Canine Chronicle article on Judging by Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones

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Canine Chronicle article on Judging by Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones

Judging the pure-bred dog in conformation competition, it has often been said, is certainly not an exact science although there is undoubtedly something of the scientific method involved when this activity is conducted effectively. This is the part whereby accurate knowledge is gathered about the morphology, structure, and movement of individual exhibits. Then comes the matter of how this information is applied, how the relative and respective merits of the dogs being shown are comparatively evaluated. Added to this is the understanding which each judge has of what we refer to as ‘type’, those features which uniquely typify each breed. In all of this there is a form of art involved, even some creativity, and, it almost goes without saying, an ability to put these various key ingredients together is vital if valid decisions are to be reached in the ring. This complementariness is essential. In order to reach a satisfactory assessment of the quality of any pedigreed dog, in order to accurately evaluate its merit or otherwise, a judge must first of all possess the capacity to fully appreciate. This becomes possible only with in-depth breed knowledge. Scrutiny does not amount to much if not accompanied by appropriate sensitivity. Otherwise what might result is generic judging of the worse sort.

This aptitude and facility to evaluate is the product of intelligence derived directly from both knowledge and experience. Not everyone has the necessary requisites. The latter factor is highly critical and each judge has to undergo a continuing process of conscious learning. By that I mean each judge has to purposefully and deliberately determine how to balance the various elements, which come into consideration. There is no substitute for this. Awareness of the trade-offs, which invariably have to be made, is just one aspect of what is involved and each breed is, in its own way, different and requires individual attention. Some are much more challenging than others for reasons which are usually abundantly obvious. The skill and resultant stature of a judge, and the respect which he or she commands, is in direct proportion to these controlling and influencing factors. The act of appreciation requires sensitive awareness of virtues and, of course, of shortcomings. And it involves, above all else, a discernment of the subtle nuances of breed ‘type’ and how to fit this into the overall equation. The process of appraisal is, first and foremost, comparative. An estimation is made of how well, or otherwise, an exhibit matches a prescribed ideal; that which is documented in its breed standard. That is the fundamental yardstick.

As with all activity in which experience is important, practice leads to progress toward perfection. Provided that an individual is willing to constantly learn. So it is with judging. A neophyte at this is just that; a beginner needing some more exposure. How often are we reminded of this? When it comes to consideration of the respective caliber of dogs in competition, a challenge occurs which is not easily met. The weighing of strengths and weaknesses, in a comparative context, is always an undertaking requiring a certain acuteness of mind and the incisiveness of decision-making only comes with experience. That which is clear, clean and direct in this regard reflects the practical wisdom and knowledge one has gained from what has been observed, encountered, or undergone in the past. Resisting second-guessing and revisiting a thought is something which has to be learned the old-fashioned way; by doing it once and coming unglued mentally. There is an in-the-course-of-time, accumulative effect at play. There are two essential elements involved in this activity and to integrate them effectively requires practice. We are talking about repeated performance for the purpose of acquiring proficiency here. First there is the matter of considering the comparative importance of a particular feature or features. Then there is the question of how to weigh the degree of deviation from the perceived and understood ideal characteristics and the significance thereof. The balancing of these parameters is critical and not necessarily very easily attained, particularly when there are numerous exhibits under surveillance and consideration. There is also the time constraint factor with which a judge has to deal. The more of them there are, the more complex the undertaking. A keen and quick insight, a direct perception independent of any reasoning process; what we call intuition. These are the things which experience provides.

In judging, a deliberate series of thought processes are involved. In all of this competency and efficiency are surely directly proportional to preparedness and that includes how many times an individual has adjudicated previously. Judging well essentially involves the act of being able to quickly relate reality, in the form of exhibits, to a concept of an ideal. That which is contained in a breed standard. In order to not only perceptively compare a number of dogs but also to accurately and quickly assess how each matches up, relative to the other, to the dictates of a written description requires considerable background knowledge. Not only this, an immediate and intuitive awareness, recognition and appreciation must be at play. A unified cognition derived from sensory processes, as well as rational thought, is involved. Quite obviously this includes far more than determination of respective merit in terms of generic make and shape. It involves what one might call a ‘feel’ for a breed, an understanding of those features which are essential to its essence. This does not come easily, which perhaps accounts for the fact that not all judging has the sort of substantive value which could reasonably be expected.

So how does an individual go about preparing himself or herself for this most pivotal of functions at a dog show? Some of the currently heard criticism surrounding the approval of judges is based on dissatisfaction with the sometime supposedly thin credentials of those being rubber-stamped. An agency which gives approval automatically and routinely for additional breeds, once certain minimal criteria are met, becomes, inevitably, the subject of derision. Are attendance at a seminar, participation in a relatively brief hands-on practicum, ringside mentoring, in-ring observing, etceteras, indeed sufficiently substantive in terms of preparation; individually or cumulatively? These things certainly help but are they enough? That is the question now being asked. We are talking quality control here. Perhaps the jury is still out on this one, although the answer is likely to be ‘no’, but there is, of course, a dilemma here. By what other means is this day and age of hustle and bustle, of the habit within the culture-at-large of approaching matters somewhat cursorily and superficially, can a person gain a sufficient quantity of the sort of rarefied and refined knowledge which they should ideally possess? Slow, deliberative learning over many years is not exactly how people become prepared nowadays, which may result in a looming danger for judging to become increasingly generic rather than breed specific.

In the process of becoming sufficiently familiar with a breed to judge it competently there are, of course, a number of essential steps which have to be taken. There is a tripartite series of actions involved. First and foremost is the acquisition of facts, of basic knowledge about its origin, purpose, development, type, and so on. Then there comes the absorption and integration of this new information into the previously-possessed pure-bred dog knowledge base. Following this comes application and it is in this latter action that difficulty usually Adminses, but which is eventually corrected by experience if a judge is both astute and attentive. A good judge continues to learn and thereby increasingly hones and sharpens his or her skills and feel for each breed. In other words, the ultimate learning comes along with the doing and this is an ongoing process. Considerable dedication and concerted effort is, of course, required before reaching a level of ideal competency. There is a number of regulating factors. For a start, it is important to see a large number of specimens in order to truly gain an appreciation for such things as diversity and variance within a breed, whilst still being typical. There is also the challenge of setting a balance and learning not to overly-emphasize one aspect or another. Take, for example, the case of the better-made but less typey versus the not-so-well made but of beautiful type. How does one weight the one against the other? Obviously, in order to get one’s priorities straight there has to be prior awareness. Without a breadth of experience, the application of acquired knowledge intelligently and in appropriate context becomes a problem. Simply knowing the requirements of a standard is only a starting point.

Our better judges have mastered their craft by practice and by applying intense concentration, mental discipline, and, above all else, intellectual method each time they undertake the task of comparatively evaluating exhibits. The discipline is required in order to avoid over-emotional responses to external reality. A judge may not always be actively conscious of all of the influences which go into the act of reaching decisions but there has to be some control. It is not all instinct and intuition. There are, of course, occasions when judges allow themselves free rein and unhampered mental freedom in the process of making choices but it is only possible to do this if in possession of adequate depth of experience. This serves as a safety net. A complex and perfectly valid decision does not necessarily have to be based solely on reason. An efficient judge can evaluate some of the key characteristics of a particular dog, such as overall profile and balance, at a glance. Following this, a series of features and peculiarities are assessed and weighed in the mind by relative importance and it is here that subjectivity kicks in. The degree of significance of one aspect or another is a judgment call, a matter of debatable determination. In dealing with degrees of qualitative differences, it is difficult to avoid the subjective and judges weigh things differently depending, in part, upon degree of familiarity. So how important do you think experience to be?


Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jones was born and brought up in Wales. Educated at the University of Wales and the University of Nottingham, England, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the latter. His alma mater conferred the degree of Doctor of Science upon him by decree in recognition of his internationally-known contribution to knowledge in mycology, the branch of biological science involving the study of fungi. He has held faculty positions at universities in four countries; Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom, as well as the United States. He currently holds the rank and title of Distinguished University Professor at Auburn University. At Auburn he has, for many years, headed a research program involving the study plant disease-inducing microfungi funded at various times by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, and Abbott Laboratories. He has owned, bred and exhibited a number of breeds, including Afghan Hounds, Basset Hounds, English Cocker Spaniels, Pekingese and Pembroke Welsh Corgis. He is currently approved by the AKC to judge Best in Show, the Hound Group, English Cocker Spaniels, nine Toy breeds, Miscellaneous Classes, and Junior Showmanship. He can be reached at either [email protected] or [email protected]

"superfluous commentary"...Now that brought

a smile to my face...LOL.. : )
Have a great weekend, Brian

Re: Canine Chronicle article on Judging by Dr. Gareth Morgan-Jon

"There is a tripartite series of actions involved".

I love this guy! His articles always blow my mind.. what a vocabulary!!.. who uses the word "tripartite" anyway??
But.. he is a brilliant guy, and hits the nail on the head in every article he writes.
Unfortunatley, he is so hard to read and most people stop at the second sentence. Being a literary junkie compells me to read him to the end.
What he is saying is very true, and his opinion mirrors my own and most everyone actively involved in the sport.
But.. he has yet to come up with an answer, despite his superfluous commentary.....
which, given the amount of debate on the subject since the dawn of dog shows, is not at all suprising..

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