We’ve all done it. We may know it’s not exactly fair, but it’s frankly too much fun to abstain. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old hand or a rank novice – as soon as you plop down at ringside and start watching the dogs, you’re magically transformed into a judge. Not just any judge, either, but one with powers far superior to those of whoever happens to be handing out the ribbons in the ring that day.

You don’t have to be bothered by anything as mundane as trying to balance faults and virtues; you can make snap decisions in a matter of seconds. You may say with absolute certainty, even without an up-close view of the dogs, that this one is much better than that one. You know absolutely that the famous dog that’s done so much winning should be placed in a pet home, and you are convinced, without a moment’s doubt, that the judge puts up all those professional handlers simply because he – or she – is a total crook.

Photo by Barna Tanko/Dreamstime.com.

Best of all, since you’re not actually making the decisions, you can’t be held accountable by anyone: not the exhibitors, not the club and sometimes not even to the breed standard. Your word is your law, and that’s all that matters.

As Alice Roosevelt famously said, “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, come sit by me.” It’s much more fun to make snarky comments than utter sweet platitudes, we all know that, and as long as you’re aware that the spectator sport of “judging the judges” doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in the ring, go ahead and indulge. Just be a little careful who overhears what you’re saying, and remember that one day you may be standing in the ring yourself, making actual decisions and subjecting yourself to the same ringside scrutiny. You will find, as so many have done before you, that the middle of the ring is a lonely place to be and that the responsibility of awarding the ribbons can be a heavy one.

Envied, Admired and Deplored…
No position in dogs is as hotly envied, admired and deplored – often nearly simultaneously, by the same people – as that of the judge. Yet far too little has been said about the practical side of dog show judging, so let me tell you a little about it. I don’t judge that much, and I mostly stick to a few chosen breeds where I’m confident enough in my experience that I can live with whatever anyone else may think. Frankly, after more than 35 years of judging, I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole experience. If, after you’ve read this, you wonder why on earth so many people are so anxious to become judges, then you’ve reached the point where I am.

To begin with, as an AKC judge you’re always watched, and you always have to be on your best behavior. An offhand remark, a word to the wrong person at the wrong time, applauding any dog while you’re sitting at ringside, even helping a friend hold a dog by the leash for a minute — it can all be misconstrued and result in action from AKC or worse, in the belief among exhibitors that you’re not playing by the book. For many of us, that we’re not able to relax and function the way we normally would among friends, not even when we go as spectators to a dog show, can be enough to make us quit judging. And of course, if you’re a judge who also shows your own dogs, any win you take will be automatically suspicious – even though at the same time many complain about the judges’ lacking hands-on experience.

A judging appointment, for me, usually begins by getting up at 3 a.m. to catch a morning flight at LAX. Living in California and judging in the eastern or central time zones means starting early and arriving late. This is a big country, usually there’s a layover, you may lose two or three hours’ time difference, and in case you miss your connection you’ve got to make sure you still reach your destination that night. I love California, but it’s not a good place to live if you want to judge out of state. Most trips take at least 10 to 12 hours from door to door.

Active judges are used to airports and flying. I don’t mind either: give me a good book and a seat in an emergency row with plenty of leg room, and I won’t join the crowds who complain about flying. The fact that the airlines usually get us where we want to go a lot faster at a lower cost than anyone could reasonably have expected in the past is something I’m profoundly grateful for. And if you’re lucky, there’s a shuttle and an air-conditioned hotel room waiting when you land. So far, so good.

Too Hot for Judging?
Getting up to judge at what’s 3 or 4 a.m. at home isn’t that bad either, once you get used to it. What I find difficult to accept, however, is the idea of judging 150 to 175 dogs, maybe for three or four days in a row, in humid and/or hot temperatures. This is, at least in my book, a serious reason for not wanting to judge dogs at all. Is there any other activity where the participants, many of them no longer in their first flush of youth, are expected to stand, walk and bend over for six to eight hours per day, often in blinding sun, while wearing – at least the male judges – long pants, a buttoned-up shirt, a tie and preferably a jacket, even when it’s hot and muggy, all the while trying to stay focused, make crisp decisions and project an air of cool detachment?

Of course I can’t speak for the women judges. At least they can have bare arms and legs, but I’m sure I’ll hear from some of them telling me their judging outfits are far more uncomfortable than those of any man. In any case, neither men nor women can wear hats with a wide, shading brim because of the concern that some dogs – or exhibitors – might object. (We don’t have the chutzpah of the late, great judge Mary Nelson Stephenson, who simply asked each class of exhibitors if anyone minded her large straw hat. If anyone was dumb enough to admit they did, they were promptly excused from the ring.)

Sure, the handlers are in the same position, but if they are professionals they get paid to do this, and if they are not they can simply decide to sit out the day in the shade with a cool drink if they feel like it. Most judges don’t get paid, and even those who do generally earn less than an average-level salary. Many of us, in fact, are out of pocket due to the many small travel expenses you feel embarrassed to bill the host club for.

The only other activity I can think of in which the participants are as unsuitably dressed as we are would be certain equestrian events. Reportedly even the dressage riders’ formal, archaic uniform is up for redesign, but if you’ve visited, for example, the Santa Barbara Horse Show, you may have watched with amusement as the female judges try to navigate the arena’s tanbark in high heels and evening gowns. That’s a different kind of discomfort, however, and frankly I don’t think horse show judges are nearly as active physically as dog show judges.

Dangerous for Your Health
When the temperature creeps close to three digits, it’s actually dangerous for the judges’ health. We all take great precautions for keeping our dogs out of the sun, and rightly so, but they are in the ring just a few minutes, so spare a thought for the poor judge who has to be out there for several hours at a time.

It’s surprising that we haven’t come up with a comfortable, cool, yet smart outfit especially for dog shows on hot days. If the golf pros can look the way they do, why can’t we? (And they make a whole lot more money than anyone in dogs!) I’m not sure I’m ready to see judges wearing shorts, but certainly short-sleeved shirts, open at the neck, with or without a loose tie, should be OK, and of course no jacket unless it’s required for warmth or unless the show is inside a properly air-conditioned building.

Maybe the casual outfits worn at dog shows in Europe are one reason the sport seems to be so much more popular than over here? It’s a thought.

I’m not going to complain about rain and cold. I’m a hot-weather guy (why else would I live in California?) but you can protect yourself with extra layers and rain attire when necessary, and moving around while judging keeps you warm. However, you can most emphatically not take off enough clothes to make you comfortable when it’s hot!

So if there’s so much to deal with – a merciless ringside, an ever-watchful AKC, complicated travel arrangements, jet lag and frequently great physical discomfort – why do so many want so badly to become judges? It really beats me. There’s the ego trip, certainly: it’s nice to be officially recognized as an expert on anything, and being asked to adjudicate is for that reason always a compliment. (It might be humbling for those of us who are judges to realize that we’re often asked more for practical reasons than because anyone necessarily thinks we’re brilliant, however.) But yes, being elected by the membership to judge a specialty really is a great honor, no question about that.

Certainly everyone appreciates receiving compliments on their judging. At least the winner will always think you’re great, and usually tells you so. My least favorite compliment, however, is the one that comes from a certain kind of exhibitor who jumps in the air and shouts, “Finally, an honest judge!” You just know that this dog doesn’t usually win much, and honesty probably had nothing to do with it. If someone who didn’t win offers a kind word, it’s welcome, of course. On occasion some novice who was just watching may come up and tell you he or she was not really sure what this dog show thing was all about, but now they think they’re getting it. That’s nice.

Looking for Hidden Gems
For me, just being allowed to put my hands on a good dog is a pleasure, and trying to determine which of a number of really good dogs should win is a fascinating challenge. Still, I think a friend of mine who judges almost every weekend put it best. When I expressed amazement at his willingness to so frequently put up with all the discomforts I outlined above, he described what he does as looking for hidden gems. That fantastic dog that will stun you with its quality and charisma may not be in your next class, or the next one after that, but sooner or later you will find it — and that makes it all worthwhile.

He has a point, unquestionably.