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.