Last year I made the decision to put my judging activities on hold because my 91 year old mother who now lives with me requires full time care. It was my decision and one I was happy to make for the one surviving parent to whom I owe everything.
When I made the decision it was Mum, who knows my “honorary nephew”, who said I should never give up the Split Summer Night Shows because she realised how much affection I have for this event and the incredible people who work so hard to make it happen. Even on this trip she was phoning regularly from my sister’s, asking “are you sure Ante is managing OK?”
Despite the depression, negativity and worry that concerns me about the world I have loved for half a century, after the last night of Split I realised that there is a glimmer of optimism when I saw so many people ENJOYING a dog show, whether they had won or lost. Most importantly so many were YOUNG people who are the lifeblood of our sport if it is to survive. Never before have I seen so many talented Junior Handlers in the ring together, and at well past what should be their normal bed time! Many of these youngsters were competitive in the ring but over the week formed friendships that I am sure will last.
I was watching exhibitors dancing in the same ring as the judges who would - an hour later - be judging their dogs in the big ring. Did I think this was corrupt, inappropriate or in bad taste? No! I thought this could be the saving of the dog world because some people have the intelligence to believe that there are still those who are capable of walking in the ring and judging DOGS, regardless of factual associations or imagined connections.
I haven’t judged regularly for more than a year and so maybe now I have a clearer perspective and see things differently. Sometimes it is necessary to stand back and look at things from a distance when you can see the wood for the trees.
I see the game players and the politicians whose knowledge of canine anatomy, construction and breed type is utterly eclipsed by their fragile egos and ruthless ambition. I have watched the power brokers who establish themselves within their own Kennel Clubs, then try to undermine the very people their own national systems have created - and who have brought nothing but glory and honour to their country - because that most destructive of all human emotions (jealousy) kicks in when the leading lights realise that they are not as knowledgeable, passionate or committed as the people they consider a “threat” (usually people who are so quietly confident in their own ability that they don’t need to pimp for appointments and dish out business cards like confetti!) That doesn’t include those whose lack of ability encourages them to run shows so that they can ensure reciprocal assignments - how else could they survive?
I have seen the emergence of “superstars” who can only hold a conversation about which shows (who were stupid enough to invite them) pay the most money and give them the best hospitality, and what breeds and groups they are due to be approved for in the near future - but God forbid you should try to engage them in conversation about BREED TYPE in a breed they judged hours ago!
I can still remember when all judges watched group judging intently. When they saw breeds that were not that numerous in their own country they would ask established all-rounders from overseas (who were more familiar with these breeds) what constituted breed type and they LEARNT. Nowadays if these rising celebrity judges don’t have a job in the big ring they prefer to get to the hotel bar as soon as possible. They have no passion.
I worry about a kind of racism in the sport I love where people are either condemning or - at best - patronising about judges based on their nationality. I have watched over a long period of time many judges from various countries and have often been surprised by the talent of some judges from what some of my countrymen would describe as “little countries” and their knowledge and ability. I was fortunate to grow up in what was considered the mother country of the dog sport but today the UK is just one cog in a huge international wheel. Queen Victoria is dead.
We - the purebred dog world - are facing a scary future with the opposition of these “welfare” organisations who will not rest until dog shows (and the ownership of purebred dogs) cease.
With the exception of the American Kennel Club I don’t see any “governing body” using their financial reserves to fight the corner of our breeds and actively promote purebred dogs and breeders to the general public. The enemy will not go away and it needs to be attacked proactively before dog shows become like circuses - something relegated to the history books.
I have been appalled by the concept of “justice” in my sport where for various reasons punishments do not fit the “crimes”. Certain individuals are made an example of whilst others who commit far worse offences have their crimes brushed under the carpet because of their connections.
On a global basis those from outside could be forgiven for thinking that even amongst ourselves we are at war - but those with more inside knowledge are all too aware that we are not on a level playing field. There is in the sport generally a subliminal level of corruption that almost now seems to be accepted and this depresses me enormously. We have developed an environment of intimidation which stifles opinion in the most intelligent of people who are, sadly, terrified of standing up and being counted for fear of recrimination. It will be interesting to see who comments on this post as I daresay some will agree with much of what I say but fear for their own “standing” if they are seen to be supportive.
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At the root of so much that is wrong in our world is that age-old vice, basic human greed. We see too many people who want it all - they want to judge at the highest level themselves, yet they still want to win the prizes with their own dogs (transferring ownership to a family member or friend so that their dogs can legitimately be shown when they are judging in the next ring), and furthermore want to control who else is allowed to judge, and they want to make the rules. Yet so many of the rule makers are perfectly happy to bend them when it suits.
Every aspect of our sport is under the closest scrutiny - not just from outsiders but from within. These days every judge who walks into the ring is at the mercy of disgruntled exhibitors, ringside critics and amateur photographers who can’t wait to tell the world on Facebook and elsewhere what incompetents they are. Sometimes criticism is totally justified but all governing bodies have established disciplinary procedures which should be used when necessary. Unfortunately blatant dishonesty is very difficult to prove in something as subjective as dog judging. Exhibitors deserve to be judged by people who have an intimate knowledge of their breed, great strength of character and unquestionable integrity. It is hard to fall into this category when your priority is making money, rather than feeling passionate about the breeds and the individual dogs. No judge should ever be out of pocket and judges should have all expenses covered, but there are some who seem to see judging dogs as a source of income ... and some who (I was horrified when I heard people openly discussing this, albeit in hushed tones) see major awards at key international shows as things that can actually be sold in advance on the black market.
Thankfully we still have many judges who are dedicated, honest and knowledgeable and these are not confined to the ranks of breed specialist or all-rounder, or exclusively produced by any particular country. These are people around the world who understand the very essence of the breeds they judge and when in the centre of the ring judge THE DOGS, regardless of who is handling them. There is no shame in putting up a friend if they have the best dog and deserve to win, but I have seen so many judges putting their friends down when they clearly have the best dog on the day in a mistaken belief that this will prove how “honest” they are. Knowingly putting a good dog down is in my opinion far worse than putting a bad dog up. There are still plenty of us who are prepared to acknowledge an exceptional dog as just that, even if it’s owned by our worst enemy.
Most importantly, we still have a nucleus of breeders around the world who are dedicated to their chosen breed, and constantly pursue the dream of producing ever increasing degrees of excellence. Whilst they never compromise their appreciation of breed type they are more than ever conscious of health issues and do everything in their power to ensure that their breeding stock is as healthy as possible. More than ever before there is huge international cooperation between like-minded breeders who see their breed through similar eyes; with the import and export of actual dogs along with the advances in artificial insemination the gene pools are widened and every breed becomes more and more cosmopolitan. This can only benefit dogdom as a whole.
Sadly I see people calling themselves “professional handlers” who should never be let near a dog, so lacking is their understanding of welfare and care, and the actions and stupidity of a minority then tarnish the reputation of the many excellent handlers who are truly professional in everything they do, always putting their dogs’ wellbeing first.
Rival exhibitors are happy to steal photographs of their competitors’ dogs, often unflattering candids, and use them to ridicule the competition shamelessly. This is unforgivable.
The whole future of the purebred dog scene is in crisis and so many within the fancy refuse to acknowledge the reality.
When I arrived in Split I was resigned to the fact that - as my mentor and idol Nigel Aubrey Jones said - we were so fortunate to have come in at the tail end of the “golden years” and dog shows were doomed.
My time spent in Split lifted my spirits and heightened my optimism when I saw so many people actually having FUN at a dog show. Yes, of course some had results that were disappointing but they accepted that judging is very subjective and next week they would receive another opinion. They kept their dogs comfortable and rested but they still wanted to enjoy the atmosphere of a unique event where they were drawn together with people from around the world with a common interest, celebrating outstanding dogs winning.
Yes, the spirit of Split does this to people.
But, that said, on reflection I think I need the Split mentality to become far more widespread before I would consider coming back to a world I never, ever, thought I could live without.
Photo Courtesy Andrew Brace