Dog lovers around the world tune in each February to watch the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. An annual dog show held in New York City since 1877, Westminster has become the gold standard for many dog show exhibitors with people from all across the country making the trek to the Big Apple in hopes of taking home a Best in Show at the most prestigious show in the world. For many people, it is the highlight of their year to watch group judging each night, carefully selecting their favorites who they hope will be the winners of their respective groups and who will then proceed on to Best in Show. Emotions run high as evidenced by the crowd at Madison Square Garden who gleefully clap, cheer, and shout for their Best in Show choice in the final lineup of seven dogs with one dog representing the best specimen of all of the breeds found within its particular group. Yet, every year, no matter whom the judge selects, there is outrage when it comes to the choice of the two main winners—the recipients of the Reserve Best in Show and Best in Show awards. Many feel the dog that appeared to have the most fun should take home this elusive prize because that particular dog “wanted it most.” Others purport the crowd’s favorite should sway the judge in that direction. Still others cite popularity of breeds in comparison to other group winning dogs represented in the Best in Show ring. What does it take to be crowned the Best in Show winner at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show?
The Excitement of Hope
Westminster 2020 was a year of firsts. All throughout the media coverage of the show, it was highlighted that never in the club’s history had a Golden Retriever, one of America’s most beloved breeds, ever won its group, the Sporting Group. This in turn also means that a Golden has never won Westminster’s most coveted title of Best in Show.
However, history was made this year at Madison Square Garden when Daniel the Golden Retriever was selected as the overall winner of the Sporting Group, a great honor that was most deserved. This would then advance Daniel on to participate with the six other group winners for a judge to assess prior to making his choice for Best in Show. Excitement was in the air with Golden Retriever fans around the world all poised on the edge of their seats in anticipation that this would be the year the Golden finally brought home the long-coveted Best in Show ribbon.
Disappointment for the Fans
Though history was made with the Golden group win, a Best in Show for the breed was not meant to be in 2020. Daniel and his handler provided a flawless performance, earning spectacular applause from the hometown crowd. During final evaluations of each breed in the ring, cheers of “Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!” rang throughout the auditorium, a reminder to the judge of the crowd’s favorite dog of the seven represented.
In the end, history would not be made twice for the Golden Retriever at Westminster 2020. After careful consideration, respected AKC Judge Mr. Robert Slay selected the Hound Group winner, the Whippet “Bourbon,” for his Reserve Best in Show and the Standard Poodle “Siba,” the representative of the Non-Sporting Group, as the official Best in Show winner of the 2020 Westminster Kennel Club Show.
An Outpouring of Anger
For days following the event, outrage rang out on social media platforms and in the news claiming that Daniel the Golden Retriever was “robbed.” Many asserted that the title was rightfully his, and that Mr. Slay had acted with a bias, selecting his favorite dog breeds instead of playing an impartial judge and awarding the one “true” winner.
However, a great misconception exists about how dog shows are judged and why a judge selects the dog that he does in the final analysis. Far more than simply the choice of a favorite or the performance of any one dog that seems to be willing to work harder for the title than the others, the selection of a singular Best in Show winner involves a careful thought process during which a judge assesses each dog represented against its own standard to determine how closely the dog represents its own ideal.
History Repeats Itself?
In 2019, a similar controversy existed when King, the Wire Fox Terrier, was declared the Best in Show winner under Mr. Peter Green, an esteemed terrier handler and Wire Fox Terrier breeder himself. Also called into question was the fact that Mr. Green had once mentored the dog’s handler and that perhaps he had simply rewarded a favorite student and a dog breed that was dear to his heart instead of providing a fair assessment of each of the seven dogs in his ring that day.
Though political judging does exist in the dog world where judges award friends and colleagues to form or strengthen connections that could be advantageous to them in the future, this should be the exception and not the rule. There is a very specific process by which a winner is ascertained, and it all begins with the breed standard.
How Does the Judge Select a Winner?
Being selected as the judge to evaluate the lineup in Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is both an honor, and in some ways, a curse. A lot of pressure exists on the judge since exhibitors, fans, owners, and breeders invest a lot of their hearts into the final outcome.
To reach the Best in Show ring, each of the dogs represented must go through an arduous judging process. The show begins with breed judging. A process that takes two full days to complete, each dog breed that is recognized by the American Kennel Club must be judged against the other entries in its breed where one dog will be determined the overall winner, earning the title of Best of Breed. Some breeds notoriously have low entry numbers, but others such as Standard Poodles and Golden Retrievers can have exceptionally high entries, meaning breed judging is lengthy and competition is fierce. Regardless of the number of entries or the length of the judging, it is a great honor to stand amongst the competition and to be deemed by a judge to be the very best representative of that breed.
At the breed judging level at such a highly prized show as Westminster, judges that have a deep familiarity with the breed such as former owners, handlers, or breeders, are typically sought for the position as they can provide the most informed opinion at this level. Their choices are given great weight, and exhibitors and breeders whose dogs are awarded under them are elated.
How Does a Judge Pick the Best of Breed Winner?
Many people assume that the dog that is the most attractive or the best groomed will automatically receive the award of Best of Breed. Though this can be true, there is far more to it than simply the beauty of any one particular dog.
Each breed that has earned official recognition by the American Kennel Club has a written breed standard, and many have an illustrated standard which pinpoints in photos or drawings the desired traits that breed should display. The breed standard is a very detailed description of the hallmarks which uniquely identify a dog as belonging to that specific breed. Dogs that do not sufficiently display those characteristics are least likely to be awarded the designation of Best of Breed.
Much to the chagrin of dog breeders all around the world, there is no such thing as the perfect dog. This means that when measured against the breed standard, all dogs will deviate in some way; some more than others. These differences from the standards are referred to as faults.
When a judge judges a group of dogs at the breed level, the first thing they are doing is taking a critical look at the entire lineup, checking for the specific points that that particular dog breed should have. This involves a deep familiarity, almost to the point of memorization, of the breed’s written standard.
The judge’s initial look at the lineup takes place with all of the dogs in a row or circle with each dog standing in what is known as a stacked position. This particular position is adopted to help the judge evaluate the dog’s outline, an important component of what is known as breed type. Breed type, put simply, is the way a person identifies a dog as being a certain breed. If for example, a person saw a Beagle on the street with his owner, is the dog easily recognizable as Beagle, or could he pass for a Basset Hound or even a mutt? If the dog could pass for one of several breeds, the dog lacks breed type, and therefore, is too far from the standard to truly be considered for the award of Best of Breed.
Once the judge has evaluated the stacked dogs, the exhibitors will then be asked to move their dogs around the ring on a lead. This is called gaiting. Movement is also a very important part of assessing a dog’s suitability for becoming Best of Breed. All dogs were designed to move, and their breed standard indicates what that movement should look like.
Following having the dogs move around the ring, each dog is examined by the judge. During an examination, judges are looking for several things. One of the first things the judge is looking for is correct temperament. Also outlined in the breed standard is what the ideal personality should be in each breed. Most terriers are supposed to be alert, lively, and bold, so when the judge approaches the table, he is looking for a dog that will not back away from him when approached. Shyness in most terriers is considered a fault, and in a breed that is supposed to exude confidence, it is a fairly serious one. Aggression is not tolerated in any breed. Dogs that cannot be examined by a judge or that display aggressive behavior are excused from the ring.
During the examination time, the judge will examine the dog’s bite to see if it meets what is required in the standard, and he then can put his hands on the dog to feel his structure. Many dogs have voluminous coats, and that volume of hair can hide a lot of faults. This is why a physical examination is very important to a judge in helping him make a correct assessment. Some breeds must also be spanned, a process by which the size and flexibility of their chest is evaluated to ascertain if the dog could indeed do the job the breed was originally intended to do, another critical component of the breed standard.
Once the judge has completed his examination, the handler will take the dog in a straight line down a diagonal path. This allows the judge to assess how the dog moves when moving away from him and when coming towards him.
After all of the dogs have been judged, the judge will typically ask the handlers to restack their dogs or to gait them again before making his final selections. Coat does come into play when considering which dogs to award. Each dog has its coat type and grooming specified in its standard. A correct coat is vital as many dogs were bred to weather harsh conditions or inclement weather. Dogs that do not possess the right coat would be unable to fulfil their original purpose.
Temperament and coat type are important considerations in Best of Breed judging, but so too is the ability for the dog to do the job it was intended to do. All breeds were developed to fulfill a specific role in their owners’ lives. Some, like the Pomeranian, were always intended to serve as cherished family companions, happily spending their lives in the laps of the ladies who lunch. Others, like the Australian Shepherd, were working dogs that required the energy, tenacity, and drive to herd sheep or livestock all day on the farm. If a dog does not meet the criteria to be able to do the work he was intended to do, that dog is not suited to receive the award of Best of Breed.
To give an idea of how detailed the breed standard for each breed is, here is a list of the items it evaluates:
- Origin and Purpose
- General Appearance
- Important Proportions
- Coat and Colour
This is an immense list of detailed criteria that a judge must thoroughly understand then apply to the exhibits standing in front of him to determine the dog that in his opinion most closely represents the standard. It is not an easy task, and few people are qualified to undertake it, yet many are quick to criticize.
After Breed Judging, What Happens Next?
Once a dog has won Best of Breed, the next step is to proceed to the group judging which occurs on live television at Madison Square Garden. Simply having the opportunity to enter the group ring is a privilege most exhibitors only ever dream of.
There are seven different group classifications, and each breed falls within one of them for judging within that group. Most of the groups are organized according to the dog’s original purpose, function, or similarity of type. The seven groups are:
The group judge selected must be familiar with each of the dog breeds in that particular group, a very difficult task. The procedure is the same as what occurred at the breed judging level with one difference that many viewers at home do not realize. The judge is not comparing the Golden Retriever to the Labrador Retriever or the Gordon Setter to determine which dog he likes the best. In fact, his personal preference for any specific breed should never come into play. Just as at the breed level, the judge is evaluating each dog against its own standard; the dogs that earn the top four positions, known as Group 1, 2, 3, and 4, are awarded these designations based upon how closely they once again reflect their own standard.
In 2020, the terrier group winners were:
- Group 1 Wire Fox Terrier
- Group 2 Welsh Terrier
- Group 3 American Staffordshire Terrier
- Group 4 Kerry Blue Terrier
What this essentially means in laymen’s terms is that when assessed against each of their own standards, the Wire Fox Terrier was found to be the closest to his standard, the Welsh the second closest to his own standard, and so on and so forth. These dogs were not compared against each other with one found cuter and smarter or better groomed. They were compared against their ideal: their own unique breed standard and its requirements, and placements were given out accordingly.
What Happens After Group?
Once group judging is done, it is time for Best in Show. To ensure no impartiality, the Best in Show judge is kept sequestered until just before he enters the ring to complete his judging assignment. This means that he has no advance knowledge of what dogs have won best of breed or which dogs he will be seeing in Best in Show. The first time he sees the winners of each group is when they enter the ring for his assessment.
At the Best in Show level, judging proceeds in the same fashion as it did at the breed and group levels. Again, the judge judges each of the seven dogs before him against their own standards to try to determine which one meets that unique set of criteria for their breed the most closely. The dog that fulfills that important role is the dog the judge selects as his choice for Best in Show.
The Best in Show judge’s job is an extremely difficult one. In Best in Show at Westminster this year, Mr. Slay faced seven extraordinary dogs, any one of which could have been awarded Best in Show. All were impeccably groomed and presented flawlessly. All were excellent representatives of their breed. But there can only be one Best in Show. To competently make that decision, it requires a judge that truly understands each aspect of each dog’s breed standard.
But what exactly does that mean?
To truly understand that, we need to step back and recall a previous lesson about judging dog shows. At the breed level, the judge is required to be intimately familiar with the breed standard of one breed. Just one. When judging at the group level, a judge must be completely familiar with 20 or more unique breed standards.
For Best in Show, the appointed judge has no idea what dog breeds will be represented in his ring that day. That means that that particular judge must know the ins and outs and extremely specific details of every single dog breed that COULD end up in his ring that night. That total number amounts to over 200 different highly specific standards. That is a vast amount of knowledge that takes decades of hard work, study, dedication, and developing of the eye to learn. It is not a job that could be given to a novice. It takes the skill of an expert dog man or woman to adequately fulfill this role.
What Does This Mean for Daniel?
A thorough understanding of what is required of dog show judges brings us to this conclusion: on that day, under that judge who carefully applied the written standards to each dog that stood in his ring before him; Mr. Slay found Siba, the Standard Poodle to be his Best in Show. In his eyes, she was the dog that most closely resembled the written standard for her breed, and thus, was deserving of the title.
Was this decision reached lightly? At Westminster, judges face immense pressure. Standing in the ring that day alongside Siba, Bourbon, and Daniel was another dog who many may remember from Best in Show at Westminster in 2019. Bono, the Havanese, was awarded a Reserve Best in Show the previous year under esteemed judge Mr. Peter Green. Bono, an excellent example of his breed, was the #1 dog in the United States for 2019. Many rooted for this to be Bono’s Best in Show year, and he was favored by many to win. The pressure to award Best in Show to this spectacular dog must have been immense for Mr. Slay, yet he remained true to his years of study and experience and boldly chose the Standard Poodle, a dog of exemplary quality.
Was Daniel robbed? It is impossible for those of us who sat at home watching him on television to say. To watch a dog show from ringside is a very different thing than to be standing in the center of an immense ring and given the opportunity to touch and interact with the dog.
2020 was Siba’s year, and it was a well-deserved win. But Daniel did not go home empty-handed. He is a history making Golden Retriever, having broken through the glass ceiling to become the first of his breed to win the Sporting Group and to set foot in the Best in Show ring at the most prestigious dog show in the world. Pretty hard to complain about those results!