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Last Word on Judges — and What Breeds Win the Most

May I add a few last words on AKC judges? Nothing I have experienced in my many years in dogs has caused even close to the response I got to a couple of articles about the way judges are approved (or not approved) by AKC. This obviously touched a sore spot. It’s a subject that affects everyone who’s involved in dog shows, but now it’s time for official action, and there isn’t much more I can do. (Unless AKC should solicit my assistance, of course, and that’s not likely to happen.)

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to BIS Daily articles AKC Judges On Strike? Spoiled Prima Donnas or Unfairly Maligned? and The AKC Judges Approval System: “Worse Than It Ever Was Before.” I keep getting letters and calls about these articles, and if I’ve helped cast a light on a problem that has been kept hidden for too long I’m glad. When I met with the AKC Board appeals committee in New York during Westminster week they couldn’t have been more pleasant, and I got the distinct impression that they were perhaps not really aware of what’s been going on, with a vast number of AKC judges being discouraged from expanding their repertoire of breeds to meet an increasing demand caused by ever more and ever smaller shows. (The smaller a dog show is, the less useful the “specialist” judges are, and the more urgent becomes the need for a couple of multi-group judges to take care of the entries.)

By the way, the AKC Board approved me to judge the Hound group – 11 months after the recommendation was offered by the Judges Review Committee. Whether I will be able to continue judging for AKC is not certain, however.

Enough about that. I appreciate all the comments, but since I have no official authority to effect any change I would recommend those who feel strongly about this to direct your concerns to the Board of the American Kennel Club. For the sake of future dog shows in America I hope they will be able to find a solution.

Who Wins the Most?
The data from last year’s shows are in. It takes a while to compile all the figures, since there were thousands of dog shows and millions of entries, but for the moment let’s look not so much at which DOGS won the most as which BREEDS have, and haven’t, been featured most prominently in the annual rankings.

The year-end statistics, which include details of who won what among the Top 10 in each breed, are published in so many places and in so many formats it’s confusing. Almost all the print publications that focus on show dogs have their own “system,” although just what distinguishes one from another is not always clear. I have tried, and often failed, to figure this out, only establishing that although the Top 10 dogs in the breeds I checked appear to be the same regardless of source, their point scores aren’t necessarily identical. If the statistics really are a reflection of who the best dogs were in the country that year I’ll leave unsaid, but they certainly make it clear who won the most, and which dogs the judges put up the most often. The stats can also tell you which breeds won the most Best in Shows, and which ones won very little, or nothing at all, and that in itself is almost more interesting.

In theory, democracy rules at the dog shows: on paper, every breed has an equal chance of going to the top. As long as a breed is represented at a show, and provided at least one of them is of such respectable quality that the judge doesn’t “Withhold for lack of merit,” there will be a Best of Breed winner who is eligible to participate in the Group competition, and whoever wins that Group automatically qulifies as one of the seven finalists for Best in Show. (At FCI shows in foreign countries there are ten Groups, not seven, and even in the other English-speaking countries, which like USA don’t belong to the FCI, the outline of the Groups may vary a little, but the basic philosophy is the same at all dog shows. Best of Breed winners compete in the Group, which is in effect a sort of semi-final, and all the Group winners then vie for the Best in Show award.)

In real life the picture looks rather different. Even a cursory glance shows that certain breeds win much more in Group and BIS competition than others. Why is that? Are they really that much “better” than the other breeds, or are there other reasons that come into play?

506 BIS for the Top Ten breeds!
The fact is that the ten most successful breeds or varieties took home 506 Best in Shows between them, more than a third of the total, while 40 less lucky breeds didn’t win single Best in Show during the same time period! Another bunch of breeds had a single BIS winners, which means that about a third of the AKC breeds had just one Best in Show or less each.

With a completely even distribution of the top award, which is of course never going to happen in real life, there would be seven or eight BIS per breed each year. That’s based on 1,415 all-breed BIS awards shared by 189 AKC breeds or varieties that we have records of for 2013. The total number of shows may be slightly higher; for a win to appear in our statistics it must go to one of the Top 10 dogs in its breed, and these days it’s possible in some breeds for a dog to win all-breed BIS and still not be among the Top 10 in the year-end rankings. The competition is that fierce in the most heavily campaigned breeds: e.g. in Dobermans a dog needed to defeat almost 3,000 competitors to get into the Top 10. At the other end of the scale there weren’t even ten dogs that qualified in some breeds, so ANY Group placement, regardless of how few points were involved, would ensure a spot.

So what breeds won the most? Not surprisingly, those that had a top winner last year dominated. Wire Fox Terriers won 97 BIS and Portuguese Water Dogs 95 — most of them through the No. 1 and No. 2 dogs of all breeds last year, respectively. Miniature Pinschers followed with 66 BIS, won by three different dogs, but a large majority of the wins were bagged by the country’s No. 1 Toy dog. Standard Poodles (55 BIS, 6 winners) and Giant Schnauzers (36 BIS, 4 winners) were also dominated by an outstanding winner but featured several other top contenders as well. The remaining top breeds, with number of BIS wins first, then the number of dogs that won BIS, were: Bichons Frisés 35/5, American Foxhounds 35/3, Great Danes 30/6, Irish Water Spaniels 29/3 and Russell Terriers 28/2.

Interestingly, none of the breeds that won the most featured the highest number of BIS winners. Four breeds were represented by seven individual BIS winners each: Boxers (23 BIS, 7 winners), Salukis (23/7), Shetland Sheepdogs (15/7) and Whippets (10/7). Does that mean it’s “easier” for a dog of any of these breeds to bag a Best in Show, even if it doesn’t belong to the small group of heavily campaigned contenders for No. 1 Dog All Breeds honors? I’ll leave that for you to think about.

The breeds that had six BIS winners, in addition to the already mentioned Standard Poodles and Great Danes, were: Afghan Hounds (26 BIS, 6 winners), German Shepherd Dogs (22/6), Dobermans (20/6) and Australian Shepherds (16/6). As mentioned earlier, it’s possible for some additional, unknown BIS winner to be lurking outside the Top 10 statistics in some breeds, but the above gives a fair picture of what the most successful breeds in BIS competition are.

The Breeds that Failed
Let’s look at the other end — the breeds that failed to win a single all-breed Best in Show in AKC competition last year. This raises so many questions it’s impossible to answer them all, but can anyone give a satisfying answer to why, for instance, the country’s (and the world’s) most popular breed, both as a pet and a show dog, is failing so miserably in all-breed competition? Not one single all-breed BIS at an AKC show in 2013 for the Labrador Retriever! Sure, this is a “specialist” breed, and entries at specialty shows are generally much higher than at all-breed shows, but still…

The fact is that the Top 10 Labrador Retrievers between them won a grand total of SIX Sporting Group 1sts during 2013 comes as a bit of a shock, even to those of us who for years have wondered at this peculiar state of affairs. Remember, there were over 1,400 all-breed shows with Group competition; compare the Labrador’s miserable total to e.g. the 86 Group wins for the Top 10 Golden Retrievers, 169 for Afghan Hounds, 128 for Boxers, 141 for Dobermans, and 248 (!) for Standard Poodles.

Labs are the most obvious example of a breed that’s “misunderstood” (if that’s the word for it) in all-breed competition. They are certainly not the only one, however. Nobody expects the really rare breeds to win a lot of BIS, but the fact that so many breeds fail to catch the judges’ eyes in this kind of competition deserves to be noted. Here’s a list of well-established breeds that did not muster a single all-breed BIS win last year: Cocker Spaniel (Parti-Colored), Smooth Dachshund, Great Pyrenees, a whole bunch of Terrier breeds (e.g. Bedlington, Cairn, Irish, Sealyham, Soft Coated Wheaten and West Highland White), Chihuahuas (neither Long Coat nor Smooth Coat) and Italian Greyhound.

Why Some Win and Some Don’t
Let’s look at the possible reasons a breed may not do well in all-breed competition. Admittedly, we’re now getting into the area of speculation and hypothesis, but at least some of the following must be involved:
Lack of quality. That’s the obvious answer, and ought to be the only reason a breed is not winning in competition with other breeds. If so, that means e.g. the Labrador Retrievers breeders are just not doing as good a job as the rest. Is that true?
Disagreement between breed specialists and other judges. If the fanciers of one breed are aiming in one direction and the judges are looking in the other direction, obviously there aren’t going to be a lot of wins for that breed. This happened in the past, when the breeder-judges of German Shepherds were looking for a different type of dog than what would win in all-breed competition, and this could be what’s happening now in Labradors. I think the GSD fanciers have mostly resolved the dichotomy these days; I wonder if the Lab people will follow course?
Lack of knowledge. I’m not talking about the disagreement where judges at the opposite end of the spectrum accuse each other of ignorance, but what happens when a breed is so new, and/or so rare, that judges have difficulty getting a grasp of ideal conformation and the finer points of breed type. Trust me, many Hound judges are struggling with the “new” Coonhound breeds, and how much do most of our BIS judges really know about Boykin Spaniels, Chinooks, Rat Terriers and Toy Fox Terriers (“Oh, there’s a difference?” as one BIS judge said, perhaps jokingly), Norwegian Buhunds, Pyrenean Shepherds and Swedish Vallhunds.
Grooming. Are e.g. Poodles and Wire-coated Terriers really as much “better” than other breeds as their wins indicate? Are judges rewarding the hard work that’s gone into the presentation of a “coated” dog, especially one that’s artfully clipped, stripped or otherwise groomed? And is it perhaps simply fair that they should? Many would disagree, others feel there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Perhaps a discussion of just how much grooming should count when you’re judging Best in Show would be a suitable subject for discussion?
Temperament. We’re talking about the dogs, of course, although as a side note the judge’s temperament probably affects his or her decisions as well. Exuberant, extrovert dogs inevitably catch the judges’ attention much more than introverted or low-key breeds, even when that’s the breed’s natural state.
Fashion, or “follow the leader.” Have some sympathy for the poor Best in Show judge, especially one who’s making one of his or her first decisions in this particular area. Into the ring comes a dog that he cannot help knowing that So-and-so, a very famous judge whom he greatly respects, has just awarded a big Best in Show at a major show. The dog looks fine, but would it really win if the judge didn’t know its antecedents? And that, of course, doesn’t include all the cases when the exhibitor has made very sure, by an advertising campaign, that the judge KNOWS just how many Best in Shows that dog has taken before…
“Breed favoritism”: You are aware, of course, that a mere handful of judges — about 16, at last count — in this country are authorized by AKC to judge all breeds. All that’s required for permission to judge Best in Show is that you’re approved for one whole Group, and that you have judged that Group in a satisfactory manner a certain number of times. The fact that you’ve spent your life learning about Toy breeds doesn’t automatically qualify you as an expert on all the other breeds, yet you are expected to decide which of the seven Group winners is the best. If you KNOW that your Toy group winner is a really decent representative of its breed, and you’re not really so sure about the rest, isn’t that going to favor the Toy winner? You tell me. Nobody thinks this is an ideal state of affairs, but with over 1,400 BIS awards to be made each year at AKC all-breed shows, and not nearly enough all-rounder judges to go around, it’s a necessary practical solution.

Dare I suggest that we should enjoy the Best in Show competition as a spectactle, treasure the multi-colored ribbon when it comes our way, but not take it all too seriously and remain aware that who wins in the end is very much the luck of the draw?

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.
Comments
  • Kellie Miller February 28, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    I wanted to let you know that I make it a point to read your columns. I truly enjoy your writing and the thought you put into your articles. You say the things that need to be said and I appreciate your candor.

  • Agneta Astrom February 28, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    I’ve followed your articles on this subject and I think it’s something to really give some serious thought. Thanks Bo Bengtson for your columns, always very well and truly said.

  • Mike Rafanan February 28, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    Excellent reading and so thought provokingly honest!!! Thanks for the great work!

  • Sally McNamara March 2, 2014 at 4:52 AM

    A complete and true comparison of top winning dogs in Breed and BIS rings would have included who is on the other end of the leash. AKC wants to act as if this is not an issue. Keep turning a blind eye and continue to shrink entries.

  • Karen Lee March 3, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    I always enjoy your articles. I actually think it can be harder for the numerically-popular breeds which are not “sculpted”/groomed to do well because so many specimens are shown of them that judges can develop varying opinions and a more in-depth appreciation for nuance, which leads to them being better able to actually spot the faults of those breeds and thereby deny them a BIS. And with the groomed or sculpted breeds, as long as the coat is extremely well-tended and correct, the most skillful handlers complete the picture with exceptional grooming. In a less numerous breed, the ones that are campaigned and presented as “exceptional” set the mark for what “exceptional” is for that breed, ergo, by virtue of their being given that level of presentation, they become exemplars in a way that for example, one of the many good specimens of Golden Retrievers, cannot. And the handlers who are looking for dogs for their backers tend to focus on breeds that have already established a track record of being seriously considered for BIS by a wide range of judges. As for the Labs, I’d like to think they’d do better against the bigger-moving Sporting Breed dogs they are in against if they weren’t shown so FAT.

  • SUE MCCLURE
    Sue McClure April 15, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    I have to agree with the assessment of the lab. I get several different ones in our handling classes and all are too fat to be healthy. I found myself going over a nice pup with fat folds over his hips at 5 months of age. I’ve seen nice puppies wind up moving poorly as a result of the push for weight before they reach adulthood. All the owners tell me they have to be heavy to win. Some of the dogs going up are atrociously fat and couldn’t work for very long. The breed club needs to make it preferable to have labs in healthy weight and discourage judges from putting up fat dogs. If it isn’t healthy, it isn’t right. I’ve seen enough judges reward the more athletic labs to believe they don’t like them to look like fat beef cattle either and wouldn’t reward it in group. I bought a field lab magazine to find labs attractive enough to use in my art. Some of them could do just fine in the ring and I wish they would bring them to the show ring. http://upclosephoto.com/gallery?g2_itemId=326110

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