The College of Canine Knowledge
Flat-Coated Retriever breeder Helen Szostak says a quality judges'-education curriculum helps judges help breeders.
Courtesy H. Szostak
The objective of any breeding program is to produce the most perfect representative of your breed that you can. Perfection should include breed type and style, soundness, temperament, and working ability as defined by the blueprint: the breed standard. Of even greater importance is the production of a healthy dog that will be someone’s beloved companion for many, many years.
Success at dog shows and performance events are part of the validation of one’s breeding program. They are where a breeder can get the opinion of other experts in their breed as to the success or failure of what they are producing.
Whether we like the idea or not, the direction any breed takes has to do in some ways with the style of dogs that judges reward in the show ring. It is therefore important to all breeds that those who judge us at dog shows are truly the experts we want and believe them to be.
Almost every judge was once a breeder. Most judges are true experts in the breed or breeds dearest to their hearts, the breeds they themselves have bred and lived with for many years. Much about dogs can translate from one breed to another. Soundness and basic structure is not that different among many breeds. Structural soundness in a Dalmatian is not that different from structural soundness in a German Shorthair Pointer, for example. Type, outline, breed personality, and all of the little things that make each breed unique are much more difficult to learn about: How exactly does a Lhasa Apso breeder learn about the important differences in head type between the Flat-Coated Retriever and the Golden Retriever?
Canine Crash Course
It has taken me more than 30 years to learn what I know about my breed. People hoping to complete their requirements for judging the Sporting Group do not have 30 years to learn the nuances of each and every breed in that or any group. Therefore, it is the responsibility of each breed club to form a committee of highly knowledgeable specialists to put together an effective “crash course” in judging their individual breed. The best people to be presenters are those who have devoted their lives to their breed, the experienced breeders and exhibitors.
Several years ago I was asked to be judges’ education chairperson of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America. As a longtime exhibitor it has always been clear to me that many AKC judges, at least in my breed, still are in need of a good deal of educating. My breed is small in numbers, and judges are likely to see only a few at any given show.
I have seen judges who chose to judge my breed by the Labrador Retriever standard, or the Golden Retriever standard, or even the Irish Setter standard, but only a few who had a clear understanding of what a Flat-Coated Retriever truly should be. Some chose to judge Flat-Coats only because they had to do so in order to get the group. A good education program is necessary to help these people learn about the breed and to inspire some of them to truly care about it.
Learning the nuances of a breed can be very difficult when you rarely have the opportunity to see many specimens. It is even more difficult when the dogs in California and the dogs in Minnesota look only minimally similar. There are major differences in type in this country that are often regional.
Tools for Success
When I became chairperson for the judges’ education committee, I found that the club had no real program for presenters to use. There was a set of overhead drawings and photos that the previous chairperson had put together, a list of books on the breed, and little else. The club had recently completed an illustrated standard, which became my primary and most important resource and handout. An illustrated standard is of extreme importance in educating judges and breed enthusiasts alike. Every breed would benefit by the development of an illustrated standard.
The next thing we did was put together a PowerPoint presentation that could be used by various presenters in any part of the country. This was accomplished by a small group of knowledgeable breeders supported by a computer-literate friend and club member.
Our PowerPoint was and is a work in progress. Trying to find just the right photos to illustrate various points has proven a difficult task. The ones we are using now are adequate but not perfect. Photos, drawings, and illustrations are much easier to understand than words. Breeders and judges can give this PowerPoint presentation at seminars throughout the country. Each presenter can add some of their own commentary, but they have a good outline and quality photos and drawings on which to base their presentation.
More important still is actually being able to see dogs. We are lucky and unlucky in our small breed to have only one specialty annually, which is our national.
Everyone goes to our national. Depending on location we will have somewhere between 300 and 600 dogs entered every year. This is a huge opportunity for prospective judges and also those already approved for our breed to come and see many dogs. There is no educational tool more important than being able to see and go over many quality dogs. For prospective judges who are not able to attend our national, there are several well-attended supported entries across the country each year, but seeing a large number of quality dogs becomes much more difficult.
During our specialty we have a seminar for interested prospective judges. We also provide ringside mentoring done by a group of longtime breeders. Switching up people throughout the specialty (ours generally runs for three days) gives prospective judges the opportunity to talk to different people and get different opinions and perspectives on various issues. Mentoring enables participants to discuss dogs, placements, the breed standard, and ask questions about the things they do not totally understand.
Mentoring is a learning experience for everybody, mentor and prospective judge alike. I’ve often had people ask me questions about things that I’ve never even thought of. It is a good opportunity for everybody involved to learn more about the breed. It also gives people a good opportunity to discuss the presentation, to ask questions about anything that might not have been clear, and to give us feedback.
I highly recommend that all experienced breeders try to invest some time in judges’ education for their parent club. As breeders, our task is to breed the very best dogs that we can. In our judging system many of us rarely see a breed specialist. Involvement in judges’ education can help ensure that those passing on our dogs have the tools to help them find the very best. Many of those rewarded in the show ring will eventually be used in our gene pools. We hope that by helping judges to choose the very best, we help breeders to breed the very best.
Helen Szostak is a breeder of Flat-Coated Retrievers under the Grousemoor banner. She was the 2003 AKC Sporting Group Breeder of the Year.