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The above Article is Copyrighted (c) 2004-2009 Gilberts' K-9 Seminars.
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By Patricia H. Gilbert

(First published in AKC Gazette, September 2008, Vol. 125, No. 9)

Today’s dog show world is very different from the one that existed even as recently as 20 years ago. We have fewer match shows to train our dogs and ourselves. Our dog clubs are losing training sites. This all contributes to a lack of ring experience on the part of the dog, the handler, and possibly even the judge.

Even though we expect good behavior in the show ring, sometimes the dog’s inherited instincts can kick into action. You must know the basic breed behavior of each breed to be judged. Some breeds think and then react. Some breeds automatically react. Some hold their ground. Some simply guard, but will defend when their comfort zone is breached. Some breeds even show teeth and talk when they are pleased. You should know this and never penalize a good attitude. If you are unsure in a particular situation, then excuse and do not disqualify (DQ) the dog.

The longer-recognized AKC breeds have had their temperaments selected to be more accepting and sweeter than they were originally. This temperament change is bred for to make the breed an acceptable member of today’s society. But we must be aware that some of the newer AKC breeds are not yet at that level.

What can a judge do? Study the basic, original purpose of a breed. Go to events that feature what that breed does for work. Many breed clubs teach breed-specific judging at their judges’ workshops. Take advantage of every learning opportunity. Learn the difference between various breeds’ actions and each breed’s warning signs, which are shown in the eyes, ears, body, and tail. Read the signs and don’t be afraid. Instead, be knowledgeable, confident, and respectful.

A dog show is supercharged with competitive tension. The handler can be nervous, and that travels down the lead. This makes a high-alert situation for the dog and puts his instincts up. The handler (in some cases it is a junior) might be a novice, with little or no match or show experience, and may not really know what to expect. The dog has bait or a toy in front of him, and that is where his attention is focused. The judge’s fingers may inadvertently get in the way if a dog grabs.

Since dogs may be shown by inexperienced handlers, judges must take care. The AKC judges’ guidelines say, “Do not kneel in front of a dog. Do not hover over a dog. Do not bend over face to face with a dog. Do not bend over cheek to cheek with a dog.” As much as possible, practice examining dogs from the side without making your face vulnerable.

When judging, make sure the dog sees you approaching. Some breeds—generally those whose hair partially covers the eyes—should be approached obliquely. Others should be approached straight on. Find out which is best for the breed you are judging. Please do not stare at any dog for some time before approaching, or stare into his eyes. That is a direct challenge and will almost always get you into trouble.

Walk up to the dog calmly with deliberation and no hesitation. Do not approach with your hands out. Ask the handler if he is ready. You want to elicit a positive oral response from the handler: This puts the dog at ease. Then put the back of your hand out for the dog to get your scent in a non-threatening manner. If the dog’s body language is not good, turn around and walk away about eight feet. Ask the handler if he is ready and approach again. Eight feet is a comfort zone for both you and the dog, since most leads are four to six feet long.

Once you have your hands on the dog, never lose contact. Bend at your waist and don’t crouch or hover. Your hands must be quick and light: Get in and get out. It is not a full body massage; it is a brief-but-thorough examination.

Generally toys and table breeds resent being fussed with during an examination. That is why we examine on the table and judge on the ground. When I approach a table breed, I walk up to the table, bring up my hand at the chest to make initial contact, and then slide it up the underside of the neck until the dog’s face is resting on my hand. I then take my hand and rest it on the side of the head to frame the face with both hands. I slide my other hand around to finish the frame on the left side of the head. This hands-on style also steadies the dog and helps keep him from backing up and off the table.

Some judges feel they need to talk their way through an examination, but that does not put all dogs at ease. The dog is hearing an unfamiliar voice and is on alert. If the judge is a little nervous it passes through in the voice, and then instead of calming, it escalates anxiety. Those judges who are nervous do better not talking at all to the dogs. They should suck on a mint instead, as it helps change the negative breath and masks tension.

Ask the handler to show the dog’s mouth and dentition if required. Keep your head out of the dog’s mouth. If you prefer, you can check mouths at the end of an examination. In that case the dog will be moved immediately, so breaking the stack is not the end of the world. This puts handlers and dogs at ease.

At the end of the examination, please do not pat or slap the side or rear of the dog and tell him he is a good dog. Dogs with a higher degree of drive or training will take that as a release from the stand-stay. They may jump around and bump you, and you may react badly by getting knocked off balance, or the dog may jump off the table and get hurt. Either situation can lead to serious consequences.

Do your breed-specific homework. It is important to judge more than just the minimum number of match shows or rare-breed shows, where you are mostly dealing with untrained dogs. You will quickly learn to read and respect dogs and their actions or reactions.

Finally, if you are not comfortable judging a breed, don’t judge it. It is a huge disservice to the breed. If you need to “finish” a group and can’t live without it, then do your provisionals and never judge at the breed level again. (You are “not available” to judge the breed “due to a prior commitment.”) Then you will be faced with only one specimen at the group level. In most cases, that specimen will have an outstanding temperament.

A menacing, threatening, or biting dog at an AKC show is rare but, as in any activity in life, we must make all situations as safe as possible. Please, do not pass a problem on to the next judge, who may not be as agile as you are. Do your job: The AKC paperwork is nothing compared to medical treatment for a bite. Remember: Prevention is much less painful than the cure. We, as judges, must have zero tolerance.