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The Politics of Dog Shows

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It happens in every sport, and dog shows are no exception. Though every competition should be based in fairness, sometimes decisions are made that can’t be justified beyond simple politics. When it comes to dog shows, it is the judge that makes the final selection as to which dogs receive which awards. Though many judges give honest opinions, others seem to be swayed by past relationships, current friendships, future ambitions, and even potentially monetary gain. Of course, none of these things are permitted under the rules, yet the practice still continues, angering exhibitors who feel they stand no true chance against certain handlers, certain dogs from certain breeders, and under certain judges. Many believe the Best of Breed dog was selected before the dogs even entered the ring. Do politics come into play at dog shows and how does it affect exhibitors? 

What Do the Rules Say?

Any judge, whether they are licensed in Europe, Canada, the United States, or another country altogether, is bound by the rules of their governing agency. In the United States, the American Kennel Club establishes the rules and regulations that all licensed judges must abide by.

The document containing all pertinent rules mandated by the AKC is entitled “Rules, Policies, and Guidelines for Conformation Dog Show Judges.” This important rulebook directly addresses the problem of partiality and lays out the expectations of all AKC judges with this statement:

“Impartiality Your decisions should be based solely on the merits of the dogs being judged. It is essential that fanciers continue to have full faith in the impartiality of judges.”

This one rule makes very clear that all judges should approach each dog exhibited under them with the sole purpose of evaluating the dog alone and to not bring with them any pre-established preferences, prejudices, or biases that could persuade them to show favoritism.

In addition to this, the AKC also states that all judges are to be bound by the following criteria:

“ETHICS: HONESTY AND COMMON SENSE The AKC assumes that a judge will judge on the merits of the dogs presented to him or her and will not allow other factors to affect his or her decisions. Past and current associations will not diminish that assumption unless it becomes apparent that favoritism has entered into a judge’s deliberations.”

And additionally:

“CONFLICT OF INTEREST A conflict of interest exists when a judge is influenced by any relationship or factor other than the merit of the dogs Consequently, situations may arise that require you to excuse an exhibitor for cause known only to you. The responsibility for entering dogs that are ineligible or that create a conflict of interest is with the exhibitor. Awards won may be cancelled, and exhibitors with repeat violations may receive reprimands or fines for repeat violations. [P] It is also a conflict of interest for you to handle a dog not owned or co-owned by you or a member of your immediate family.”

So, what does all of this mean?

In a nutshell, certain dogs and their owners or handlers can be ineligible to show under some judges as a bias may or may not exist which could unfairly influence the judging process. Since the judge licensing process takes some time to complete, many of them have built solid relationships with other breeders, owners, and exhibitors, particularly within their own breed in the years leading up to being granted a license to judge. Perhaps they have purchased a dog from a specific breeder or allowed a breeder to use one of their dogs for stud. They may also have employed a specific handler to showcase their dogs, helping them to achieve their championship or to win their national specialty. With many owners, they may have sold them a puppy in the past, a dog that may have gone on to become the foundation stock of that person’s breeding program. All of these relationships could make it difficult for a judge to fairly consider every dog that enters their ring. For that reason, it is forbidden for any owner, breeder, exhibitor, or handler that has any previous relationship with a judge to enter under them. 

The Owner Handler vs the Professional Handler

In the show ring, there are two main types of dog handlers: the owner handler and the professional handler. The owner handler is simply a person that owns the dog they are exhibiting and takes great pride in showing their dog themselves. Sometimes the owner handler is also the breeder of the dog. Owner handlers are often very knowledgeable about their breed and can possess great skill when it comes to both grooming and presenting their dogs.

Professional handlers are people whose main income is derived from grooming and presenting dogs for their clients. They are often employed to show dogs for people who cannot attend shows themselves or that lack the skills or health to take their dog in the show ring on their own. Professional handlers are highly trained. They understand the ins and outs of how to make any dog look its best. Since they attend so many shows throughout the year, their faces become very familiar to most judges and the dogs they show often become synonymous with quality because of past wins.

Professional handlers often campaign dogs as well. Campaigning a dog is a process by which an exhibitor makes their dog visible to as many judges as possible through advertisements both online and in print. This is a perfectly acceptable practice and is an effective tool for helping a dog to stand out from the crowd. However, many owner handlers assert that since they lack the necessary funds to invest in a heavy ad campaign that they are at a disadvantage. Some would go so far as to say that a judge awards the dog with the most visibility as opposed to the actual best representation of the breed found in that day’s lineup. Some days, that is simply sour grapes, but other days, there is some merit to the statement. Judges can easily come to associate dogs they see regularly in print alongside fancy ribbons and rosettes as a dog of great quality; when in fact, the dog may be winning by virtue of slick advertising and being attached to a big name professional handler.

The Problem with Awarding Incorrectness

When a judge chooses to reward a dog that is seen the most often in advertising or that is shown by a well-known handler, it creates a larger problem if this is the sole reason for bestowing Best of Breed, group placements, or even a Best in Show on that dog. Since dog shows have always primarily been about showcasing breeding stock to help breeders to form connections within their breed and to make wise breeding choices for the future, the dog that receives Best of Breed should truly be whichever animal best meets its standard.

When judges consistently reward dogs that are incorrect in type, temperament, or conformation, they send a message to breeders and exhibitors that this is what it takes to win. Young breeders begin to pursue producing dogs that are taking top prizes instead of endeavoring to meet their standard. Over time; when many poor examples of a breed stand in a ring against one outstanding specimen, judges have become so accustomed to incorrect dogs that they foolishly dismiss the one excellent example of that particular dog type. This perpetuates a problem whereby a breed’s type becomes lost.

What Happens When Dog Shows Become About Politics?

The bottom line is political judging eventually impacts entries. Without entries, it is difficult for clubs to continue to put on shows each year. Over time, exhibitors are able to discern which judges will award which dogs, and if their dogs don’t make their list, they will simply save their money and withhold their entry. After all, showing is a very expensive hobby; no sense wasting cash if the outcome can be determined before even setting foot in the venue.

But more than this, political judging discourages newcomers. Dog showing is a rich man’s game. Many would say that  it takes money and connections to truly see any level of consistent success. However, it is largely becoming a sport of the old guard. As these breeders and exhibitors begin to retire or pass away, new blood is needed to preserve these breeds.

Often when newcomers visit shows, they are either discouraged by those within their breed that dislike anyone new, or they are welcomed and encouraged by someone who later turns on them when they start to do some winning, and thus, become their competition. Both of these approaches are detrimental to the sport. Newcomers need to be nurtured and mentored in order to ensure the future of both dog shows and the dog breeds we have all come to know and love.

Does political judging exist? It does; though probably not to the extent that many would like to think. To preserve this beloved sport, impartiality is key. Thankfully, there are many judges who take this part of their job very seriously and work hard to award the top prizes to the very best dogs.

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