More on the AKC Judges Approval System

The fancy responds: judges "disrespected” and "insulted” in the process that’s done "irreparable damage” to the sport.

By Bo Bengtson | Posted: Mar 20, 2014 3 p.m. PST

American Kennel Club

Read Part One>>

Read Richard G. ("Rick") Beauchamp's response to the Judges Approval System>>

It would be no exaggeration to say that the response to my article on the Judges Approval system has been explosive and continues to be so at this writing. If you haven’t read it, all you need to know is that I used my own slightly surreal experience as an example of what can happen when you apply for approval to judge more breeds.

Originally written for Dogs in Review magazine, the article was shared freely among dog fanciers, with my blessing and the permission of the publisher. It was copied, emailed, pasted and posted on a number of lists for judges and AKC Delegates. The dog show judges organizations brought the article to their boards’ attention. AKC Board members read, commented and/or asked for copies of it. I’m told the article was viewed more than 20,000 times in the first few days after it appeared on an Internet newsletter. I have personally received well over 100 emails, calls or other comments so far, and seemingly couldn’t take two steps at a dog show I attended the weekend the article came out without someone grabbing me and saying something about it.

It’s great that so many people cared enough to read and comment on this article, which I believe should be required reading for anyone who plans on becoming an AKC judge, is an AKC judge applying for more breeds or is just plain interested in how AKC deals with judges. I’m grateful for all the positive comments and kind words. In some ways it’s a comfort to know I’m not alone — that so many others also feel they have been treated unfairly.

 

More Serious Than Anticipated

It’s also clear, however, that the problems with the AKC Judges Approval system are much more serious than I could ever have anticipated. We’re not talking about just a few disaffected members of the judging community who are unhappy about the process, but a large number of AKC judges with excellent credentials who were once willing to expand their judging repertoire and now don’t want to do so because of the way they feel they have been treated. Our sport just cannot afford to lose this much expertise.

As one Westminster BIS judge, approved for three of the seven AKC Groups, said, "I haven’t applied for any new breeds in years for all the reasons you mention in your article ... If by now the powers that be don’t know what I’m about, then forget it.” When a judge of such exalted stature is asked to jump through so many hoops that the idea of applying for more breeds is not appealing, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Have we come to the point that Frank Sabella, another legendary Westminster BIS judge, refers to when he stated, in a videotaped interview with England’s Dog World last year, that AKC has created what amounts to a "police state”? I’m not sure that his statement is true, but certainly Mr. Sabella, as well as many of America’s other top judges, ought to have been approved for all breeds long ago — yet very few of them have. What message does it send to foreign kennel clubs when so many AKC judges with enormous depth of all-around dog experience are not approved to judge all breeds?

In spite of the fact that there must surely be someone out there who is happy with his or her Judges Approval experience, not a single one of all the comments I have received, read or listened to expresses satisfaction with the process. In fact, the negative response is so unanimous that the only conclusion must be that there is, indeed, a real problem. Most judges naturally feel they deserve more recognition than they are getting, but it’s difficult to argue with the following stories. Many of those who are quoted below were willing to let their names be used, but for consistency’s sake, and also to protect the innocent, I am not including them here. Several were made publicly on the Internet, but they deserve to be read in print as well.

 

"A Difficult System ... Makes No Sense to Me”

This account, from a judge who is approved for two Groups, is representative of many experiences: "I understand it’s a difficult system to manage, but ... [it] makes no sense to me. I've been trying to finish the [third] Group for the past four years and have been turned down for the last three breeds twice. I passed the tests, had a good interview, but don’t seem to be able to find a way to advance. It’s puzzling. I have never had a bad observation report and have a good relationship with all the reps. But how much insult can one take?”

The following comes from a single-Group judge who is approved to judge Best in Show: "The current approval process is the worst of the worst and a process under which I won't even try to advance. It took me 17 years to get [one] Group, during which time the Judges Approval process was changed five times. I would get the background and paperwork required for the process approved at that point in time, the process would change, and I would have to start all over because a new set of requirements was in place. I will admit that [during] part of the 17 years ... I gave up and didn't apply for any new breeds for almost six years. Unless something changes radically, I won't be applying again for any other breeds.”

Many believe that professional handlers have an easy time getting approved for any breeds they want. Not always. The following is from a very successful retired handler who won multiple Groups at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show: "When I decided to quit handling, I applied for 13 breeds. It was a struggle, but I got them. Then a year later I was turned down for the balance ... They withheld [three low-entry breeds]. It took me almost four years to get [a] Group.”

"While it's necessary to identify the problems before you can expect change, you must also make some concrete suggestions for improvement or the battle is only half won."

Long and successful experience as a breeder doesn’t necessarily help either. A past AKC Breeder of the Year nominee with several hundred homebred champions to her credit writes, "When I decided to apply for a few breeds a few years ago, I was appalled at that time to learn that all I had done over the years amounted to nothing. Any credit for my lifetime of experience and service to the fancy and the breed would be the past five years only, and that included ring stewarding.” This breeder is still not AKC-approved to judge any breed.

Even those who have first-hand experience of how AKC works express concern. A current AKC judge who worked in the Judging Operations Department in the past is not surprised by the many manifestations of dissatisfaction. "Common sense, rational thinking, fair mindedness and business acumen have always been missing from the application process.”

One of the things that upsets dog judges is the lack of respect they feel AKC shows them. One multiple Group judge writes, "I have only to be slapped in the face once or twice before I put my tail between my legs and go home. Originally, I had planned to finish [another] Group before calling it quits with the application game, but when I was applying for [a previous Group] I had some bad experiences. It’s not worth the time to go into the details of those experiences.”

Along the same vein, an AKC delegate and judge writes, "The overall treatment of judges as if they were all miscreants, cheats and liars is demeaning to a group of people who’ve worked hard to get where they are and don’t deserve the kind of treatment that seems to be randomly handed out in the name of AKC.”

 

No Judges Left?

The result of all this is, as one show chairman (and AKC delegate) points out, that "there will soon be nothing left known as a ‘provisional judge’ because the system seems to require everything except a DNA sample and a four-generation genealogy for them to advance, not to mention that they have been required to offer humble obeisance to imperious field reps. In five or 10 years, there will be no ‘all-rounders’ at all, unless you import them from Canada or Europe.”

There are many more comments, but they become repetitive reading after a while, not to mention depressing. How have we come to such a pass that many actually believe that, as someone put it, "AKC hates judges”? I don’t think that’s true, though. The American Kennel Club is a huge body that incorporates any number of talented, accomplished and efficient individuals, many of whom are judges themselves. Some of the AKC Board members are judges, and although you wouldn’t believe it from listening to them, the AKC delegates — many of whom are judges and among the sharpest critics of the current system — are, in fact, very much part of the governing process. There is also the oft-quoted statement, which I believe came from the AKC Chairman of the Board last year, to the effect that, "AKC judges are the best in the world.” (A separate article could be devoted to that statement. Anyone with experience knows that good judges can come from anywhere, and it’s worth noting that the approval systems used overseas don’t necessarily produce judges who are better or worse than those we have in the US.)

 

Foreign vs. AKC Judges

Speaking of foreign judges, two things need to be mentioned. First, it’s amazing that AKC is so much more lenient in its approval of foreign judges than toward its own. We have seen visitors from abroad officiate at top level, with AKC approval, judging Groups which include breeds that do not exist in these judges’ home countries and that they are in fact likely never to have set eyes on before judging them in AKC Group competition. One foreign judge recently asked handlers the age of their exhibits in a big breed entry, which is against AKC regulations (you’re supposed to ask the ring steward to check the catalog), but did not receive any reprimand from AKC as far as I know. Exactly the same behavior from a prospective AKC breeder-judge resulted in the penalty of having to perform two more provisional assignments prior to consideration for regular approval.

And remember that 24-year-old foreign judge whom I have mentioned in earlier articles, the one who in his home country is approved to judge all breeds? He is listed in AKC’s Judges Directory as AKC approved for five whole Groups and a total of 38 of the 39 breeds in the remaining two Groups. If he lived in the US, he would be lucky to have any breed at this point, simply because of his age. (If he should move to the US, he will, of course, immediately lose his privileged status and have to start from scratch.)

I am not saying that these foreign judges do not make a valuable contribution to the US show scene. Those I know are, in fact, generally respected and talented. The question is why AKC applies different, more stringent requirements to its own judges than to visitors.

Another remarkable fact that was touched on earlier, obviously the result of the AKC Judges Approval policy, is how few judges there are approved for all breeds in the US compared with abroad. The most recent edition of the AKC Judges Directory (2013) lists 21 individuals as approved to judge all breeds, from a total of approximately 3,000 AKC judges. At least six of the 21 are no longer judging for various reasons, and although it’s rude to speculate about age, it’s difficult not to notice that most of the remaining 16 are well advanced in years. ("Are ANY judges at AKC shows under 60?” one writer asks. In fact, several of the more or less active AKC all-rounders must be well into their 80s.)

Compare this with the situation in other countries. I have already quoted equivalent numbers for Canada (121 judges approved for all breeds) and Australia (288), in spite of the fact that the dog show activity in these countries is much less extensive than in the US. I don’t have all the figures for Canada, but Australia had just over 1,000 all-breed shows in the last available year, 1,603 judges and just over 64,000 annual registrations, compared to approximately 1,500 AKC all-breed dog shows per year and an annual registration total that’s believed to be more than 400,000 dogs (AKC no longer makes the figure public). Our closest neighbor to the south, Mexico, with 152 shows and about 34,000 registrations, has 29 judges who are approved for all breeds. Obviously the situation is very different than in the US, but the discrepancy is glaring.

The country that’s easiest to compare with the US due to some obvious similarities would be Russia. In the latest recorded year (2012), the Russian Kennel Federation hosted 1,055 shows, registered 302,000 dogs, and from a total 738 judges had approved 73 to judge all breeds — several times more than AKC. 

 

More Judges — Or Fewer Shows

You don’t need to be a genius to see that the current situation does not bode well for the dog sport in the US. With a large number of fairly small dog shows (the average AKC all-breed show now has only about 800 dogs), a much greater number of judges who are capable of judging multiple Groups is obviously required, especially because most of the dog shows are held over a weekend in the same location as one or more other shows of similar size. Because many judges who might have been willing to take on more breeds have been discouraged from doing so, the situation is precarious, with the same multi-Group judges officiating over and over again.

Breed specialists are great, but unless a judge is capable of taking on a few hundred entries of widely different breeds over a weekend, most clubs are simply not going to be able to afford hiring him or her. The only alternative I can see is cutting down drastically on the number of dog shows, and I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. Do you?

One reader points out that while it’s necessary to identify the problems before you can expect change, you must also make some concrete suggestions for improvement or the battle is only half won. I will be happy to offer a couple of practical ideas that I believe could help improve the dog sport in America considerably. That will be the topic of a future article, however. 

P.S. For the record, I will attend the AKC Board Appeals Committee hearing in New York before Westminster in February. After that I will decide whether to resign from AKC judging or not. I love judging big breed entries at good shows, but in the current atmosphere, there are many other activities that are more appealing.

 

From the March 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.

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