What it takes to be the best dog judge

On a cold February day more than two decades ago, Ted Eubank, a dog breeder from Texas, stepped into the ring at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for the first time. It was the first year that Cavalier King Charles spaniels, the silky-eared, saucer-eyed dogs that were Eubank’s specialty, could compete in the prestigious dog show, then held at Madison Square Garden. The crowd around the ring was 10 people deep, he recalled recently.

“Speaking of adrenaline, oh my gosh,” he said.

In the years since, Mr Eubank has become a seasoned Westminster competitor; His Cavaliers, including an indomitable champion named Rocky, have been named the best of his breed multiple times.

But on Monday, Eubank will be a rookie again when he makes his Westminster judging debut. He expects to feel a familiar flutter when he steps into the ring. “I’ll have butterflies,” he said.

More than 2,500 dogs—miniature pinschers, mastiffs and more—will compete at this year’s Westminster Dog Show, the second-longest-running sporting event in the United States. Westminster is a show for winners; only dogs that have accumulated points in other competitions are eligible.

For a dog show judge, receiving an invitation to judge these canine champions is a reward in itself. “I felt like I had won the lottery when the letter arrived,” said Michael Faulkner, of Center Cross, Va., who was a first-time judge at Westminster in 2001. “I actually cried.”

When Sharon Redmer, of Whitmore Lake, Michigan, received her invitation, she was so excited that she “almost dropped the envelope,” she recalls. And Betty-Anne Stenmark, a judge in California, wasn’t prepared when she was selected to judge Best in Show in 2018. “I was sorry there was no champagne in the fridge,” she said.

Choosing the best of the best is as much a science as it is an art, the Westminster judges said. The task requires exacting and rigorous (sometimes seemingly arbitrary) standards to be applied, but also, in the end, it often comes down to personal taste.

“We all see things differently,” said Cindy Vogels, who will be a judge at Westminster for the ninth time this year. “That’s the beauty of it. And that’s what keeps people coming back.”

Westminster is what’s known as a conformation show, and a conformation judge’s job is to assess how well a purebred dog exemplifies its breed: Is that curly-coated dog the platonic ideal of a poodle? Does that golden retriever look like he can recover?

“You are looking at the dogs and trying to determine which dog is giving you the signal that could have done their original job description,” he said. Patricia Craige Trotter, who judged The best of the exhibition in 2021. “What we’re doing is trying to achieve a level of near perfection in creating a working animal.”

Conformation judges must be thoroughly familiar with the breed standards, which articulate the ideal version of each breed in exquisite detail, specifying everything including desired nose pigmentation and preferred facial expression.

In the United States, becoming an approved judge generally requires more than a decade of participation in dog shows, breeding and breeding multiple litters of dogs, producing multiple champions, completing canine anatomy courses, passing at least two tests and one interview, and attending a judging institute, among other requirements.

“It’s harder to become a dog judge than a neurosurgeon, to be honest,” Mr. Faulkner said.

Some judges work only a few shows a year; others work more than 40, traveling to Europe, Asia and Australia for commissions. To win a spot at Westminster, which sends out invitations up to two years in advance, a judge must be established and experienced, said Donald Sturz, who judged Best in Show in 2022 and now serves as president of the Westminster Kennel Club. A Best in Show assignment, in particular, is “the pinnacle for a dog show judge,” he said.

Judges can spend months preparing for Westminster. Mr Eubank, who will be judging eight toy dog ​​breeds and varieties this year, has been reviewing the official breed standards, watching videos of judges at previous shows and reconnecting with some of his mentors who first helped him master the art of canine evaluation. .

Being a good judge also requires quick and clear analytical thinking, said Britt Jung of Houston, who will judge at Westminster for the first time this year. Ms Jung, a former soccer player, feels a responsibility to be in top shape for the dog owners and handlers who have worked so hard to get to Westminster, so she is preparing for the event like an athlete.

“How would I prepare to be ready for a big game?” she said. “I eat well. I make sure I sleep well. I make sure I stick to a routine.”

When judgment day finally arrives, the occasion can seem momentous. The crowds at Westminster dwarf those at many dog ​​shows. “You could feel the electricity in the air when you went out on the mat to judge,” said Ms Vogels, who judged Best in Show in 2012.

A television audience ups the ante. “You hope you don’t fall on your head or catch your heel on something and become famous for all the wrong reasons,” Ms. Stenmark said.

But the judges said their nerves settled and the buzz of the crowd died down as soon as they began doing what they had trained to do: evaluate dogs.

Because the dogs at Westminster are already seasoned champions, a Westminster title can come down to little details: the condition of the coat, the precision of the haircut, or the timing between the dog and its handler as they move around the ring. “Was it pure poetry in motion?” said Mr. Faulkner.

Often, it is the most ineffable qualities that triumph. “It’s that little extra sparkle,” said Ms. Stenmark. When she judged Best in Show in 2018, she selected flynn the bichon frize, a true canine cloud, like its winner. “This dog was asking for it,” she said. “Every time he looked at him, he would walk on the end of his leash and wagging his tail at me, cocking his head and saying, ‘That’s me, right?’”

When Dr. Sturz judged Best in Show, he knew he had found a winner when a hound named trumpet — who ran the spotlight “in her own way, in a way that was beacon of a bloodhound” — gave her goosebumps, she said.

On another night, a different dog might have climbed to the top. “You know how great athletes can have a bad night? Well, so can big animals,” said Ms. Trotter.

Although breed standards provide blueprints, judges have their own preferences and priorities. For some judges, Eubank said, judging a Cavalier King Charles spaniel is mostly about finding a pretty face. (He breed standard demands a “sweet, gentle, melting expression”). But to Mr. Eubank, who grew up with super-athletic sporting dogs, a winning Cavalier must also move beautifully around the ring.

The public, which can be boisterous in Westminster, often has its own preferences. But if there is wisdom in the crowd, a conformation judge cannot trust it. Audience members “just get excited about something and like it,” Ms Vogels said. “They don’t have the experience to know if it’s great or not.”

The evaluation of dog shows has its drawbacks. The journey can be exhausting. Dog bites are an occupational hazard. And where there are winners, sometimes there are sore losers. “You’re brilliant if the dog wins, and you’re a jerk if the dog doesn’t win,” said Ms. Stenmark.

Still, the judges said they couldn’t imagine giving up the chase, which they’re drawn to for a variety of reasons. “I guess it’s my drug of choice,” said Ms. Stenmark, who said she was “thrilled” when she saw a superlative new dog enter the ring.

For Mr. Faulkner, who is also an artist, judging dogs engages the creative parts of his brain. “I love the gestalt, parts-to-whole approach to evaluating breeding stock,” he said. “And I love balance and symmetry.”

And then, of course, there are the dogs. Although Mr. Eubank is still a gentleman, he adores all the breeds he will be judging on Monday.

“I love pugs, I love mini pins,” he said, referring to miniature pinschers. “I love the Pekingese.”

Pomeranian? “They are the cutest.”

havanese? “Crazy for them,” she said. “I love you all.”