Westminster Dog Show Is Very Judgmental
Sun Feb 9, 5:50 PM ET
By BEN WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK - Starting Monday morning, all eyes will be on the Cavalier King Charles spaniels, the Dandie Dinmont terriers and the Alaskan malamutes.
There's another group that will get a lot of looks inside the rings at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show — the judges.
Because no matter how great a dog might appear, no matter how many titles it might've won, nothing counts until a judge marks the book and points a finger.
"For all the wins, there have been so many disappointments," said Sam Lawrence, 81 and among the most successful people ever in the show world. "You might think you have a champion, and then the judge puts up the wrong dog."
Remember this, too: It's been a bad year for referees, judges and officials in sports everywhere.
The Olympics figure skating scandal. The late call in the Fiesta Bowl. The NFL admitting a major mistake in the playoffs. NBA officials being pushed and accosted. Baseball recently suspending two umpires.
"And don't forget, we don't have the benefit of instant replay," prominent judge Bob Forsyth said.
Sure, the American Kennel Club specifically spells out the standards for each of the 159 breeds and varieties, down to every detail — what's the proper head, tail, legs, coat, color, gait, temperament, general appearance and more.
But how well a dog conforms to them, that's subjective.
Not the easiest thing, maybe, to tell which one of the 44 Chinese cresteds exactly meets the criteria listed as "layback of shoulders is 45 degrees." It's more obvious when someone tries to bend the rules, be it using mascara to enhance a dog's eyes or hair extensions or artificial coloring.
That's why judges do through, hands-on examinations of each dog, then step back to watch them run around the ring.
The idea is to judge "dog on the day" — to pick which one is best at the moment, not which one has the best reputation. And many champions have been chosen, as judges like to say, because a special dog "was asking for it."
Count on the well-schooled crowd of 10,000 or so at Madison Square Garden to let everyone know whether the right choices were made.
"I've seen judges get booed at Westminster," said highly regarded Afghan hound handler Lou Guerrero, who also judges competitions.
Irene Bivin, whose husband, Edd, judged best in show at Westminster in 1999, will have the most difficult job this time.
After the seven group winners have been picked, she'll step onto the green carpet shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday night to choose the top dog among the more than 2,500 entered.
That's not what star handler James Moses wanted. He's coming to Westminster with Dallas, a German shepherd who's already won 103 best in show titles around the country.
But in last year's show, after breezing in the best of breed competition, Dallas didn't even make it to the final seven. Instead, he lost out in the herding group to a Welsh corgi — and the judge who made that choice was Irene Bivin.
"It's a nightmare," Moses said.
Moses quickly points out that Bivin is "a fair-minded" person. But he candidly admits he'd rather see another judge at that point.
Of course, upsets do occur. Last year, a black miniature poodle named Surrey Spice Girl beat out a favored Kerry blue terrier called Mick for best in show. On that night, the poodle pranced with confidence while the terrier acted anxiously.
"It's a different show every day," Forsyth said. "That's where the pressure can be. Do you have the nerve to put up the dog that isn't as well publicized, that one that isn't as well known?"
Forsyth and his wife, Jane, are part of a rare group of judges. They are certified in every breed and variety, and they each also handled a best in show winner at Westminster.
Unlike other sports, where athletes try to work the officials, it's a no-no in the dog world.
"That's discouraged," judge Bob Stein said. "We don't want the handlers talking to us in the ring."
All dogs at Westminster are divided into seven groups, based on their characteristics. They first compete for the best of breed title, and the winners advance to the best of group competition.
Judging begins Monday morning for working, terrier, toy and nonsporting dogs, with the best of group competition held at night. On Tuesday, the sporting, hound and herding dogs go, with best in show to follow.
As always, judges will do their best, and that's not easy.
"No matter how hard you try and how many dogs you've seen and how many years you've judged, you don't get it right every single time," respected judge Rick Chashoudian said. "It's happened to all of us. As soon as you're passing out the ribbons, maybe you're already thinking, 'I shouldn't have done that.'"