Dog Judge

Insider Info

Who decides which dog is the "best of show?" Or which dog is destined to great things as a purebred animal? Dog judges, that's who.

Dog show judges make difficult decisions and know what makes a champion. It takes a deep understanding of what breeds are supposed to look and act like.

According to breeder, exhibitor and judge John C. Ross, learning what each breed should look like is not an easy task. "It's my job as a judge to have [each breed standard] memorized. And some of them are pages long!" he says.

Though you may be able to memorize breed specifications quickly, learning how to judge fairly and consistently takes time. "You definitely get better with experience, no question," says dog judge Lisa Warren. "You are constantly amazed at how much better you feel about judging a certain breed than you did a year ago."

All dog show judges love dogs. Most own purebreds or are breeders themselves. In fact, due to the specialized knowledge it takes to judge some types of dogs, these people are required to breed and exhibit their own dogs for a minimum of 10 years in both Canada and the U.S. before they can even begin training to become a judge.

Breeders and exhibitors make the best judges because they've already been exposed to the idiosyncrasies of showing. Ross explains, "You learn the structure of the dog show and how it's run....You also learn [through osmosis] how to evaluate your own dogs and others."

Evaluating the breed of a dog is only the beginning. Take coats, for example. On a Dalmatian, the spotting pattern is very important. The size of the spots are supposed to be from the diameter of a dime to that of a half-dollar. It's important that the spots be well distributed over the body and not clustered at one end or the other.

That's just some of what you need to know to judge a single breed! The Canadian Kennel Club alone recognizes more than 160 breeds of dog -- there's a lot to learn before you start handing out ribbons.

Dogs fit into seven judging groups:

  • Sporting dogs are bred to hunt game birds, both on land and in the water. The breeds in this group include pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels
  • Hounds are used for hunting other game by sight or scent. The breeds in this group include beagles, bassets and dachshunds
  • Working dogs guard property and are used for search and rescue. Among the breeds in this group are the Akita, boxer, Doberman pinscher and St. Bernard
  • Terriers -- the largest group -- include the bull terrier and Scottish terrier. Terriers were bred to rid property of vermin such as rats
  • Toy dogs were bred to be the prized companions of royalty. This group includes little dogs such as the Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian and pug
  • The non-sporting group includes the chow chow, bulldog, Dalmatian and poodle. These dogs share attributes but don't fit into other groups
  • Herding dogs help shepherds and ranchers herd their livestock. Among this group are the collie, German shepherd and Old English sheepdog

Good judging takes time. In some shows, judges walk up to dogs and inspect them. This is called "bench judging." More common is "ring judging," when dogs are led into a show ring by a handler and put through a series of moves tailor-made for the breed. Hunting dogs are tested at field trials where they retrieve decoys.

Dogs of the same breed are judged together in a category called "conformation." Conformation refers to how well the dog meets the standards of the breed. The judges look at appearance, temperament and movement. They use a standard guide written by breeders to tell them what a dog should look like.

A perfect beagle, for instance, looks like this, according to Ross: "It would have to be between 13 and 15 inches. It would have to have proper angles and move the way a beagle should -- because a beagle shouldn't move the way an Afghan or a Dachshund does," he says. Ross, an all-breed judge, has these qualities memorized.

The winning dog in each category at a show is then entered in the Best of Show contest against the best of all other breeds. Winning the show helps a dog accumulate points toward becoming a champion.

Champion dogs go to stud, producing puppies that are sold to breeders for high prices. That's why dog show winners often have names such as Champion Remin's Braggart Soldier ML. That means Braggart Soldier is the puppy of Remin, a dog that was a national champion. The ML stands for miniature longhair because the dog in question is a dachshund. A long name for such a small dog!

If you are interested in this activity, bear in mind that it will take many years and thousands of dollars for you to become a judge. Ross says aspiring judges should play an active role in shows and official functions. You could, for example, volunteer your time as a show secretary, superintendent or ring steward.

Judges often start out by owning a purebred dog, exhibiting the dog at shows or obedience trials and joining a local club. It costs money to keep the dog in tip-top physical shape, put it through quality obedience schools and enter it into shows.

You are required to pay an entry fee in order to put your dog in a show. These fees can be anywhere from $22 to $75, depending on the size of the show. Some people hire professional handlers to take their dogs around to shows.

If you really love this activity, you may find some work related to it. Judges at larger shows may receive pay, but most are volunteers.

A judge needs to be able to maneuver around the dogs in order to see and feel just what's beneath all that fur. Warren has seen a judge with one arm and one judge with a leg brace.

A wheelchair, however, may inhibit the judge from feeling the dog in its standing position. As well, says Warren, owners would likely object to a judge in a wheelchair because "they would be afraid that it would frighten the dog."

Warren and Ross agree that there seems to be an even number of women and men judging dogs.

Getting Started

The best way to find out more about this activity is to get involved! Go to a dog show, and then start volunteering. You'll learn as you're working.

As Warren puts it, "You don't just decide you're going to start judging dogs." Becoming a dog judge requires a 10-year self-guided apprenticeship. This typically includes owning a purebred dog yourself, showing and breeding, and getting involved with shows and associations.

Then you can apply to become a dog judge.

After the first (and only!) written exam, candidates are granted permission to judge half of a group. Observed by secret officials, new judges go on to work their first show. If the officials are satisfied with the judge's performance, they give him or her permission to judge two more shows.

If, after these shows, the official observers are still satisfied, the candidate is granted permanent status as a judge of that half-group.

Judges are allowed to move up in status at a rate of one half-group per year until they reach group three. After that, they're able to move up at a rate of one whole group per year until they become qualified to judge all seven groups.

To get started on training your own dog, contact kennel clubs in your area, where you'll be exposed to many breeds of dogs and dog owners. Kennels also offer seminars and courses, usually coinciding with larger dog shows.


American Dog Show Judges, Inc.

American Kennel Club

Dog Judges Association


Dog Show Judging


Apprentice Judge Program
A program sponsored by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association

The granddaddy of dog shows, held by the Westminster Kennel Club

Dog Judging Resources
Lots of links to other sites with handy information for dog judges

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