Let’s talk about Best in Show for a minute. This is a term that’s become known far beyond our sport, the title of a large number of books and TV programs, even a critically acclaimed (and very funny) movie. Pretty much everyone, regardless of involvement in dogs, knows that “Best in Show” means just that: the chosen one, the undefeated winner, the only one left standing at the end of the day.
For most dog people, getting one of those red, white and blue ribbons is what we dream about, and when that dream becomes reality – which doesn’t happen often for most people – there’s reason to break out the champagne. Sure, some of the professional handlers are more blasé than the rest of us; when you have several different dogs that regularly pick up BIS it’s easy to become a little spoiled. That enchanted circle is pretty small, however. In most breeds it’s still big news when a dog wins Best in Show, and for a breeder or owner-handler it can be a lifetime memory. This is, after all, the highest award available at any American Kennel Club dog show.
Before we go any further, let’s also make it clear that those three words, “Best in Show,” standing on their own, usually indicate a win in competition with all other breeds. As far as I’m concerned (and I think most American exhibitors agree), a Specialty BIS or a Group BIS is different. Under certain conditions, it can be every bit as important, if not more so, but in the U.S. we usually make it immediately clear by the terms we use what type of win we’re talking about. This isn’t always the case abroad. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but it helps to know that customs differ. In the following, unless otherwise indicated, BIS refers only to all-breed AKC wins.
Since Best in Show is the highest award that can be bestowed on a show dog, it must obviously be the most meritorious one as well, right? Well, I’ve done some research, and I hate to burst your bubble, but the facts indicate otherwise. Actually, when looking at the figures it’s clear this award ought not be taken nearly as seriously as is usually the case. Experienced dog people have always known that the foundation of dog shows rests on the breed judging, but it’s difficult to believe this when you see how almost everything you read, see or hear in our sport is focused on the Best in Show awards.
It’s partly a matter of convenience, of course: there’s only one BIS winner at each show, so it makes sense that this is the dog that gets the big headlines. Even more importantly, most of the major rankings systems are based on the computation that BIS winners earn the most points, so at the end of the year the statistics will indicate that a dog with a lot of BIS wins is most likely to be Top This or Top That.
With all this in mind, it may come as a shock when you learn that, according to recent statistics, nearly 40 percent of BIS winners won under judges who were not approved by AKC to judge the breed they chose as their winner. Only 10 percent of the BIS judges were approved to judge all the breeds shown under them in the finale (and even fewer of those were U.S. judges; several were from Canada or Australia). A large majority (67 percent) of the BIS judges were, in fact, approved by AKC to judge fewer than half of the seven Groups. To reach these figures, I studied results from a random 100-plus shows held during late 2012. Obviously more research would be required to further confirm these statistics, but the results I got match other studies made during earlier years.
In other words, whenever you win a Group and go in for the Best in Show competition it’s quite likely that the officiating judge may never have seen a dog of your breed up close before – perhaps never even touched one. (On the other hand, as shown above, that may or may not be good news for you, based on the fact that many of the judges are still happy to award BIS to one of their “non-approved” breeds!)
How is this possible, you ask? The American Kennel Club is famously particular about its approval system for judges: every box has to be ticked off, every requirement filled, before you are allowed to judge a single dog in the breed or Group. Yet someone who is not approved to judge a particular dog at the breed level may be eligible to decide that the same dog is worthy of receiving AKC’s highest award. It sounds absurd, doesn’t it?
The answer lies in a rule that’s little known among exhibitors, allowing anyone who’s approved for at least one of the seven AKC Groups, and has judged it a certain number of times, to become a Best in Show judge. Here’s how it’s phrased in the AKC Board Policy manual: “After attaining regularly approved status for all breeds in a Group and judging the Group five times successfully, judges requesting, in writing, approval to judge Best in Show, will be granted this approval.” No interview or test is required.
In real life I’m sure that most, if not all, judges who are eligible to award Best in Show take their jobs very seriously, trying hard to keep themselves as informed as possible about ideal breed type and the most important characteristics of as many breeds as possible. Just how anyone can reasonably be expected to succeed in that is what I don’t understand, though. If you have spent your whole life learning all there is to know about, for example, Toy dogs in order to become the best possible judge for that Group, how does that prepare you for assessing the quality of completely unrelated breeds in, say, the Herding or Working Groups? The same is true regardless of which Group the judge has specialized in, of course.
A Better Alternative?
I don’t think anyone feels the situation is ideal, but however absurd it may seem – is there a better alternative? The fact of the matter is that there are very few, if any, judges who can ever become experts on all the 180 (and growing) breeds featured at AKC shows. It takes years to become a really good judge of just a single breed, only a couple of dozen AKC judges are approved for all breeds, and there are about 1,500 AKC all-breed shows that require a Best in Show judge every year. So what’s the solution?
I’m not sure the criteria that the major foreign kennel clubs have for approving Best in Show judges are any better than AKC’s. The Kennel Club in Great Britain approaches the situation from the opposite end: on the one hand you may be approved to judge a Group before you have awarded Challenge Certificates in every single breed in that Group – but on the other hand you must have experience from more than one Group before you can award Best in Show.
The Fédération Cynologique Internationale that governs dog shows in most of the non-English-speaking world appears to mostly let its member countries make their own rules. With more than 350 breeds recognized by the FCI, you’d think there would be very few judges approved for all breeds, but that’s not at all the case. The exact number is unknown, but there are several hundred in Europe alone, not counting Asia and Latin America. In any case, BIS assignments are apparently determined from case to case and not necessarily given to those judges who are approved for the most breeds.
A lot more could be said about the Best in Show competition. Why is it that some breeds win so much more than others? Are they really better than those that don’t? What determines that a dog – or a breed – is consistently successful in BIS competition? What about dogs taking multiple BIS under the same judge? And is it fact or fiction that professional handlers, as some say, have a virtual embargo on the top all-breed wins? There may be reason to return to these questions.
All we can say with certainty right now is that the Best in Show award clearly isn’t quite the Holy Grail that many of us tend to believe it is. Since Best of Breed and Group wins are awarded by judges who are AKC-approved for every breed involved, this ought to guarantee high quality in all the seven Group winners competing. Perhaps we should all just accept that Best in Show is an entertaining and frequently exciting exercise in showmanship and the appreciation of handsome dogs, often without overmuch emphasis on the finer breed points?
There’s no question that the vast majority of the Best in Show winners out there are worthy dogs, and they prove it by also winning big specialties and competitive Groups under judges who have put a lifetime into the study of their favorite breeds. And of course we should continue to be happy or proud when we win Best in Show. I’ll take any multicolored ribbon I can get, thank you very much, but it would probably be a good idea if we all took the all-breed Best in Show award a little less seriously than is sometimes the case.
One of our sport’s great thinkers, the English Bull Terrier breeder and arbiter Raymond Oppenheimer, felt that since breed judging is obviously the most important part of any dog show and Best in Show by far the most arbitrary decision, we should turn the whole thing upside down. Let anyone who wants to judge start with Best in Show and then graduate, if he or she is talented enough, to the breed judging that’s reserved for the true experts.
Come to think about it, perhaps that’s what the American Kennel Club is trying to do?