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How to Judge a Dog Competition
By Mona Sabalones Gonzalez
Note: This article came out in the January issue of Animal Scene, the Phiippine's most famous animal magazine. Below is my unedited version.
I am related, by marriage, to Joya Gonzalez, owner of Domino Haus (a dog show firm) and Songs From The Heart (an events firm for concerts). If you have ever happened to be in a mall while a dog show was going on, it is probably Joya’s.
Domino Haus conducts dog show competitions for SM, Starmall and Robinson’s, to name a few. Joya has so many bookings that she keeps a list of judges that she can count on, including my husband Ed and me.
In the United States, dog show competitions are usually All Breed shows, Specialty shows limited to one specific breed, or agility competitions. But Filipinos love to have a bash, so Joy conducts dog fashion shows, or shows related to holidays like Halloween, Philippine Independence Day, and the like.
Through the years, I have seen her dog shows grow in popularity and Filipinos have tremendous imaginations. They go all out in creating costumes for their dogs, using a wide range of materials. This year, for the first time, an aspin won a fashion competition. The costume was made of rubber, and the dog seemed to look like an anime robot – as did the aspin’s handler.
When you are judging an average of 50 dogs (sometimes more) you can expect disaster, especially if you are a first-time judge. The categories include best in costume (for male and female dogs), best handler and dog costume team, most adorable dog, best dog pair, smallest dog, and largest dog, among others.
What’s more, the categories change every now and then, as do the dogs and the creativity in their dog costumes. Sometimes one category is easy because there are only one or two standouts. Then comes another category and you have 15 really good costumes and you get extremely confused (near-headache quality confusion).
This is usually the case with dogs wearing fabulous women’s wear. You will find dogs with very long trains that drag on the floor and have ruffles and matching hats, bows on the waist, beads in all the right places, and the most amazing turquoise-colored, expensive-looking fabric.
Sometimes a dog will be wearing a beautiful, sequined dress in pina fabric with sinamay wings, and little bracelets on all four feet that glitter under the spotlight. It is also not uncommon for dogs to have a prop, like a parasol made of matching pina with delicate sequins and beads, or a wagon that you pull the dog on and which is perfect for the dog’s size.
Now, if things like these happen only once or twice in a competition, then that isn’t too bad. But when it happens so many times in a single competition you really feel like you’re in a rut. You score one dog very high, then four dogs later you feel like erasing previous scores.
Also, it’s easy to forget which dog is No. 22 as opposed to No. 41. I used to write little notes on the side column to distinguish one dog from another. Later, I tried photographing the dogs that stood out for me.
And I’m ashamed to say this, but on my first judging foray, by the time I reached dog No. 45, I took the easy way out – copying the scores of the judge next to me. Otherwise, I might ask so many dogs to come back so I can look them over, and it can take 45 minutes (which it once did) before the judges could reach a consensus.
How Other Judges Do It
Every judge has a different standard of what they consider to be a good dog. Even if it’s a fashion show, there are usually three columns that you must score, (for example, originality of costume and dog personality). The categories per column sometimes change. The point is, you score each of the three categories, and then the total is the dog’s score.
Every judge has his or her own standards of what makes a costume good, and/or what is a good dog personality. For example, one dog judge, Marilen Kahn, likes dogs that stand perfectly still. More than once I would hear her mumble, “That’s a good dog.” And notice that the dog was obedient, disciplined and did not move to the point that it didn’t even seem to breathe once it took its position on the judging table.
I happen to like dogs that are more energetic. I don’t like dogs that are as still as statues. I wanna see them breathe, let their tongue hang out, wag their tail and sometimes get dragged on the runway just before they reach the table. We all have our own personal yardsticks of what is cute.
My husband, on the other hand, is extremely uncomplicated. He simply knows what he likes and what he doesn’t. He has this tremendous ability to turn himself off until something external makes a light go on inside of him and tells him, “That’s it”.
He explains his style of judging to me in this way, “I judge according to what attracts my attention.” And knowing my husband as he is, I totally believe it. His memory is extremely good, and he has this gift of simplifying complicated situations.
One other thing about him – once he believes in a dog, he will fight tooth and nail to make sure that dog wins. This usually happens during the conference between the judges. Even if he’s the only one who likes that dog, somehow, that dog ends up getting a prize.
How I Improved My Dog Judging Skills
Because I am by nature complicated and quite forgetful and easily confused, I devised a way to improve my dog judging skills. Here are my pointers. If ever you judge a dog show, you may want to consider them:
- Come early. Usually my husband and I arrive early. I used to waste that time talking to people I know who are involved in the event. Now, I realize you can use that early time to guide your final decisions in the dog show.
- Get the list of categories. As soon as you arrive, get the list of categories, and then walk around and observe the dogs that will be joining the competition. Observe the dogs with and without their costumes. Remember that you will be judging the dog’s personality as well as the originality of their clothes, so talk to the owners and ask questions about the dog. Observe the dog’s behavior when it doesn’t realize you’re looking.
- Take photos of the ones that stand out. I find this to be very helpful because I get lost by my 10th dog. With photos I have a general idea of what will be my standard per category.
These preparations don’t mean that you have already chosen a winner. It just means that you have a general idea of what’s in the contest and what you like, and this will help enormously when you score the dogs.
- Have a bottom score for dogs that I am sure won’t make it. For example, anything 50 or below, for me, won’t win.
- Have an upper range score for dogs you think have a good chance, for example, 85 – 100. This is because although you have seen most of the dogs, out of the blue a new dog will come out and be totally fascinating. Having a range will cut your work to 1/3rd of the job.
- When you think you have chosen your winners, let the dogs parade for one last time in batches of 10. This will give you a last opportunity to reconsider your choices and will help you decide which dogs are your non negotiables when you are discussing the winners that you’ve chosen with the other judges.
The Enjoyment of Dog Competitions
One thing I have noticed about dog competitions – I have yet to see a sore loser. Every dog owner is happy just because, I think, dogs have that effect on people. They generate the love of their masters and they multiply that love many times over.
I am often surprised at some dog owners, especially, owners of dogs that will obviously win because their costumes are so outstanding. As a judge, it seems to me to be a no-brainer, but the handler of the dog always runs forward, face gleaming with pride, great joy, thrill and surprise. This happens many, many times.
Dog shows are about things that Filipinos love. First, Filipinos love their dogs. Second, Filipinos love the chance to innovate in designing the dog’s costume and the handler’s makeup. Third, Filipinos often like to add an X-factor – a prop like a parasol, a dog wagon, or special choreography. Fourth, Filipinos love bling. Dog shows are a bacchanalia of bling.