Dog shows: choosing winners is a challenge
THE Agricultural Show is a traditional part of the Irish rural calendar. When I was asked to judge the Dogs Section at the Gorey Agricultural Show, I was delighted at the opportunity to experience a day of the best of country life. I live in Bray, a suburban town which is too close to Dublin to have a strong rural identity. I looked forward to the experience of a day amongst horses, cattle and sheep, with sandwiches, cups of tea and home produce as refreshments.
Coming from Scotland, I’ve been going to Agricultural Shows since I was a child. The biggest was the Royal Highland Show, which is held near Edinburgh every summer. My family made it an annual excursion. At the age of eight, I remember entering our family cat in the Pets Section, and I was thrilled when he won a rosette as a runner up. On another occasion, one of our backyard ducks won first prize, a victory that was so exciting that my father framed the certificate and hung it on the wall.
As I set off to the Dog Show, these memories reminded me of the significance of my judging choices. To me, it’s just a passing decision, made, of course, after careful consideration. To the owner of the pet, it’s a major judgement that may be remembered for many years.
I had been asked to judge the Dog Show partly because my veterinary practice will soon be setting up a clinic in Gorey, but the usefulness of the role as a relationship builder is debatable. As a judge, you make one person very happy when you give them first place, while you make twenty people very unhappy because you don’t recognise the adorable qualities of their pet. That sort of ratio isn’t a great outcome for your popularity ratings.
Dog judging is an interesting skill. At the highest level, in the pedigree dog show ring, judges have a specific task: to choose the animal that most closely represents the Breed Standard, which is the written description of a particular breed. So if a Labrador’s head is too small, or a Pug’s legs are too long, they are off the list. It’s very different when judging at an agricultural show: there are no specific guidelines for judges.
Choosing a winning dog at such shows is very much based on personal preference, and for me, that means choosing the healthiest, happiest, best-behaved dog.
I have some personal judging guidelines. Any dog that growls at me or tries to bite me is automatically out. Dogs with matted fur are out. Animals that are so terrified that they don’t want to be there are out. Puppies that are too young to be fully vaccinated (and so they are risking picking up a serious viral infection) are out. Dogs that have serious medical issues (such as sore skin, infected ears, or weepy eyes) are out. Animals that are overweight or obese are out. I suspect this type of judging comes from my veterinary background: I know what a healthy animal is, and that’s the type of dog that I want to win.
So how do I choose a winner? Dogs that are calm, friendly and contented, with an air of quiet confidence, are in. Animals with glossy, shiny coats that have been well groomed are in. Bright, clear eyes are in. Animals that have a healthy conformation are in: that means having well proportioned bodies, with good musculature, easy breathing and a balanced, athletic gait as they move.
There’s a simple judging routine. There were up to twenty dogs in each class. First, they walked around me in the ring, in a wide circle, giving me an overview of the group. Then I lifted each dog in turn onto the table, examining them closely while talking to the owner.
I made notes for each one, working out a mental score out of ten. Then after examining them all, I look through my list of the highest scores, coming to a conclusion for first, second and third in each class.
The dog judging started at 2pm, with the Best Puppy Dog. I had twelve classes to judge, from Terriers to Sheepdogs to “Dog Handled by Child”. You can imagine: an average of ten dogs, times twelve classes, makes 120 dogs (although many of them were in multiple classes). If I just gave each dog two minutes of my time, that’s four hours. It’s difficult to give each animal sufficient attention to make them feel valued, but not spending too much time with them to allow onlookers to get bored with watching.
It wasn’t easy making the judgements. I knew when I’d got it right when there was a ripple of enthusiastic applause. When my choice was greeted by a dull silence, I was left feeling that my opinion was an uncomfortable minority.
The easiest class to judge, by a long way, was “The Dog The Judge Would Like to Take Home”. This is uncontestable: nobody could possibly tell me that I should have chosen a different one, since it’s such a personal choice (a lovely Lurcher won my heart that day).
I was impressed by the quality of the dogs: there are so many adored, well-kept, healthy animals. I would have liked to give every dog a prize, but that’s not the way it works.
To everyone who did win: congratulations. You have magnificent pets and I enjoyed meeting them. To those who didn’t win: you also have magnificent pets, but sadly, it just wasn’t your turn this year. Come back in 2017!
Choosing the “best” dog isn’t easy