How Do Dog Show Judges Select One Winner From So Many?

Pointers at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

Pointers await their judgment at Westminster. Photo by Lisa Croft Elliott

With so many dogs competing for Best of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, how the heck does a judge decide between more a few dozen canines that basically look the same?

In a nutshell, it’s a subjective decision, with each judge applying his or her interpretation of the breed standard regarding all sorts of things like height, weight, coat, colors, eye colors, ear shape, feet, tail, testicular plumpness… as well as general appearance and temperament.

“I find judging, to some degree, baffling,” says Josh Dean, author of the book Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, in an interview with me recently. “Particularly at a big show, it strikes me — as a guy who’s still basically a novice — as an impossible task to pick the best dog out of a bunch of great dogs. But I do think that most judges tend to know the breeds in front of them so well that they’re seeing things I’m not.”

But there’s more to judging the bigger dog shows than this.

Going With the Flow

It might also help if the dog has a little momentum going into an event like the granddaddy of them all, Westminster. Picking up a few Best in Shows at other, lower events only helps your odds on the road to the top. “I heard it said numerous times that judges are indeed swayed by momentum,” says Dean. “They think that if a dog has won often lately it must be a great dog, and so who are they to disagree. Judges don’t want to risk looking stupid in the eyes of their peers. Their popularity is what gets them assignments, after all.”

“Judges are inevitably going to be drawn to dogs they’ve seen before,” Dean tells me, specifically pointing out that advertisements promoting particular dogs are a primary means for getting the word out. Owners can spend crazy cash building a buzz campaign around their dog, in the hopes of creating the appearance of an inevitable win in the judges’ mind.

The Contrarian

Then again, some judges refuse to go with the flow. “It’s worth pointing out that there’s another type of judge who likes to be contrarian,” Dean says. “These people will intentionally pick against a dog on a run just to show their own independence. This isn’t really a bad thing, honestly. Because unless you’re at a podunk show, I guarantee that if we’re talking about a decent-sized field, there are at least a couple other dogs legitimately as good as the one on a roll.”

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We’ve been covering the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show since 2011. You might enjoy these related posts:

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