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AKC Judges On Strike? Spoiled Prima Donnas or Unfairly Maligned?

A lot has been written about dog show judges recently. This is obviously a subject that concerns a lot of people: 38 readers submitted published comments to my article last month about the AKC Judges Approval system, which may be some sort of personal record, and I haven’t been able to go anywhere without people wanting to talk to me about it. Obviously it hit a nerve; if you haven’t read it already, go to The AKC Judges Approval System: “Worse Than It Ever Was Before” and read both the article and all the comments.

Regardless of your opinion of judges — spoiled prima donnas, hard-working stiffs or unfairly maligned scapegoats? — there’s just no way around the fact that if you show dogs you need to be familiar with how judges are educated and approved before they are allowed to determine how our beloved dogs stack up against the competition.

There are a lot of AKC judges out there. At least 3,000 to 4,000 individuals are listed in the AKC Judges Directory, which includes not just the regular conformation judges but also those who judge junior showmanship, obedience, rally and tracking, all of whom fall outside the frame of this article. Looking at the monthly Secretary’s Page on the AKC website provides an interesting overview. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of new people who are applying for or being approved to judge one or more breeds every month. In January alone there were details of new applications and approvals for over 70 judges.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the AKC officials whose job it is to make sure that the right individuals are approved for the breeds most suitable for them. It’s a difficult task, no question about that. However, judging by the hundreds (I’m not exaggerating) of comments I have received since the publication of the above article I’m clearly not the only one who has become convinced that the system is broken — if not irretrievably, then at least so badly that it’s in need of a major overhaul. You would not expect a lot of people to say how wonderful the judges’ approval process is, but I was still amazed by the consistency with which 100% of the people who wrote or spoke to me expressed their dismay about how the way judges are approved by AKC. We’re not talking about small-time complainers: those who expressed concern include many top AKC officials and highly regarded multi-group judges. Some have suggested that judges should simply go on strike until they are treated more fairly, others that there should be a mass exodus of judges from AKC to the United Kennel Club. Neither is likely to occur, but that it has even been mentioned is something I hope will help effect some change.

A Laughing-Stock of the World
The fact is that the system we now employ for approving judges in the U.S. is fast making us the laughing-stock of the rest of the world and ensures that U.S. judges are treated like second-class citizens overseas. What else can you say when a 24-year old foreign judge from a neighboring country is approved by AKC to judge six of the seven groups at its shows (plus all breeds except one in the seventh), while innumerable American judges struggle for years, even decades, spending thousands of dollars in an effort to get approval for even a single Group? I know at least one American judge who received the ultimate accolade of being invited to judge “his” group — in which he has bred countless BIS winners — at Crufts, yet he’s still not, after many years, approved to judge even this Group at AKC shows.

And why is it that so many of the most experienced, even legendary, American judges are not approved to judge more than a few of the seven groups that would make them all-breed judges? If I take Frank Sabella as an example, it’s both because he has been publicly outspoken about what he thinks of the AKC system and because he is simply the greatest star we have on the American dog show firmament. Frank is universally revered, overseas as well as by anyone who’s seriously concerned about show dogs in the U.S. He was most recently the subject of a videotaped interview in England in front of an adoring and awe-struck audience, and he has had a brilliant career that includes pretty much every honor that a dog show person can accumulate. (To recap: as a handler, Frank showed the Top Dog of all breeds at AKC shows three times in the 1950s and ‘60s, retiring after winning BIS at Westminster in 1973, and later judged BIS there in 1990.)

Yet Frank, in spite of regularly officiating at top shows around the world, is not an all-breed judge at AKC shows. He is regularly approved for just four of the seven AKC groups, plus a few breeds in the others. I noticed, with mixed feelings, that Mr. Sabella was approved for a grand total of two additional breeds in 2013. What kind of embarrassing testament is it to our sport that a man of his stature was not granted all-breed status decades ago? And he is certainly not alone: the number of extremely experienced AKC judges who are NOT approved to judge all breeds is simply astonishing.

The Best Judges for the Job
If you are surprised that Frank could be invited to judge BIS at Westminster, the most prestigious dog show in America, without being approved to judge all breeds, please be aware that this is the norm, not the exception. Westminster Kennel Club clearly picks what they feel are the best judges for the job, and this means that many — if not most — of their BIS judges don’t qualify as all-breed judges according to AKC. In fact, the only two Westminster BIS judges approved for all breeds in the past 15 years or so were foreigners, one from Canada and one from Italy!

The top judging spot at AKC’s own shown, the Eukanuba National Championship, naturally enough usually goes to those that AKC deems worthy of judging all breeds, but even at this show that’s not always the case. In the show’s relatively short history, no less than five individuals who were technically NOT allrounders have judged BIS there — including the aforementioned Frank Sabella. Obviously even AKC itself (or at least parts of it) feel that the top judges aren’t necessarily those approved to judge all breeds.

So what’s the reason so few judges are approved for all breeds in the U.S.? As mentioned earlier, the latest available issue of the AKC Judges Directory lists 21 individuals as approved for all breeds. Of those at least six are deceased or retired, and most of the others are well advanced in years. This is actually a much lower number of all-rounders than we used to have in the past, and it’s fewer per capita than in almost any other country. To achieve comparable figures with the rest of the world, based on number of shows, entry, population, etc. we ought to have perhaps 500 or 600 judges who are authorized to judge all breeds — an almost unimaginable increase from the present.

If you’re looking for a reason, you could say that AKC means well and limits all-breed status to just a few highly deserving individuals. That sounds good but is belied by the previously mentioned fact that so many of our best, most experienced and versatile judges have never been afforded all-breed status. (I’m well aware that you need to apply to become approved, but if the approval process is as unpredictable or downright unpleasant as it is felt to be, it’s no wonder if many refrain from continuing to expand their repertoire.) You may also have noticed that among the many critics of the current situation are highly placed AKC officials. That seems like a contradiction but is just one example of how opposing views may thrive within the large umbrella organization that the American Kennel Club is. When we talk about “AKC” we tend to think of it as one single entity, but it’s made up of often talented, experienced individuals who don’t necessarily agree with each other… and in this case it appears that nobody is really in charge.

“The Best Judges in the World”
I mentioned earlier that U.S. judges may suffer overseas from AKC’s reluctance to approve more judges for all-breed status. This flies right in the fact of the club’s officially stated comment that “AKC judges are the best in the world,” especially as we see that the plum assignments at many foreign shows with increasing frequency go to judges from Canada, Australia and the FCI countries, all of whom have a much higher percentage of all-breed judges than the U.S. does. If an overseas club brings in a number of foreign judges it’s no wonder that they will most likely choose as their Best in Show judge one that’s approved in his or her home country to judge all breeds… and that person is not nearly as likely to be an American now as in the past. This may not matter much if you don’t think Best in Show is that important anyway, but it has definitely affected the assignments that AKC judges get overseas.

If I may be personal for a minute, the reactions I meet from foreign clubs (I don’t judge overseas nearly as often as many other American judges, but I’ve been doing this for a long time) is EITHER that “You’re an international judge, so of course you can judge anything” — and they ask you to judge Best in Show, which is fun and almost never involves the most difficult decisions on the day — or “Since AKC doesn’t think you should judge more than just those few breeds, of course we can’t ask you to judge anything different” — which is also OK, of course. (Unlike most AKC judges I also have an old but still active FCI license to judge a number of breeds, which may make my situation a little different from most others’.)

For the record, let me state that the references to foreign judges above are not meant as criticism. I have nothing against foreign judges; at one point I actually was one myself. There are good and bad U.S. judges. There are good and bad foreign judges. Judges from one particular country are on the whole no better or worse than any others: talented dog people can come from anywhere in the world. However, the method of approving judges in their respective home countries gives U.S. judges a distinct disadvantage compared to almost all others. It’s time we changed that.

There is much more to be said. Since we of course want our judges to be really knowledgeable, how do we maintain — or improve — the quality if hundreds more need to graduate to all-breed status? What should the criteria be? How could AKC maintain some semblance of order if they were to start approving a lot more judges for a lot more breeds?
For the time being, I would be grateful if AKC would realize that there is a problem. There are signs that there may be a change. Let’s hope it will be for the better.

Written by

Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as the U.S. national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.

14 Comments to “AKC Judges On Strike? Spoiled Prima Donnas or Unfairly Maligned?”

  1. Dogma says:

    Its clear things are in a ridiculous state with regard to the current AKC judging approval process. The comments about Mr Sabella really highlighted how asinine
    the whole thing really is. I suspect one could become a brain surgeon in less time than it takes to judge a couple of groups.

    However fear not, as it is still the British judges approval system that holds the distinction as being the world’s most ridiculous. Its is a world where those who have been spectacularly UNsuccessful as breeders can award CC’s in their breed, and those who have never made up a single CH can judge the Group at Crufts!

    I guess it boils down to the idea that judges hold the power, and those who hold the power to bestow breeds and groups upon said judges hold the ultimate power in this game of ours.

  2. Russell L. McFadden says:

    Bo,

    Thank you for another great article. Your willingness to publicly question the very badly broken judging approval process on this venue is greatly appreciated. I am not holding my breath but I can only hope that those at AKC who need to listen to what you have to say will ultimately do so. Regards.

  3. Shockwave says:

    Dogma wrote above: I suspect one could become a brain surgeon in less time than it takes to judge a couple of groups.

    One could become a neurosurgeon in about 15 years.
    4 years of college (undergraduate bachelor’s degree)
    4 years of medical school (MD or DO degree)
    One year internship (surgical internship)
    7 years of neurosurgery residency.
    2-3 years fellowship (most neurosurgeons do a fellowship in order to qualify for a sub-specialty)

    They get paid as interns and during residency, not a fortune, but a practicing neurosurgeon makes very good money for what is undeniably a high-stress, high-risk occupation with some of the highest malpractice premiums in the industry. Surely to be allowed to crack open your skull and work on your brain they require a higher skill set than any dog show judge needs to find the best dog in the ring!

    Under the present system, I think one would be lucky to get two groups in that amount of time, particularly as one really can’t apply without nearly a decade actively involved in the sport, and that needs to be counted as time served, up to a point.

    Think of all the many jobs one could apply for with only a Bachelor’s Degree or equivalent and a resume, and ask yourself, why do dog show judges require decades to become all-rounders? Ask yourself, what part of the current approval system actually determines the knowledge and ability of an applicant anyway? Are they still doing open books tests on the breed standard? Because open book tests are NOT tests. I could qualify as a nuclear power plant technician if I only needed to pass an open book test. It wouldn’t make me a good one, but I could pass the test!

    The AKC system needs to be blown up and a proper one begun from scratch.

  4. K. Staggs says:

    And this is one reason small clubs can’t continue having shows. There are so few all rounders that they have to hire more judges so expenses go up. They have to rely on the fewer number of judges that can judge the most or keep using the same judges in an area all the time. Then the exhibitors quit entering cause they know who each judge will probably put up. With such few all rounders it is a nightmare trying to get a panel together for these small shows. They are not like some of the bigger Kennel clubs with excess monies to spend, they literally are having one show at a time and hope they break even so they can have another the next year. No wonder AKC is losing money. They are throwing clubs and exhibitors and judges out every day!

  5. Virginia O'Connor says:

    Bo, I devoutly hope that the next article we see from you is that The Powers That Be at AKC have resolved the ludicrous Catch-22 situation they managed to place you in and have given you the balance of the group. I am not sanguine about the likelihood of that happening, however. If only they would realize how foolish their inconsistencies and hypocrisy make them seem to the world outside their hallowed halls. But, alas!

    Your example of Frank Sabella is particularly telling. How anyone could deny that he has long had the credentials to qualify as an all-breed judge is beyond me. Don’t they realize that under the present system, great dog men and women like the much-missed Annie Clark, Derek Rayne and other greats (both living and passed) could never have achieved all-rounder status? The current system of judge approval is depriving the sport of so much needed knowledge and experience, and it affects not only current exhibitors. They are cheating future generations of breeders and exhibitors as well.

    There are surely many good people working at AKC, but the organization as a whole is letting us down, and has made us all hostages to their foolishness, pride and obstinacy. Sadly, I just don’t see that changing any time soon.

  6. jackgalt says:

    Give Americans the time to do so, and we will completely destroy anything and everything by insisting that there be more paperwork, more tests, and less knowledge along the way.

  7. Judy English Murray says:

    Its obvious you are not in politics. Why? Because you tell it like it is. Keep up the good work on behalf of us still trying to finish our 2nd group. No I didn’t have 80% of the Toy group, therefore my 20 plus years of various Toy breed seminars, ADSJ & AKC seminars as well as breed mentor education doesn’t count for anything. Keep up the good work. We need your voice!

  8. Jay Phinizy says:

    Well, the problem is far more deeply seated than this recent change. It can be traced to the shift from performance standards and assessments to mechanical standards, as the bases for approval and, simultaneously, the process by which the board was removed from considering an application to judge.

    These two changes have caused more damage to the entire AKC structure than most anything else with the exception of the “frequently used sires” policy and the really misguided policy of approving shows out of their “territory” and expanding the number of shows to the level they are now. (That is another discussion.)

    During the early nineties, I had the pleasure of being on the board and the distinct displeasure at being on the judges review committee, which was an appeals committee for individuals whose application often for additional breeds or a group had been turned down. It was not displeasing to review the appeals and reasons for denial. Quite the contrary, I felt very sorry for those candidates who had been put through “the mill” for what often were less than acceptable reasons. Since the appeals process was based on the record, this committee was required to base a decision only on the record; it was a process not unlike a court of appeals. In short, did AKC not observe process.

    Where possible that the staff had not followed procedure, I voted to overturn a decision. After all the staff had (and has) a higher standard of care to observe. It was pitiful to see perfectly decent people put through a meat grinder for less than objective reasons with recommendations for denial that were not quite Kafkaesque but almost. These applicants were often perfectly well qualified – some times not the “greatest” but suitably competent to judge – and often were far more qualified than the staff who oversaw their applications.

    Shortly after I got off the board, the process had been altered to remove the board from any direct decision. What an even greater mistake that was. After all the board represented the “fancy” and had come from the same background; why shouldn’t it pass judgement on its peers. The board, regardless of what staff may do or recommend, are ultimately responsible. Yet the AKC board chose to remove itself from an area it understood and knew better than most of the staff. Not only were “we” grounded in that process, collectively we had hundreds of years of practical experience. Experience that was based on weeks of exhibiting, obedience and field trialing.

    Besides, if the board were found to be too subjective and capricious, it could be removed as a delegate or merely challenged through board elections. Perhaps it is time for the board to take back the process and base initial approvals on a simple “time served process” which Lou Auslander had proposed in the late eighties. After that should a judge provide a simple synopses as to experience, then the applicant, having performed satisfactorily and not committed any faux pas, should be advanced, leaving the market place to decide.

    Quite a long time ago – nearly twenty years, Elaine Young’s absolutely stunning daughter, Michelle, commented that there were no young judges to keep the ‘sport’ going. Small wonder that the very same next generation aren’t interested as the requirements now are even more pedantic, expensive and time consuming. AKC is a bureaucracy that has become lost in itself and in mechanics to the detriment of us ‘the sport’.

    What has been done over the last twenty years really has not worked and, certainly, has not improved the quality of judging in the least. Len Brumby ought to be cloned, and AKC should revert to that system. I’d sooner take my chances with Mr. Brumby.

  9. Linda White says:

    Yes the process is too cumbersome and too expensive! And what bothers me more than the process to become a judge is that there are no checks and balances once a person becomes a judge. They can and often do as they please and not as the breed standards ask! Some judges are face judges putting up only those that they recognize – be it a professional handler or some breeder/owner/handler that has the funds to be out almost every weekend at a show. Or the ones who misinterup a breed standard or decide on their own to judge the breed the way it was when they handled professionally some 30 years ago. Parent clubs work hard at perfecting the correct standard and then judges ignore the standard once the are licensed!

  10. Christine Cameron says:

    You are so right! Although I have been showing dogs since I was 11, and I am now 65, I never handled professionally. In 1990 I was approved to judge my first breed. Now, 24 years later, I only have 17 breeds (split between 2 groups) because it has been so difficult.

    It would take years for me to get the provisional/permit assignments and by the time I was able to apply for additional breeds, I was informed all my previous experiences and education were too old. It never occurred to me that education had an expiration date.

    This last go round I applied for one breed. I had my interview and the Rep said I had a good handle on the breed and should do well. AKC’s board met and said NO. They said there were things in my letter that were “contradictory to the breed standard”. Yet when I asked what those where, I was told they could not tell me.

    How is a person to learn? Besides that, I had my “letter” reviewed by 2 people who are parent club mentors for this particular breed. They told me that I had it down very well.

    I am not great at writing and obviously that is what I need to improve upon. AKC also
    “suggested” I do more regular judging and have a Rep observe me but they didn’t say why. Afterall, AKC did give me regular status.

    AKC also stated I could reapply in 6 months and pay another $25.

    Thank you AKC!

  11. SUE MCCLURE sue mcclure says:

    Much of the replies are right on for smaller clubs – allowing clubs to leave their territories was a definite more in the wrong direction, taking the realm and experience of purebred dogs away from communities that are being bombarded with save the mutt campaigns.
    I have 40 years in my breed and still haven’t finished a judges application before the requirements change.
    As I serve in what seems like a permanent show chair position, I have seen our entries go from 1800 dogs to less than 400 over the last 25 years (we remain in our own territory vs moving to a large city cluster) I have found the best way for us to fill out a panel is with judges who will come on a per dog basis vs. a fee and expenses. That is the only way we can get around hiring just 3 judges to do everything and not go into the red. Expenses alone ran up a $150 a day judge to a $900 judge at our last show, and he only had 35 dogs to judge. It also helps a judge that doesn’t do more than one group get assignments or we couldn’t afford to hire them for a small show. If we are just paying $4 per dog, it doesn’t matter if we have 12 judges vs. 3. The biggest help is if judges will put their willingness to come for just expenses, just per dog or their fee plus expenses along with their other information in the judges directory. Believe me, judges that will come per dog would get a lot more assignments if we knew about them.

  12. Brad Briscoe says:

    Bo Bengtson,
    I would like to thank you for your candor,honesty and bravery this article is quite interesting. I find truthful from an exhibitor standpoint and has a lot of continuity with the AKC judges approval article in which I feel the same way. We never know what the future will bring. We can only hope.

  13. Kristy Kenyon says:

    There really needs to be big change in all things about AKC dog showing…Guess the powers that be AKC have their ignorant, selfish, elitist, interests in their dictatorship of the all american dog show….. How do we vote for these guys anyway..(joking) I feel everyone of us Breeders and Judges should band together and get these archaic ideas put to rest before we don’t have a sport .
    Looking around at one of the largest if not The largest all breed shows in the country Palm Springs it seems like it was the same ole people exhibiting, judging, vending and socializing hardly any NEW BLOOD…so what will happen down the road… WHY is it so difficult to see the horizon??
    Thanks Bo for all you do for purebred dogs and I’m sure when you made the decision to re-aquire the Sight Hound Review it was a difficult but most likely smart choice if all things AKC remain the same,.
    Knowing when to let go of the anchor is very wise.

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