WE PRIDE ourselves at Dog World on having a great team of writers and I must confess that one of my favourites is Jessica Holm.

When I was editor of the newspaper it took me a little while to persuade Jessica to write a monthly column for us. She wrote breed notes for Grand Bassett Griffon Vendéen and I always liked her style and she made her breed notes interesting and informative.

Well Jessica has been contributing on a monthly basis for a few years now, but her January column is a particularly interesting one. She discusses the issue of withholding awards and suggests that we here in Britain are not very good at doing it, something she suggests to do with our innate good manners! But more than that she cites the unique qualities of the British show scene which includes many people who turn out to support dog shows week in, week out, not seeking top honours but rather the company of their friends.

I have to confess that in the 11 years I have now been associated with the world of dogs, I have often wondered why we don’t see more awards being withheld. Certainly when a judge does withhold it is cause for much fevered discussion and even speculation but maybe if it happened more often people would get more used to the idea or maybe it would just deter them from attending shows.

Jessica says in her column: “At the end of last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to judge our Club championship show. Despite our CC status, the Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen is not a numerically strong breed in the UK and the entry was small with single entries in many of the classes. As a keen and dedicated breeder, I looked upon the appointment as an opportunity to see where we are with the breed at the present time. Judging ringside is one thing, but getting experienced hands on a selection of hounds is naturally interesting.

“I was mindful of my responsibilities. The GBGV is a healthy, unexaggerated dog, not prone to issues of conformation which might affect the dog’s welfare. I was highly unlikely to be faced with anything which might require me to dismiss an animal from the ring on health grounds.

“It was also my responsibility to find at least four hounds which I considered worthy of the title of champion; two CC and two RCC winners. Now, if I had been judging one of the Golden Retriever Club championship shows, or that for Staffies, Westies, German Shepherds or any other numerically strong breed, this would barely have crossed my mind. My problem in these cases would have been to sort through the armfuls of good dogs and find the best in my humble opinion. However, when you could fit the entire entry of a less numerically strong breed into a single class of the above, the judge’s dilemma changes and one is faced with the very real prospect of potentially having to withhold.

“One of the glaring differences between British championship shows and those on the Continent are the size of the entries. This may in part be due to the high entry fees abroad, which are often more than double those we pay, but I would suggest that isn’t all.

“If you enter your dog in Holland, France, Germany or any other European country where the fancy is strong, the act of withholding is common. Putting aside the subtleties of type, conformation and movement, if your dog does not at first fit the breed Standard, it will be dismissed. In the case of my GBGVs, if the hound is of incorrect proportions, too tall for his length, too long for his short legs, if he is too big or too small, if his type is indeterminate, his coat of the wrong texture or colour, he will simply be asked to leave the ring before the detailed judging gets underway. My feeling is that this fact tends to make exhibitors much more careful about what they are prepared to show, because there is little point in continuing to pay 60 euros per dog if every week, your best beloved is simply going to be asked to take early retirement. I am sure that the culture of dismissal for dogs of insufficient quality must contribute to smaller entries on the Continent.
“Another major difference is that the equivalent of CCs are available at pretty much every show, another factor which, I am sure, contributes to the need for a healthy attitude to withholding. Judging anything other than the strongest breeds numerically, a judge may be faced with a small number of expensive entries from which to draw ticket and reserve ticket winners. For the whole system to function, it is necessary that this small entry at least be of reasonable quality.

“We always hear a lot of talk about the crowning of ‘cheap champions’ in breeds where numbers are not strong. The way I see it, this is wholly the responsibility of the judges involved. Nobody can stop an inexperienced or a cynical exhibitor entering a dog of insufficient quality to be worthy of the title of champion but the judge can easily prevent him from winning that award.
“Withholding seems very un-British though, doesn’t it? We are essentially a polite and reserved people and the act of rejection or dismissal is perceived as highly degrading, provocative and rude. If a judge does it at a British championship show, particularly at CC or RCC level, it is considered a scandal and will do the rounds of the gossip machine at supersonic speed. When I judged the Club show, there were several exhibits I probably should have withheld on, they would certainly have been dismissed if entered abroad, but I didn’t because it felt like a step too far. Yet at a French or a Dutch show, it happens every weekend and barely raises an eyebrow.
“Maybe one of the results of a reluctance to withhold here, is our larger entries and fuller classes. You can often cast your eye down a line of dogs waiting to be judged, even at championship level, and think that a good proportion of them probably shouldn’t be there in the first place. But their presence isn’t wholly negative.
“On the one hand, if we had a stronger culture for withholding, so more of the dross would be left at home, we could expect a higher quality entry overall. There would be fewer dogs, so judging would take less time but of course, revenue for already struggling societies would be smaller and entry prices would have to rise. Presumably that’s why foreign shows cost so much to enter. The whole enterprise seems to become more professional and I think this is at the heart of the difference.
“The British pride themselves on a long-standing relationship with amateur status in competition. It is very British for there to be a whole range of expectations among exhibitors at a dog show. There are those who run professional kennels and only take the best dogs, prepared and trained to within an inch of their lives, with eyes set firmly beyond the breed at the groups and best in show. There are those breeders who make up the bulk of the middle order, taking the best of their crop to dog shows, which will often give the pros a run for their money, and there are ranks of ‘amateurs’, enthusiastic exhibitors who may or may not have decent dogs but who attended week after week so that they can be with their friends and surrounded by the world they love. It matters not one jot whether they win or not, they are there to take part, to be a part of something, to support and to enjoy their hobby.

This aspect of our sport is, I think, unique. It has been born out of our national identity and means that British shows have a feel all of their own. Yes, perhaps we could raise entries if CCs were available at all championship shows for all breeds. Yes, we could raise standards if the judges awarding those CCs were more willing to withhold in order to avoid the crowning of cheap champions among less numerically strong entries. However, we would need to be aware that these actions would be likely to change the feel of our competitions, maybe for the worse. I think we would stand a good chance of losing the happy amateurs, those exhibitors who show up week in week out, regardless of high honours and content to win rosettes, standing down the line from the big guns. We need to ask ourselves whether this is something we feel strongly about and I think the debate could be an interesting one.”

Don’t think the heated discussion about the recent changes to the Kennel Club’s Assured Breeder Scheme has died down, for all the latest read Sheila Atter’s latest column here

And Find out what the Canine Alliance has to say on the matter here