The Judges Approval System: "Worse Than it Ever Was Before"

The current system for approving judges, especially those who want to progress and add more breeds, is not working well, and AKC judging is losing its appeal because of this arduous approval process.

By Bo Bengtson | January 22, 2014

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Nothing is more important to the long-term survival of conformation dog shows than having the best, most experienced and most knowledgeable judges officiating. Ask any neophyte exhibitor, seasoned handler or experienced breeder: They will all agree that the quality of the judging directly affects their appreciation and enjoyment of a dog show.


AKC Knows it Has a Problem

There is little agreement on how to find the most suitable judges, or the manner in which they should be approved and encouraged to progress, so those who are able and willing may judge more than just a few breeds. It's no secret that there is a great shortage of AKC-approved multi-Group judges. In the US we have, in fact, fewer all-breed judges than almost any other major country, in spite of many more dogs. The 2013 AKC Judges Directory lists only 16 active individuals who are approved for all breeds, compared with 121 in Canada at present and 288 in Australia. AKC is aware of this problem and is reportedly planning some changes.

The fact is that the current system for approving judges, especially those who want to progress and add more breeds, is not working well. "Any intelligent person knows the Judges Approval System is worse than it ever was before, and that's saying something!" according to one highly placed individual with no axe to grind, a multi-Group AKC judge and club official. (I have many more quotes, but the language in them is much stronger and not really suitable for print.)

If you are involved in dogs, you most likely know people with impeccable backgrounds who prefer not to judge rather than subject themselves to the current approval system. You probably also know judges who can tell horror stories about their experiences applying for additional breeds. It's unfortunate that so few go public with their disdain, but I can understand why. It's not usually a good idea to bite the hand that doles out the favors.


My "That Sounds Crazy" Story

Now I can add my own story. It's not a happy tale, but if making the following public can in any way improve the system, it's worth telling. Those of you who are thinking of becoming AKC judges, or of adding more breeds to those you are already approved for, need to know that what happened to me can happen to you, too. And everyone who is involved in dogs should be aware of what an AKC judge may encounter.

I won't bore you with details of my background in dogs. The only part that is important here is that I judged my first AKC show in 1977 and was fortunate to judge a number of high-profile AKC shows for a few years after that. In the mid-1980s I resigned from active judging to pursue other interests (publishing dog magazines) that AKC felt constituted a conflict. During this time I continued to judge non-regular events in the US and international dog shows abroad, including all-breed BIS, because I have been FCI-approved for additional breeds since my early days in Sweden. (As an aside, isn't it odd that while foreign visitors are regularly approved to judge AKC shows based on their foreign license, AKC does not accept any foreign club's recognition for judges who move to the US?) In 2004 I was reinstated by AKC, approved for additional breeds in 2012, and now judge approximately half the Hound Group, plus a couple of breeds in the Sporting and Toy Groups.

In March I was one of several judges invited to apply for additional breeds. The letter from AKC stated: "We are pleased to inform you that an invitation for advancement is hereby extended to you as a result of the recent meeting of the Judges Review Committee." Who wouldn't appreciate that kind of encouragement? I could apply for 15 additional breeds and would be approved if I provided the requisite paperwork and passed an interview with the appointed AKC Executive Field Representative. Since 15 breeds would give me the entire Hound Group, minus only the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, I asked if I could apply for this breed also. It made sense: the PPP was added to AKC's regular roster on January 1, 2013, and I had judged their parent club's last specialty match prior to full AKC approval in December 2012, less than three months prior to AKC's invitation.

As a result I was asked to present myself for an interview for all 16 breeds, each listed individually, and "Balance of the Hound Group." The interview took place on May 5. It went well, the appropriate papers were filed, and I sat back, awaiting formal approval as an AKC Hound Group judge.


After Invitation, AKC Changes its Mind

That did not happen. Instead, a couple of weeks later I received a letter from AKC's Judges Liaison, stating there had been a "mistake." Because I was initially invited to apply for 15 breeds, I could not be allowed to apply for 16. That I had already been interviewed and passed for these 16 breeds was apparently irrelevant, as was the fact that the members of the Judges Review Committee who had recommended me in the first place, Edd E. Bivin and Dr. Robert Indeglia (both of whom had resigned from the committee at that point), verified that their intent was for me to be approved for the Group. There are reportedly written records to that effect.

Because it was unclear to me from the communication with the Judges Liaison why he refused to accept the past JRC's recommendations, I wrote to the AKC Board and to the new Judges Review Committee on June 22 seeking clarification. A few members of the Board and JRC contacted me to express support, but on June 28 the Judges Review Committee denied my application, stating that my "apparent disregard of the Board directive to mask judging applications by furnishing documentation to the committee identifying [my] current application was not acceptable. As a result [... my] application was not accepted." In other words, I was given no breeds at all.


Judges Expected to be Clairvoyant

The verdict confused me, to put it mildly, because I had received no "directive" and at that time did not even know what "masking" meant. (Few subjects have been more hotly debated in recent months, but this was in June.) Was there a typo? Should it be "marking"? Marking what? Several dog people I showed the letter to, including some multi-Group judges, were likewise mystified. Eventually a friend in New York explained that applications to judge or apply for more breeds must now have the name of the applicant "masked" so the Judges Review Committee is unaware of who is applying.

This isn't the forum to discuss whether "masking" is a good idea or not, but it seemed obviously unfair that I was penalized for breaking a rule I did not know existed. The "masking" rule was first made known to judges in an AKC newsletter that was sent out on July 19 — nearly four weeks after my offending letter. The American Kennel Club cannot seriously expect its 3,000-plus judges, not to mention prospective judges, to be aware of AKC Board decisions until they are informed of them. The ramifications of this would be simply staggering.


Qualifications "Don't Matter"

Finding that you are not being judged on your merits is disappointing. (The Judges Liaison at one point told me, in writing, "No one is questioning your qualifications," which was perhaps the saddest statement of all because you would hope it's our qualifications that really matter.) Being penalized by a rule you could not possibly have known existed at the time of your perceived infringement is incomprehensible.

Could it get any worse? It could. I hired a lawyer who is involved in dogs, and we drafted an appeal, dated August 15, including the pertinent dates. We suggested that I could not reasonably be denied approval for violating a rule that I did not know existed and that I, of course, would have been careful not to violate that rule if I had been aware of it. The response, dated October 11, was the same, however: "The Committee has decided that no change was made to the Committee's original decision." No new reason was given, no one suggested there was any "directive" beyond the newsletter sent out after my "unmasking" letter, and the dates are not in question. I can only conclude that the Judges Review Committee must have believed I lied when I said I did not know this rule existed, adding insult to injury.

Who are the people on the Judges Review Committee? It consists of a rotating trio from 12 AKC judges and two AKC Executive Field Representatives. I know and respect most of these judges; a couple of them I hope I may even call friends. I have no idea which of the committee members were a part of the team that considered my application, but I have to wonder what they were thinking. Frankly, it felt a little like Kafka, or perhaps Alice in Wonderland...


AKC Judging Losing Attraction

This is where things stand now. I may address the AKC Board Appeals Committee in February. My attorney may be present but is not permitted to speak. I am not sure if I want to do that, however. A lot of time has been wasted. I'm sick of it all, and I am considering resigning from AKC judging entirely. Judging dogs can be a fascinating experience, but as far as AKC events are concerned, the whole process has lost much of its attraction.

I love this sport and have done my best to contribute to it for more than 50 years. I will spare you my feelings but have to admit that the past few miserable months have made me question if there is any inherent fairness in the AKC system. I think I have been badly served by the organization that I thought would guard my interests, as well as those of the entire fancy.

Perhaps at some future time, with a Board that shows more concern for its dog show judges, things will be different. The AKC Board has the authority under its bylaws to approve anyone to judge any breed. If the AKC Board should ask me to judge the breeds I have spent a lifetime studying, that the then-Judges Review Committee felt I am qualified to judge, and that I was passed for by the AKC Executive Field Representative, I will be happy to accept. Until then I think I will avoid further involvement.

One might assume that my difficulties are due to the fact that I have in the past publicly criticized some AKC activities. I doubt that's the case: Too many judges who are blameless in this respect have recounted similar experiences. One of the strengths of the AKC, I have always felt, is that it is a sufficiently large organization that opposing views can fit under its umbrella. I sincerely hope that is still true. We all work towards the same goal, even if the ideas for how to get there differ.

The world can certainly live without my judging, but will the sport of purebred dogs prosper in an environment where judges are treated with such irrationality? My case, I understand, is far from unique. For the future of the dog sport in America I hope there will be change.
It has to come soon.


Read more about the Judges Approval System>>

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


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as US national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.


From the 2014 Annual issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the 2014 Annual digital back issue with the DIR app or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine (print and digital versions).


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