Verbal critiques: brutal but valuable
I’m doing an Andrew Brace this week as I am writing my column in an hotel room in Southern Bohemia. I spent the weekend at a breed club specialty that attracted exhibitors from the UK, Ireland and the US as well as Russia and many other parts of Europe. Many of us have been travelling to ‘Cesky Days’ for more than a decade, and as this year marked not only the 21st such gathering, but also the 50th anniversary of the recognition of our breed by the FCI, so there was a special reason to celebrate.
Tomorrow I shall drive on to Budapest in Hungary for the World Dog Show where I shall meet up with some of the same competitors, as well as make acquaintance with others. Ours is a numerically small breed so there are never hundreds of exhibitors and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, most of the names in the catalogue – and their dogs – will be familiar to me. Some of the people that I have met over the years have become very special friends, but the majority I see only occasionally. One of those visiting Cesky Days for the first time this year remarked that it was rather like a big family gathering. There was much hugging and kissing when people met, new members of the family were introduced to the rest and were greeted politely. At the end of the weekend, if they had made a good impression they were warmly encouraged to return next year. Those that couldn’t make it this time were asked after, and there was the occasional question of ‘whatever happened to so-and-so?’ Some of the family members didn’t appear to be over friendly with others, but there was a polite truce over the weekend so as not to spoil the atmosphere!
Thus it was a good natured gathering with an air of celebration, aided by some special presentations on the Saturday evening and the presence of the president of the Czech Kennel Club at Sunday’s show. Competition was fierce but good-natured, and the winners were warmly congratulated.
The judge was a highly respected lady and, as is the custom, her decisions were explained in a verbal critique at the end of each class. Since this was first delivered in Czech, then translated into both German and English, judging became quite a leisurely affair. The dogs were discussed in detail – none of our polite euphemisms softened the blow: ‘doesn’t want to grow any more’ came over quite plainly as ‘this puppy is already far too big’ – while the ringside was left in absolutely no doubt as to why from time to time a somewhat surprising decision was made. In one class our little group had picked out a particular bitch as the clear winner, but to our amazement she ended up in last place. However, the judge explained that although, as the class came into the ring, she too had noted that particular exhibit quite favourably, the table examination had shown a less than desirable mouth. Not content to just mention a mouth fault, she actually went into full detail about the inverted canines, the narrow bottom jaw and the misplaced incisors, as the unfortunate dog and her owner stood in the ring listening to this explanation in three languages. Another exhibit was roundly condemned for having ‘ears like a Fox Terrier’ and a tailset to match. This particular judge is well known for her attention to breed specific detail. She emphasised that every dog should be fit for function, which in this case meant small enough to go to ground, but with sufficient bone and substance to keep going through the forest all day. She looked for power in the jaw and strength in the neck to be able to pick up and carry a pheasant or a rabbit. Elegance and the correct topline and tail carriage were high on her priority list. At the same time, correct presentation for the show ring was obviously important to her and several were downgraded for incorrect grooming.
It gave us all much to think about and, as is nearly always the case, there were those that did not quite agree with all her decisions, but because of the opportunity we had been given to understand her thought processes throughout the day our discussion was rather better informed than it might otherwise have been. This sort of ruthlessly honest critique is very valuable to breeders and exhibitors, although I am not sure how many in the UK would be quite so ready for such public exposure of the faults that they had hoped were not apparent!
Some countries do not expect judges to critique the dogs that are exhibited under them, and the competition is merely about the placings in the breed or group ring. In many parts of Europe, the grade given and the written critique is all-important to the exhibitor, and an ‘excellent’ grading accompanying a third place is regarded far more favourably than a class win where the dog has only been graded ‘very good’. Only a few countries expect a verbal explanation as well as the written critique, and this is, in any case, only possible when the entry is comparatively small, but there is no doubt that it concentrates the mind of both judges and exhibitors quite wonderfully. The judge that has a less than comprehensive understanding of anatomy is soon caught out, as is the one with only a superficial knowledge of a breed Standard.
Judges have the power to shape a breed. It is they who can for example influence changes in size, who can promote a fashion for exaggeration in angulation or an acceptance of untypical head shape. If we are to maintain the differences that make pedigree breeds so unique, then it is vital that we educate our judges so that they do not merely have an understanding of structure and movement. Of course we need them to follow the rules and regulations as to how prizes are handed out and we have every right to expect that those who do accept judging appointments conduct themselves in a professional and courteous manner in the ring. But more than all these, we need our judges to have a thorough and deep understanding of each breed they judge. Not just the ability to be able to recite the Standard parrot fashion, but the knowledge and experience to understand why certain specific points are included in that Standard. This can’t altogether be learned from books. Reading, the internet, just talking to those with an interest in the breed, all have a part to play in a judge’s education, but most valuable of all should be the information passed out to prospective judges by way of the breed seminar. In this, the breed clubs obviously have a vital role to play. There is, however, a tendency for many to assume that once they have passed a breed assessment that is the end of it. They become instant experts who know everything there is to know about that particular breed and move on to the next. Perhaps some would find it beneficial to attend a refresher seminar!