An Open Letter to the Dog Fancy

The following article should be read, and preferably re-read, slowly and carefully, by anyone who contemplates becoming an AKC judge, or is already an AKC judge but plans on adding additional breeds, or is just interested in how the AKC Judges Approval process works. I have heard from multiple sources that what I experienced, although probably singular in some respects, is not that unusual.

The question is not whether I am qualified to judge the breeds I was invited to apply for, or even whether “masking” is a good idea or not. The important point is this: If a judge can be penalized for “disregarding” (to quote AKC) a new rule that he or she is not aware exists, and that AKC has not yet informed its judges of, then all AKC judges have reason to worry about suffering a similar fate. I don’t think that’s acceptable, and I find it difficult to believe that this is really AKC’s intent.

My main reason for writing this article is, of course, that I hope there will be a change. Those who are ultimately responsible must ensure that judges are treated fairly, and that those who are qualified continue to be approved for as many breeds and Groups as possible. The lack of AKC multi-group and all-breed judges is a major problem and starting to become an international embarrassment. As pointed out in the article, we have far fewer all-breed judges in the U.S. than most much smaller countries with far fewer shows.

A close friend who read the article prior to publication said that if she didn’t know me she would have been sure this was fiction. Unfortunately it isn’t; the facts can easily be verified. It has also been suggested that it won’t help my situation to criticize the current AKC judges approval process, especially not if I intend to appeal the Judges Review Committee’s decision at the AKC Board Appeals Committee meeting in February. I doubt that’s true, but if that’s the case, so be it. What matters is the future of our sport, and it’s clear there needs to be a change.

It is also important to realize that this is not an anti-AKC rant. The American Kennel Club does a lot of things extremely well, and includes among its officers and employees many people I greatly respect. However, this particular aspect of AKC’s activities needs a drastic reform.

Read on and… well, you won’t enjoy this, but I hope you will take it to heart.

Nothing is more important to the long-term survival of dog shows than having the best, most experienced and most knowledgeable judges officiating. Ask any neophyte exhibitor, seasoned handler or experienced breeder: they will all agree that the quality of the judging directly affects their appreciation and enjoyment of a dog show.

AKC Knows It Has A Problem
Yet there is little agreement on how to find the most suitable judges, or the manner in which they should be approved and encouraged to progress, so those who are able and willing may judge more than just a few breeds. It’s no secret that there is a great shortage of AKC approved multi-group judges. In the U.S. we have, in fact, fewer all-breed judges than almost any other major country, in spite of many more dogs. The 2013 AKC Judges Directory lists only 16 active individuals as approved for all breeds, compared with currently e.g. 121 in Canada and 288 in Australia. AKC is aware of this problem and is reportedly planning some changes.

The fact is that the current system for approving judges, especially those who want to progress and add more breeds, is not working well. “Any intelligent person knows the Judges Approval System is worse than it ever was before, and that’s saying something!” says one highly placed individual with no axe to grind, a multi-group AKC judge and official. (I have many more quotes, but the language in them is much stronger and not suitable for print.)

If you are involved in dogs you most likely know people with impeccable backgrounds who prefer not to judge rather than subject themselves to the current approval system. You probably also know judges who can tell horror stories about their experience of applying for additional breeds. It’s unfortunate that so few go public with their disdain, but I can understand why. It’s not usually a good idea to bite the hand that doles out the favors.

My “That Sounds Crazy” Story
Now I can add my own story. It’s not a happy tale, but if making the following public can in any way improve the system it’s worth telling. Those of you who are thinking of becoming AKC judges, or of adding more breeds to those you are already approved for, need to know that what happened to me can happen to you, too. And everyone who is involved in dogs should be aware of what an AKC judge may encounter.

I won’t bore you with details of my background in dogs. The only part that is important here is that I judged my first AKC show in 1977, and was fortunate to judge a number of high profile AKC shows for a few years after that. In the mid-1980s I resigned from active judging to pursue other interests (publishing dog magazines) that AKC felt constituted a conflict. During this time I continued to judge non-regular events in the U.S. and international shows abroad, including all-breed BIS, since I have been FCI approved for additional breeds since my early days in Sweden. (As an aside, isn’t it odd that while foreign visitors are regularly approved to judge AKC shows based on their foreign license, AKC does not accept any foreign club’s recognition for judges who move to the U.S.?)

In 2004 I was reinstated by AKC, approved for additional breeds in 2012, and now judge approximately half the Hound group, plus a couple of breeds in the Sporting and Toy groups.
In March I was one of several judges invited to apply for additional breeds. The letter from AKC stated: “We are pleased to inform you that an invitation for advancement is hereby extended to you as a result of the recent meeting of the Judges Review Committee.” Who wouldn’t appreciate that kind of encouragement? I could apply for 15 new breeds and would be approved if I provided the requisite paperwork and passed an interview with the appointed AKC Executive Field Representative. Since 15 breeds would give me the entire Hound group, minus only the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, I asked if I could apply for this breed also. It made sense: the PPP was added to AKC’s regular roster on Jan. 1st, 2013, and I had judged their parent club’s last specialty match prior to full AKC approval in December 2012, less than three months prior to AKC’s invitation.

As a result I was asked to present myself for an interview for all 16 breeds, each listed individually, and “Balance of the Hound Group.” The interview took place on May 5. It went well, the appropriate papers were filed, and I sat back, awaiting formal approval as an AKC Hound Group judge.

After Invitation, AKC Changes Its Mind
That did not happen. Instead, a couple of weeks later I received a letter from AKC’s Judges Liaison, stating there had been a “mistake.” Since I was initially invited to apply for 15 breeds I could not be allowed to apply for 16. That I had already been interviewed and passed for these 16 breeds was apparently irrelevant, as was the fact that the members of the Judges Review Committee who had recommended me in the first place, Edd E. Bivin and Dr. Robert Indeglia (both of whom had resigned from the committee at that point), verified that their intent was for me to be approved for the Group. There are reportedly written records to that effect.

Since it was unclear to me from the communication with the Judges Liaison why he refused to accept the past JRC’s recommendations, I wrote to the AKC Board and to the new Judges Review Committee on June 22 seeking clarification. A few members of the Board and JRC contacted me to express support, but on June 28 the Judges Review Committee denied my application, stating that my “apparent disregard of the Board directive to mask judging applications by furnishing documentation to the committee identifying your current application was not acceptable. As a result […] your application was not accepted.” In other words, I was given no breeds at all.

Judges Expected To Be Clairvoyant
The verdict confused me, to put it mildly, since I had received no “directive” and at that time did not even know what “masking” meant. (Few subjects have been more hotly debated in recent months, but this was in June.) Was there a typo? Should it be “marking”? Marking what? Several dog people I showed the letter to, including some multi-group judges, were likewise mystified. Eventually a friend in New York explained that applications to judge or apply for more breeds must now have the name of the applicant “masked,” so the Judges Review Committee is unaware of who is applying.

This isn’t the forum to discuss whether “masking” is a good idea or not, but it seemed obviously unfair that I was penalized for breaking a rule I did not know existed. The “masking” rule was first made known to judges in an AKC newsletter that was sent out on July 19 — nearly four weeks AFTER my offending letter. AKC cannot seriously expect its 3,000-plus judges, not to mention prospective judges, to be aware of AKC Board decisions until they are informed of them. The ramifications of this would be simply staggering.

Qualifications “Don’t Matter”
Finding that you are not being judged on your merits is disappointing. (The Judges Liaison at one point informed me, in writing, that “no one is questioning your qualifications,” which was perhaps the saddest statement of all, since you would hope it’s our qualifications that really matter.) Being penalized by a rule you could not possibly have known existed at the time of your perceived infringement is frankly incomprehensible.

Could it get any worse? It could. I hired a lawyer, who is involved in dogs, and we drafted an appeal, dated August 15, including the pertinent dates. We suggested that I could not reasonably be denied approval for violating a rule that I did not know existed — and that I, of course, would have been careful not to violate if I had been aware of it. The response, dated Oct. 11, was the same, however: “… the Committee has decided that no change was made to the Committee’s original decision.” No new reason was given, no one suggested there was any “directive” beyond the newsletter sent out after my “unmasking” letter, and the dates are not in question. I can only conclude that the Judges Review must have believed I lied when I said I did not know this rule existed, adding insult to injury.

Who are the people in the Judges Review Committee? It consists of a rotating trio from 12 AKC judges and two AKC Executive Field Representatives. I know and respect most of these judges; a couple of them I hope I may even call friends. I don’t know which of the committee members were part of the teams that considered my application, but I have to wonder what they were thinking. Frankly, it felt a little like Kafka, or perhaps Alice in Wonderland…

Resigning from AKC Judging
This is where things stand now. I may address the AKC Board Appeals Committee in February. My attorney may be present, but is not permitted to speak. I am not sure if I want to do that, however. A lot of time has been wasted, I’m sick of it all and frankly am considering resigning from AKC judging entirely. Judging dogs can be a fascinating experience, but at least as far as AKC events are concerned, the whole process has lost much of its attraction.

I love this sport, have done my best to contribute to it for over 50 years, and although I will spare you my feelings I must admit that the past few miserable months have made me question if there is any inherent fairness in the AKC system. I think I have been badly served by the organization that I thought would guard my interests, as well as that of the entire fancy.

Perhaps, at some future time, with a Board that shows more concern for its AKC judges, things will be different. The AKC Board has the authority under its bylaws to approve anyone to judge any breed. If the AKC Board should ask me to judge the breeds I have spent a lifetime studying, that the then-Judges Review Committee felt I am qualified to judge, and that I was passed for by the AKC Executive Field Representative, I will be happy to accept. Until then I think I will avoid further involvement.

The world can certainly live without my judging, but will the sport of purebred dogs prosper in an environment where judges are treated with such irrationality? My case, I understand, is far from unique. For the future of the dog sport in America I hope there will be change.
It has to come soon.