The Art of Critiquing

In some registries and countries, the dog show judge is expected or required to critique the entries—at least, the top-placing dogs in each or some classes. A critique is supposed to be a description of the dog that gives spectators and readers a good idea of the salient features of the dog and the reasons for its placement in the line-up in a specific competition, or its relative value to the breed overall.

The more one reads magazines published for the canine aficionado, the more one sees reference to critiques—especially in regard to foreign shows but occasionally in connection with specialty shows in the U.S. and Canada. A critique is a fairly detailed evaluation of the dog as seen through the judge’s eyes on a particular day. He has a mental picture of the ideal, and a view of the competition for comparison, but unless a judge records his observations, he will remember only a few things about a few dogs. Memory is less reliable as time passes, but written or taped words age very well.

In many breeds and most parts of the world, judges are expected to give a full explanation for the way they place the winners. Indeed, they often are required to rank and describe each dog down to the very end of each class. Why the AKC is out of step with the rest of the world is grist for an entire series of articles, but suffice it here to say that it is not a member of the FCI, the world federation of dog clubs. It doesn’t recognize pedigrees from certain countries, it doesn’t attempt to standardize breed standards, and goes its merry (?) way in many other areas.

One of these independent stands is to officially and unofficially discourage the practice of critiques. For example, the AKC publishes guidelines for judges which (last time I studied that publication) state that they are not to describe dogs to other exhibitors, nor give reasons for their placings. Only if the handler asks a question, the guidelines say, is the judge to answer, but only in the most uninformative terms. The unofficial translation of this section, which I’ve heard often, is that the answer should be very vague—something on the order of “Very good breed type” or “He just used what he had a little more today” or “That’s just the way they looked”—or even less.

With the power the field reps and other AKC staff members have over judges’ careers and aspirations, no wonder there are so few published or quoted comments in this country. There is some justification for such a practice: the AKC is in a somewhat precarious legal position, according to many authorities, and doesn’t want any waves. It is afraid that an “AKC-licensed” judge might put his foot in his mouth, for example, by answering a reporter’s question on why he didn’t choose a popular winner at Westminster. A “wrong” answer could make the judge look unknowledgeable and the AKC (which approved him) not very sharp either. It would be tantamount to admitting that some judges aren’t very knowledgeable (some aren’t), that the AKC doesn’t know how to select and train them (often true, but slowly improving in some areas, while getting worse in others), and that judges are approved on the basis of memorizing standards to pass tests (unfortunately too much truth and emphasis here).

Many foreign dog clubs and show organizations are so dedicated to the preservation and advancement of particular breeds, or to general education of both the “dog” and general publics, that they encourage or require critiques. In some cases, the judge dictates his evaluation to one or more secretaries and the critique is published in the next issue of the club’s journal. Occasionally, it is even ready before the exhibitors leave the festivities. I have read critiques given in Great Britain, Germany, Australia, and other countries, and find that they follow the same general format: the dog is described in the order in which the judge examines it, starting with the head and working back and down, ending with a description of gait and character.

I have found this procedure to be quite useful, with the exception that I record on a pocket notepad any character or temperament problems as soon as I notice them, which is often seen when the dog is approached or approaches on a loose lead. At large specialties, I have also at times used a pocket tape recorder with a lapel microphone. This way, the exhibitor can hear most of what I record, except for comments on gait seen going away or from the side. This has been met with enthusiastic reception by exhibitors and clubs that want a rather detailed critique, but is less requested now than many years ago. But it was seen with suspicion and doubt by the AKC. Field reps and HQ people who’ve come to shows have made remarks like “What are you doing with a recorder?”

or “I see you are recording your observations”, with a look and tone of voice which implies that they’re familiar enough with the rules to know it’s OK but they wish there were some regulation against it.

Many specialty clubs have requested a copy of my critique to publish in their newsletters. Since in a specialty show I can describe every entry, and most are given a rating of excellent, very good, or good, the exhibitor knows exactly what I see and pretty much why the dogs were placed in a certain order. Since AKC policy prohibits or inhibits in-ring education of this sort, then judges would be well advised to make silent and surreptitious recordings on tape or notepads so that they can later furnish critiques to the club’s publication and website, and truthfully answer exhibitors’ questions long after the particular class is over. I have judged many an SV show and other foreign show where such short-sightedness on the part of the national registry is absent, and the competitors really expect and appreciate open critiques.

Obviously, since I use critiques, I believe the advantages outweigh any disadvantages. First, the exhibitor gets more for his dollar. Instead of running around the ring and then out, he hears the judge’s words (or reads them later) describing good and lesser qualities such as croup angle or a wobbly hock. I remember once, a professional handler showing one of her own breeding stock who was surprised to learn the dog had a missing rear molar, so you can imagine that more may go unnoticed by the newer people. Second, the spectators or later readers can see trends in a breed or family line or a section of a country, such as overcrowding of lower incisors, steep croups, lifting of the foreleg, etc. Third, the exhibitors get an inkling of what emphasis the judge places on certain qualities, though this is least accurate because he only can describe what is shown that day, not what stayed home.

A big advantage to the newer judge and to the breed is that dictating a critique while judging forces him to be more analytical and complete because he has to look for and recognize something before he can describe it. A requirement that an accurate critique be made not only helps the spectators and exhibitors, but it also improves the quality of judging. If you have to give an unarguable and accurate description, you are going to be prepared beforehand and on your toes when judging. It’s too easy for novice judges to fall into a rut of placing dogs because one “looks better” than another without knowing (and being able to describe) why.

My SV-style systematic approach (front to back, top to bottom) to judging and critiquing has not only enabled me to become one of only two SV breed judges in North America for many years, but also formed the basis for one of my seminars, “Analytical Approach to Evaluating Dogs”, which lecture in turn makes me try to practice what I preach. Good feedback, to use a term from electronics.

Why don’t more judges critique? Many reasons. As I said before, a few are unsure of their own ability to evaluate, weigh, and make decisions based on logic and reason. For most, writing them is simply too much work. If I am asked to send them to magazines/websites, I try to write my critiques out on the plane heading home, and either photocopy these notes or have them typed later. Sometimes if the entry wasn’t enormous, I could get it done between judging and an evening lecture. But it takes up to a few minutes per dog, and a large entry could take several hours to write up. Judges don’t get paid extra for this, so you can understand why some would be reluctant to do it even if they tried it once or twice. Usually, I will let people at ringside make their own recordings as I critique the top dogs after placing them, referring to my notes if necessary.

For those of us who like to help others learn, and want to symbolically pay back those who’ve helped us over the years, a critique is a service gladly rendered. You will probably come across critiques in some national specialty club publications which don’t say much beyond what nice weather they had, the hospitality, and things like “So-and-so used everything he had”, “This bitch was so pretty and really asked for it”, and worse. Doesn’t say much about the dog, but maybe something about the judge, or his non-readiness to report. In all probability, he tried to trust his memory the next day. That’s not good enough, no matter how good you think your powers of retention are.

After I learned how to critique by apprenticing to become an SV judge, and having put that into practice at other type shows, I began to see that a few judges either were copying me or they independently decided on recording their observations while in the ring—on tape or notes. Some would record only the four places after giving out the ribbons, a couple would pick up a recorder and lay it on the chair in the middle of the ring and critique each dog. With equipment miniaturization, there’s no reason why everyone who wants to critique could not use a pocket recorder and a lapel mike with a voice-activated or easily reached on/off switch. I would encourage the practice, for the benefit of all: the judge, the club, and the exhibitor.

If you are at a show where critiques are not part of the service the judge renders, and you want your dog described or a reason for its placing, ask the judge before you leave the ring. Unless you have a first-place real knock-out stupendous dog, the judge who is not prepared to critique is likely to immediately forget the details. Don’t ask something stupid like “Why didn’t I win?” or “What didn’t you like?” Instead, ask if he/she would give you a quick appraisal so you can learn or so you can tell the owner. Some non-threatening, friendly question that implies you really want to learn.

A few people reading this article may have attended a UKC show where Belgian Sheepdogs (UKC puts all four varieties into one classification) were being judged. This breed, alone among the several hundreds eligible to enter UKC shows, is required by their parent club to be critiqued thoroughly. The method, however, is cumbersome, boring to spectators, and tiresome to dogs and exhibitors. For most of the show, the individual dog, with handler, stands alone (without its competition in the ring) while the judge dictates a detailed critique to an assistant, who laboriously writes it all down on a proscribed form. Meanwhile, the owner or assistant stands several paces away, in front of the dog, trying to keep the dog alert: ears up and otherwise animated. Most dogs quickly get bored with the lengthy process. If they would use tape recorders and have each critique transcribed by clerks while the judging process continues with the next entries, it would work smoothly.

More than a century of development has proven the SV system of both judge training and judging critiques to be superior to any other method. However, those who are new to this manner of judging sometimes question why certain things are left out of critiques, mostly show commentaries but occasionally official breed surveys. One reason is that some things are too obvious and not a problem. For example, if I were to judge and critique Rottweilers or terriers, I might not say anything about pasterns, because in these breeds or parts of the world, there might not be a problem—not enough faulty examples. On the other hand, it is so bad in American-line German Shepherd Dogs that a judge would be doing the breed a disservice by ignoring it (which is the case in most AKC rings).

Published critiques in some (especially European) publications or sites will sometimes comment on the correctness of a certain feature in a few dogs, rather than on the fault in the majority. For example, in GSDs there has been, since the early 1980s, a sizeable percentage of dogs with “sloppy hocks”—wobbly or at least not as true as they should be. Thus, a judge who gives critiques might not say anything about the majority, but rather only mention the ones that are remarkable in their correctness. The really horrible ones probably will not show or will be mentioned if they do.

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