A top judge discusses the importance of hands-on judging

When I talk to people about judging, one of the things I say is that dogs are examined on the table, not judged on the table. Some dogs do not perform as well on the table as they do on the ground-maybe they're puppies, or maybe they’ve had a bad experience. The table is really just there for the judge’s convenience, so they don't have to bend over. That’s all.

The first thing you do before you examine any dog, of course, is you stand back and look at him. Then when you walk up to the dog and put your hand on him, you use a light but firm touch. Dogs are very sensitive to touch. If a person puts his hand on a dog and his is shaky or nervous, the dog picks up on this.

There are some breeds that I’m very careful in examining, particularly the flat-faced breeds. They have no muzzle to protect their eyes, so they're extremely sensitive about their eyes. This includes Pugs, Japanese Chin, even Shih Tzu to some extent. (Of course a lot of toy breeds require special care in handling.) With the flat-faced breeds, I tend to pick up the dog’s head with both hands and look at his face, then simply use my thumb to check the bite, rather than trying to pry open his mouth. If you were to pry open the dog’s mouth, you'd be putting your hands over his eyes.

When I walk up to any dog, I put my hand in front of his nose first so that he can smell me. In a breed where hair covers the eyes, such as a Skye Terrier, that hair may be so heavy that the dog’s vision is obstructed. So I figure if I put my hand there first, right in front of his nose, and he can smell me and know there's a different person there, then he should be able to expect another hand on him. There are some things that can only be confirmed by getting your hands on a dog. You especially have to use your hands with coated breeds, of course.

One thing I always want to know is where the dog’s elbow is. With a coated dog, I lift the coat and want to find out where that elbow is in relationship to the withers.

The different standards describe specific breed traits that can only be ascertained by feeling. The Pekingese standard describes in detail the way the dog’s ear leather should be; you must feel under all that hair to make sure that ear leather is what the standard calls for. The Bedlington Terrier’s ear leather must be long enough to reach the corner of the mouth, so you have to pull the ear up, and you have to make sure that what you’re measuring is the leather itself, not the tassel. With breeds like Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers, you have to feel the base of the tail, to determine that the tail is not inverted, where two or three vertebrae have gone inside the body. These are all things that you have to use your hands for-not things that you can stand back and look at.

I don’t understand some judges whose exams seem to consist of “withers-butt-tail-and-go.” Maybe I’m just not smart enough to be able to get that much information in two or three quick little pats! They’ll sort of walk up, look at the dog’s head, pat him a couple of times on the back, and say, “Take him down and back.” And then there are judges on the other end of the scale who are great massagers-they rub and rub and rub. I probably fall somewhere in the middle.

There’s always something going on at a dog show—for judge or exhibitor—that you can learn from. Don’t miss the opportunity.