181 – Dog Show Judges, Family and Welcoming Exhibitors | Pure Dog Talk

Here Come da Judge

Dog Show Judges, Family and Welcoming Exhibitors

Dog show judges, their knowledge and skill level are a constant topic of conversation in purebred dogs. This isn’t a new discussion. From the days when new judges were hand-picked by one of the “in crowd” to today’s more egalitarian system, the role of adjudicating in a subjective sport has routinely been akin to wearing a bulls-eye at a firing range.

Dog Show Judges Approval Always a Challenge

AKC Vice President of dog show judges, Tim Thomas, wasn’t born into the sport. He rose through the ranks as an owner, exhibitor, club member, breeder, handler and eventually AKC employee. His job today revolves around the always lively debate about how best to select, educate and promote judges for the conformation ring.

“… the process (by which) we approve judges is always going to be controversial,” Thomas said. “The last system was horrible, the current one is the worst ever and the next one will be the greatest one ever – that’s always the mindset.”

Thomas advocates that great dog people are born, not made.

“… the reality is, in anything, you’re going to have a broad spectrum of skill sets,” Thomas added. “You’re going to have from the most excellent, to those who are challenged and you’re going to have a whole lot in the middle. And that’s with any field and with any skill set. And we have to recognize it’s true in our judging community, in our dog show world too.”

Educating new judges and assessing existing judges is all part of the process, Thomas noted, so that exhibitors feel they are being judged fairly and haven’t wasted their $30 entry fee.

“…no matter what the process that the AKC puts in place to approve its judges,” Thomas added, “there will be individuals who will try to find a way around or look for the shortest path and there will be those that will prepare until they feel comfortable that they’re ready the judge a breed.”

Thomas strongly supports the recently re-established process of having Executive Field Representatives observe judges and discuss the entry with them to help ensure a nuanced understanding of breed standards and judging procedures.

Drawing on his extensive background in the sport, Thomas shared a deeply personal story about his favorite judge of all time. (No spoiler alert! You’ll have to listen to find out who it is… ) And why the “dog show family” is so important to the fabric of the sport.

And he shares this MOST important observation:

“…(O)ne thing that I think that we have to implore to all of us and whether it’s the way that we act at shows, to the way we conduct ourselves in social media platforms, that we have a bad habit of eating our young,” Thomas said. “..(I)t’s very easy to point the finger and blame to everyone else. But I think all of us are responsible for the way that we conduct ourselves, to have ownership in that if we want our sport to have longevity, we have to make a conscious effort to support those who are new into it. And that’s treat them with respect and nurturing them and mentoring them and not just as point makers.”

For more information about the AKC Conformation Judging Approval process, visit: http://www.akc.org/sports/conformation/judging-information/



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LAURA REEVES: Welcome to pure dog talk. I’m your host , Laura Reeves, and I am joined today by a pretty cool guest. I think you guys are going to really get a kick out of this. Tim Thomas is the AKC Vice President of dog show judges. So we’re going to talk today about how these folks get from point A to Point B and the entire judging process. Yes? Mr. Tim?

TIM THOMAS: Sounds wonderful. Thanks for having me Laura.

LR: Thanks for joining us. So I ask everybody to do this and you are going to be no exception. We are always wanting to know more about everybody involved in the sport. So give us the 4-1-1. You’ve got a pretty broad background. So tell people about it.

TT: Sure thanks. So I was not born into the sport. You know I’ll start with there. I was started at the pre-teen, so I’m maybe your prototypical person or family that the AKC hopes to attract. Family bought a purebred dog and then one thing led to another. So we started – I think I was maybe 13 – starting show dogs. Akitas was my family’s first breed. We didn’t have great ones to start but most people don’t when they start out. Joined the local kennel club – that’s actually how we first got involved – Beaver County Kennel Club in western Pennsylvania. So joined, started showing dogs, came up a little bit in the juniors ranks, but I will – you know came in said late. I always joke when I do our judging junior seminars, the whole reason I paticipated in juniors was try to meet the girls the dog shows, but we all have our priorities. <laughter> Was fortunate towards the end of my years in high school and through college and some time after, I worked for a local handler from the area who did a lot of the breeds I was interested in – Working, Hound, Sporting, etc. Very active with the kennel club. Joined as soon as I could at the age of 18. I consider myself a kennel club guy – did pretty much everything for the club over time. And then that morphed into starting to show dogs for others. And all the meantime, here I am sitting with my teaching degree, like many people who go to college and get a degree never really did anything with my degree.

LR: Right?

TT: But one thing led to another and after about 30 years in the sport and some time handling and I was running some shows from my kennel club. The biggest part was I’ve spent some years as a cluster coordinator and specialties coordinator for the Canfield shows in Ohio – the Steel Valley Cluster – AKC came and there was an opening for a field rep. And I was fortunate enough for Darrell Hayes to offer me the position back in that time that was toward the end of 2009. I started as a rep in 2010 and started in Florida. I was the individual who had the misfortune – and I mean that in the most respectful manner – of replacing, coming behind Mr. Michael Sauve, who had passed away the year before. Tremendous shoes to try to fill in Florida’s rep.

LR: Right.

TT: And about a year later moved up to Raleigh and started working the office part time in the field and just, that’s morphed over the years from being a part time in and out field rep, to the judging liaison was my title for a period of time, to the director of dog show judges. And now, as of December, my title changed to Vice President. So, apologize for rambling here – background is broad – started as a true newbie, Kennel Club guy, started with Akitas. My wife and I co-bred Clumbers Doug Johnson <LR: With Doug, Ok> and we stopped the breeding, to be honest, after a while because the handling business was growing and you have to dedicate time, whether it’s stopping from shows, at home and so forth. So we couldn’t sacrifice the time to do it right. So like I said Kennel Club guy, handled … dog show person.

LR: Right. And I think that’s one of the things that when I talk to folks, when I interview folks from the American Kennel Club, it’s so important for people to understand that the American Kennel Club is not just faceless suits. Like, you folks are – a lot of you – dog people. Not everybody, but you know … and I think that that is something that people need to understand.

TT: Yes and you’re right. There are many areas within the corporate structure that understanding the sport from firsthand experience knowledge is integral to being able to perform the duties. Whether it’s my role, or what MariBeth O’Neil does, or what the areas have to deal with events – what Glen and Guy do over there. If you didn’t understand the audience that you’re working with and the events that we’re running, it’s kind of hard to do your job effectively. So there is a wonderful blend of people from the sports, as well as employees with certain skill sets which make them advantageous for the position they do, that make the AKC function as well as it does.

LR: Nice. So conformation judges … it is always a hot topic and you’re a brave man. <laughter> Get on here and talk about it because everybody’s got something and we’ve kinda come a long way. You can talk to this more I’m sure. But back in the day, you know Len Brumby just walk around say, “You.” And while I don’t know that anybody thinks we’ve achieved the perfect system, there certainly are advantages to the way it’s handled now versus the way it was handled then and maybe downsides. So let’s talk about that.

TT: Well I will say some would argue that they’d love to go back to the Brumby days. I don’t know if in the structure of our support today if that’d be possible, realistically speaking. I mean the beauty of those times is it was a more intimate sport. There were smaller numbers even though it was proper in its heyday, the number of events was less. And I think the brilliance of Mr. Brumby was he had a network out there that he was able to get a sense, as far as the quality of events and quality of judging. And he was able to, I don’t want to say dictate, but massage the judging community <laughter> into the direction where it was needed and reward those who’d proven themselves. <LR: Right.> And for many reasons that’s just not feasible today. But you’re right, the process for that we approved judges is always going to be controversial. The last system was horrible, the current one is the worst ever <laughter> and the next one will be the greatest one ever – that’s always the mindset. <LR: Yes> The joke has been for years, if you don’t like the current approval process wait two years there will be another one.

LR: And that’s a frustration. It’s a frustration for judges, it’s a frustration for exhibitors. I mean, you know, I think that that is a reality. My question I guess is how do we get to the next – we were talking earlier – Percy Roberts. You know how do we get the next Alva Rosenberg and talk to us about the system that you guys are trying to implement to get to that point.

TT: So in my opinion we don’t create the next Percy Roberts – they’re born. The ability to be a true great dog judge or dog person is really something that’s innate, and this is just my opinion.

LR: I don’t disagree with you actually, but I was curious.

TT: Right we can educate and administer to assist in maximizing the potential. So through this training and review in our expectation for requirements prior to application, to ensure a level of confidence for those who wish to apply to judge our events, to have an acceptable level. And the reality is in anything you’re going to have a broad spectrum of skill sets. You’re going to have from the most excellent to those who are challenged and you’re going to have a whole lot in the middle. And that’s with any field and with any skill set, and we have to recognize it’s true in our judging community, in our dog show world too. Just like a ring of dogs – you know a class of dogs. You have a few great ones in a large class, you might have a few really bad ones, you can have a whole lot in the middle. So it’s – the challenge is always identifying the great and removing the barriers to allow them to advance, while at the same point in time respecting that the education process is important prior to application, in post approval, because the learning curve continues for a period of time. And finding a means to effectively address those that are most challenged, that truthfully exhibitors become the greatest angst or frustration in. That they feel as though they’re not getting a fair assessment when they’re spending their 30 or 35 dollars to enter a dog show. And those end of the spectrum are the smallest number. And then you have your big chunk in the middle. So it’s doing what we can to assist and to maximize their abilities and their potentials. And it’s not easy because everyone learns differently. <LR: Yes.> So the way that you may go out to try to educate yourself in Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, per se, if you’re looking to apply for the breed, what works for you is not going to work for John Doe. <LR: Right.> And so it’s accepting a myriad and broad spectrum of means for people to educate themselves, prior to application, but then also having a way to assess post to ensure that our breeders and exhibitors are entering and exhibiting to individuals that are knowledgeable on their breed.

LR: Right. And so talk to us a little bit. There is a new system and I had a live seminar earlier this year – Bryan Martin helped us understand a little bit about the new system. But for the folks that weren’t there and able to participate, can you give us kind of the shape of this and help our listeners understand why it’s this shape and what the goal – I mean you were just talking about it – but specifically how do you hope this will help them as exhibitors to have better trained and informed judges.

TT: Sure. So as you may or may not have noticed, you know there’s the perception of the quality of judging is always something that’s a little bit controversial. You know there’s always three people happy usually in a breed. Usually.  Winners Dog, Winners Bitch and Best of Breed. Everybody else is disgruntled. Obviously being a little bit facetious there in that. But what the intent was – so to give a little bit of background – the beginning of last summer, Mr. Menaker as chairman of the board appointed a committee to review the policy that was in place at the time, which had been originally implemented in September 2015. And to clarify, it’s not a whole new process. There was revisions that were made to that that was implemented in September 15. So the basic structure remained. It was what within needed to be addressed for the best interest of the sport and to honor AKC’s mission. The concerns were raised and this was heard within the boardroom for staff-wise, also from the fancy, when they were looking at individuals who were propelling forward at really a frenetic pace, to use my words, of advancement, receiving a large number of breeds in a very short period of time. And the overwhelming sense was an individual cannot take on that much knowledge and judge competently to assess actual exhibitors when we’re moving forward that quickly. Now the reality of the policy that was put in place in 2015 was, it removed many of the barriers that had existed in the past that were holding back judges and there was a need to do that. There were things that were put in place, in the opinion of many, that were holding back judges from advancing unnecessarily. So then we went from a system that was possibly holding back individuals to advancing very quickly. So what the committee tried to do is modify the policy that was put in place in 2015 to still provide a clear path to approval, a clear expectation to approval, but at a more reasonable rate for advancement to recognize the learning curve continues pass permit or provisional approval. But at the same point in time to remove or lessen the barriers that existed in the past. So essentially what we tried to create, or the committee tried to create, was a happy medium. So Mr. Menaker was brilliant in my opinion in his composition. So in this committee was himself and Dr. Davies as Vice Chair of the Board. And then he asked Mr. Biven and Mr. Sabella to serve on the committee as well as myself representing the department.

TT: So the knowledge and the commitment and the dedication and love for the AKC and the sport that those four gentlemen had, in having the opportunity to sit in the committee with them was really something that was inspiring is the only way I can describe it. And when your only agenda is what is best for the sport, you can have a very healthy product that comes out of it. And I think the committee feels as a whole that that was the end result. So what the end result that the revisions were is, that the expectation of requirements to apply were raised – we raised the bar a little bit as far as what you must do prior to approval; Return the need for all judges to be observed on new breeds passed, once they been approved, and then slow down the rate of advancement a little bit. Now without getting way deep into the weeds explain all the moving parts. Judges can’t advance as fast as they could a year ago but they can advance much faster than they ever could before that. And so there are mechanisms that were put in place to try to counter-balance things and you know in recognising the fact that if someone is trying to educate themselves in education challenged breeds or low – entry breeds. That’s going to be more difficult then in Golden Retrievers or Poodles, per se. So they really did try to put together a balanced program that is clear to the judges as far what they need to do to apply for breeds and then also we hope will give the sport and the fancy a greater sense of comfort that those that they enter under are qualified to judge their breed. But time will tell and more tweaking may be required over time.

LR: Well and that’s something that as you mentioned when we started, this is not a novel concept for the American Kennel Club in terms of you know we look at those every couple of years and maybe something needs tweaked or maybe it doesn’t or one of the things that I hear – and I’m just going to put this out there and we can chew on it – and I hear this more than once, is that a lot of today’s judges are sort of the check the boxes and are occasionally unable to translate that education into application. Is there anything that you see in this new system that will help that? We talked about a little bit earlier – the eye for the dog. You know that you’re born with it or you’re not. But there is the development of it, and so what pieces – what do you do for those middle people who maybe aren’t the great and maybe aren’t the disaster. What parts of this do you think are useful for the vast majority of us in the middle that are just kind of trying to figure it all out?

TT: So I think the first thing I would say to respond to that is that the reality is, no matter what the process that the AKC puts in place to approve its judges, there will be individuals who will try to find a way around or look for the shortest path and there will be those that will prepare until they feel comfortable that they’re ready the judge a breed. And so the latter half – to me those are the true dog people, that you know I say educate until you’re prepared and once you’re prepared no matter the system, you will be able to meet the requirements. So we’ve all – we meaning the office – has seen over time it’s evident those that they don’t care about the system. They educate and they work on breeds until they feel comfortable and then it’s evident on the paper and then it becomes clear during the interview process what the field rep and then becomes super apparent. If they’re having discussions about assignments they’ve completed with the field staff at our events.

TT: So to answer your question as far as what is in place in this policy that could help that, is that it has returned that all judges who are assigned permit breeds are expected to do observation reports on those breeds. So the policy that was originally enacted in September 15 one of the nuances of it was that its focused on judges working within the first group as far as concentrating on observing them. So the field staff would do procedure reports and breed specific observations. They’re called Judge’s Breed Commentary as the formal name for them today. When you’re within less than a group once a judge achieves one complete group they were essentially exempt from observation except we would do an occasional procedure observation. But if you were a Toy judge who is now working on Terrier breeds, and you were doing your Wire Fox Terriers into your second group, you would never sit there and discuss with the rep about what you recognize as far as breed-specific characteristics and how you prioritize your entry based upon the standard. That was gone. So it’s that after – it’s that discussion as far as this recognition within the interest of the ring that really helped cement that.

TT: And when you are true dog people – and that’s what I classify the field staff – we’re blessed to have 13 wonderful dog people that are our field representatives – that we don’t ever try to present that we’re experts in every breed. How can you be? But you’re dog people so you can have an educated discussion on a breed about what was present. So for as we move forward, it may be a judge has been classified, or one has been assumed to be a box checker – which is a term that’s been used for years really – the rubber hits the road once you get in the center of the ring. Now by having a means to observe, reinserted into a process, it provides the AKC the ability to identify those that might be challenged and either have a process put in place that mentors them through until we improve, or if there is no improvement, to remove breeds again. Now the latter is obviously very extreme. It doesn’t happen very often. But that was something that was absent on the original policy that there was once a judge achieved one group, aside from a complaint from an exhibitor, there was no means for the AKC to identify someone who’s having breed specific challenges and then address those. So if you as Laura Reeves would write and say Judge John Smith just destroyed English Springer Spaniels at this event … now obviously you’re a pretty solid person from the sport and you would hope that you’re writing in based upon what your observations were – not because you didn’t win the ribbon that day. But there was no means for the AKC to go out and confirm that via observation or refute those challenges. All we had was exhibitor complaints. There’s always a segment that’s the disgruntled exhibitor.

TT: So it’s a challenge, if not impossible, to say which ones are factual and which one is disgruntled exhibitor. Well now we have the means reinserted. We have our unbiased field staff who has no stake in the game, as far as the dogs being shown, to observe and discuss those entries with the judge.

LR: Great. So you touched on something that I wanted to address too, because there is a system, a mechanism, by which individuals can offer input on a judge’s decision making process or it’s what they perceive as the judge’s understanding of a breed and that is to write a letter to you, yes?

TT: Yes. So we have 13 Field Reps as I mentioned and we cover approximately 90% of all breed events. But there is obviously a lot of independent specialties, concurrent specialties, group shows, even that 10% of all-breed shows, there is still a segment of the shows that aren’t covered by our field staff and then even when we have field reps there they obviously can’t see every class, every ring, every breed, everything that goes on. So we rely and we have historically relied on the eyes and ears of the fancy – whether it be expressing concerns about the quality of judging that they just experienced or other infractions to AKC rules and policies that we would handle administratively. You know, we rely on them to bring those things our attention. So yes individuals can, if they feel warranted, write to the AKC.

TT: Now we always say your best recourse is if there’s a rep on site to bring the concerns to their attention, because depending upon the circumstances, if they can observe what’s going on then if there’s something that can be addressed on the day it’s always the most effective means. But if the rep’s not there, or the opportunty doesn’t present itself, then you can always write to judging operations with those concerns. And then the way that it’s managed departmentally it clearly depends upon the nature of the complaint. You know it could be anywhere from the letter is added to their file, and then if there’s a pattern that’s developed then we address it to very serious things, or very serious allegations, that we bring to the judge’s attention immediately and require response to and depending upon the results of our inquiry then it could proceed to some type of action further. Now that’s obviously the very end of the spectrum, but exhibitors have always had that ability. Our line of demarcation is that we don’t accept verbal complaints and it cannot be anonymous. Because if someone isn’t willing to put it in writing and put their name on it then it kind of impacts the credibility of the concerns. Now that doesn’t mean that we run back and say Judge Joe Smith, look Laura Reeves complained about you and she thinks you stink in English Springers. <laughter> That’s not necessarily the way it works. But you do have – judges can request copies of correspondence received concerning their qualifications to judge. So I can’t judge Springers because I think they should be twenty seven inches tall and you know rectangular in shape. Or this person’s not qualified becuase they’ve been in sport for three years – how can they be approved to judge gets qualifications to judge. They can receive a copy of the correspondence if requested.

TT: If it’s procedure, demeanor, conflicts of interest, that does not come out of them the policy, we inform them of the nature of the complaint and give them enough information they can provide a complete and accurate response to that inquiry. So yes, that is always a mechanism in place and everything becomes a part of their permanent file.

LR: Right. OK. Very, very good. So I guess you know we’re going to be able to offer people some opportunity to hear about this. But give us your personal – like, what’s your ideal – pick your favorite judge, if you can say, and why. And throw in this – this is a total curveball it’s not in your question list. I know. Let’s do one that’s no longer living. I think this is a great exercise.

TT: It was going to be that anyway. This is going to sound very corny but it has nothing to do – even though I loved exhibiting to this judge – you know, win lose or draw and she – so there’s a first hint – she used to scare the crap out of me becasue I was intimidated by her presence. <LR: Yes> It’s mother – Jane Forsyth – and the reason being that – and this is a personal note – years ago, so I’m not a small man by any means, as most people know who know me, but I used to be a much bigger man than I am today. And Jane pinned me against the wall at a show back in 2005 and basically said if you don’t lose weight you’re going to die. She was right. And I knew it. So here I am – young guy trying to make his way as a handler … here’s the great Jane Forsyth taking the time to pull me aside. She cared. I’ll never forget it

LR: That is an awesome story, Tim, I love that and I appreciate you sharing that. I think that that is, I don’t know, I think it’s important for listeners to understand that we are a family <TT: We’re all family.> I know that there are new folks who haven’t maybe felt comfortable to join the family 100% yet, but-…

TT: And sorry to jump in here, and that’s I think that’s a great point because, and I’ll refer back again to you know I’m fortunate enough to have the honor to do the seminars for new judges and also these judging Junior seminars and in the juniors ones I always tell the story about an experience that I had in juniors that really would break every policy associated with how judges are supposed to judge juniors today. But it demonstrates everything wrong and how you can really impact a young person. Now, luckily it didn’t impact me too much but it could’ve, and I won’t – it’s a 10 minute story so I won’t get into it. But it is, and I always summarize it that, and I go through the list of everything that the sport provided to me, through paying for my education, through meeting my wife, through the friends that we developed, through what turned into my career, and I’m going to get off a tangent here – one thing that I think that we have to implore to all of us and whether it’s the way that we act at shows, to the way we conduct ourselves in social media platforms, that we have a bad habit of eating our young.

LR: Yes.

TT: And it’s very easy, and we hear it all the time about you know the AKC’s – you know the concerns with entries dropping in conformation over time and the trend, and it’s very easy to point the finger and blame to everyone else. But I think it’s as all of us are responsible for the way that we conduct ourselves to have ownership in that if we want our sport to have longevity, we have to make a conscious effort to support those who are new into it. And that’s treat them with respect and nurturing them and mentoring them and not just as point makers.

LR: Just being nice. What if we were just nice to people …

TT: People enter our sport differently today than I did. <inaudible> We joined the kennel club first. And we learned about dog shows, and we went to matches, and then we entered the dog show. So we had built a social network up before we started attending events, so if we went and got beat up in the ring, no big deal we’re here to have a good time with our friends. Most newer people today don’t – they come to a dog show and they know nobody. So if everyone treats some horribly and rude – and this is from competitors through our judging community – most importantly, judges need to treat our exhibitors with respect. That’s a two way street. Our exhibitors have to respect the role of the judge and the judge has to realize if there’s no exhibitors there’s no need for them to be there. And that treatment will go a long way in promoting the longevity of sport. But we all, we as a whole, have a bad habit of eating our young.

LR: I completely agree with you Tim and that was not even a tangent, that was a beautiful statement. And I think that one of the things that I love about this podcast is the opportunity to create community, right, and to provide an opportunity for people to learn where nobody’s going to be mean to them. <laughter>

TT: And to pat you on the back, I will give you accolades where it’s well-deserved, it’s wonderful what you have done with these, Laura. You know, because you have been so pro-sport and so pro-AKC, and using these as a positive means to inform the masses. It’s fantastic and I applaud you for your efforts. It’s wonderful.

LR: Thank you. And I couldn’t do it without people like you that are willing to come in and talk to us because, as I continue to tell everybody that I talk to from the American Kennel Club, guess what guys – there are a whole lot of people don’t know what y’all are doing and you can write all the press releases you want, but this is an opportunity for people to actually hear it. So, well thank you Tim. Thank you so much for your time, for your contribution, and we will talk to you again soon.

TT: My pleasure. I appreciate the time and more than happy if you ever wish to spend some more time with you.

LR: Excellent. Perfect.

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