 other nice bitches shown by successful breeders and a breeder/ judge. My girlie went reserve behind a bitch who had a pro on the lead. The WB came from a class of one. As we walk out, the handler turns to me….with her Winners ribbon in hand and tells me that the bitch is so unattractive that she hadn’t even wanted to show her. I did not solicit this comment from the handler. I was actually kind of surprised the remark was made. My feeling about that….”Well thanx…that made me feel a world better.”

    So yep…..I think there is a true slant, under some judges to put up a handler…even with an inferior dog. I am afraid with the hideous state of the economy, the hounding of dog breeders by local municipalities, the obvious favoritism by certain judges to pros; that we might see a further decline in the number of dogs entered in our shows. People get tired, they feel they are not given at least a fair look in the ring and the newbies lose interest along with their money and move on to some other sport. The owner/handlers are the backbone of this thing we call a sport. I hope judge’s objectively look at their ring practices and keep mindful that if the numbers decline, then there will be less of a need for their services. Maybe better to really learn, dissect and understand the standards of the dogs you are judging. Look beyond the peek UP the lead to a focus on what stands at the BOTTOM end of the lead….. or as JFK said, “if you are not a part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem”. Not only will you have a part in the declining numbers of dogs being shown but you also lead breeders and ringsiders to believe that what they are putting out is a good product. Because, YOU have just rubber stamped their opinion that that little product gaiting around the ring is judge tested and therefore breeder approved.

  • Cindy Fleenor September 7, 2013 at 12:46 PM

    Love the article!

    How might I find the Facebook group you mention?

    Thank you!

    • Rhoda Springer
      Rhoda Springer September 8, 2013 at 3:01 PM

      Hi Cindy,
      Try searching for ‘Dog Show Judges’ and see if something comes up that interests you.

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E September 7, 2013 at 2:49 PM

    OMG – HOW accurate! And well written :)

  • Sharyn Hutchens, Timbreblue Whippeta September 7, 2013 at 4:42 PM

    Excellent, well-thought-out article! My impression of the email lists discussing judges and the FB group is that, yes, there are people who give thumbs up to judges they win under and thumbs down to those they don’t. But you can usually figure those out from the posts. Many of the contributors admit they did not win that day but the judging was consistent. I’ve even see one who said she DID win but should not have and proceeded to talk about how rude and inconsistent the judge was. All In all I think these sites are a good thing, but they need pretty close moderation to be useful. Wise judges will read the comments and use them for self-improvement. After all, if 25 people say the emperor has no clothes, perhaps he should look in the mirror!

  • Pammy September 8, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    It is what it is. And THAT’S the reason entries keep going down.

  • John Hadfield September 8, 2013 at 8:08 PM

    Great article Rhoda. Very insightful and well written.

  • Cindy Cooke September 9, 2013 at 8:34 AM

    Last year, a woman asked me for an honest evaluation of her Scottish Terrier. I told her that her bitch was not of championship quality, but she was a lot better than the first Scottie I showed. I told her to use this dog as a learning experience, sharpening her grooming and handling skills while she searched for a show and breeding quality bitch. Two weeks later, the dog was turned over to a skilled professional handler who finished her in fairly short order. I knew the bitches she defeated on the way to her championship–every single one of them was superior to this genuinely pet-quality bitch. I kept a list of the judges who put her up. Shame on all of them. The owner’s lesson from this experience is that I (and the other breeders who gave her the same advice) must have been trying to put something over on her since her bitch is now a champion, and the dam of a litter. BTW, this is not the first time I’ve had such an experience, just the most recent, I’m sorry to say. I have the utmost respect for that handful of judges out there who ignore the person on the end of the lead and judge the dog. To those judges who give the advantage to a professional handler because “the dogs are his/her livelihood,” my answer is: “The dogs are my life!”

    Cindy Cooke
    Anstamm Scottish Terriers

  • minnahpage
    Melody Tate September 9, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    Excellent points, and great article.

    As an owner/handler who doesn’t for the most part, “Facebook” (wow…noun becomes verb…don’tcha just love the English language!!), I have been using a fabulous site, http://www.showdays.info , for several years. Like the facebook page you describe, members can rate and comment on judges, and it’s been really useful in my show planning activities. Comments are expected to be civil, and it’s an interesting exercise to provide constructive and civil criticism when all one wants to do is sputter with appalled invective.

    Perhaps if enough of us participate in these sites, over time we’ll see some improvement in the quality of judging throughout the sport.

  • Auten September 11, 2013 at 3:35 AM

    Well written article Rhoda, and so true in all that you said. After watching the trends on several lists it is surprising when we see those same judges popping up over and over again on different panels. Clubs should look at the entries on those repeating judges and hire for their shows accordingly. The judges who are being asked to adjudicate at fewer and fewer shows should take heed. Clubs need to attract All exhibitors to be successful, so the Internet is playing a considerable role in the decisions more and more clubs are making these days.

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