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Whither the Critque?








Lisa Warren



                 The tradition of the judge writing a critique after completing a judging assignment is alive and well in many parts of the world. These critiques are usually published in the dog press, whether it be an all breeds dog newspaper, or a club newsletter. It may take the form of a general assessment of the overall quality and qualities found in the breed, or it may give an assessment of each dog judged, or only the winners and place-getters. Some combine the breed overview and the observations of the individual dogs. Those critiques that avoid assessing the individual animals are necessarily easiest on the exhibitors , as one can assume that all of the negative points are about the dogs owned by others, and all of the positive points are about one’s own dogs. These write ups are eagerly awaited by the exhibitors, and of course, the critique itself gets critiqued!  Alas, this practice is uncommon in the United States, and I feel that much would be gained if such a tradition could be established at specialty shows here. Certainly we all go away from some shows wondering just why a certain decision was made. Often the judges notes would make that clear, or at least offer some suggestion as to the elements that were factored into the decision. If it is not possible to tell at ringside what elements are most important to a particular judge, then a critique, albeit after the fact, might give the exhibitor some ideas about whether or not to exhibit certain dogs (or anything, ever again!) to that judge in the future.

From the judge’s point of view, it would be a comfort to know that a decision that is carefully determined, but that is almost certain to be misunderstood from ringside, can be explained in the write-up. The subtleties of some important structural elements  for breed function are not always readily apparent to the eye alone, and the judge may be privy to some features of the dog that are felt rather than seen, or seen only upon close examination. In our own breed things like length of keel, bite and depth of underjaw, shape of the ribcage, and the structure of the feet might be difficult to ascertain from outside of the ring. The judge is also afforded the opportunity to make clear exactly what is most valued: it might be soundness, breed type, balance, head, running gear, overall structure or moving outline, but a good critique will probably give the reader some idea of how that judge approaches the breed, and I believe that most clear- minded and confident judges would be grateful for the opportunity to make that known.

Now, if a judge has been asked to write a critique upon the completion of judging, notes will probably be taken during the judging process. Granted, this may slow things down a bit, and kennel clubs and the AKC put great stock in getting it all done as quickly as possible. I feel that this particular mind set is part of the American culture of dog showing, a culture that tends to value showmanship over substance and flash over function. It is little wonder that unsound dogs can prevail in many breeds, our own among them. But I digress. If a judge is making notes at the end of each class, either into a tape recorded or by hand, (at least one European judge takes his laptop computer to the ring and types in his notes after each class) that judge’s concentration is necessarily very focused, and a tendency to be more consistent might emerge in some cases. And knowing a critique is expected, a careful study of the standard is probably going to be a priority before the assignment. The wording of the critique will probably echo phrases in the standard, so the standard’s actual words are likely to be foremost in the judge’s mind if he has studied it recently with critique writing as well as judging in mind.

One of the best things about critiques just might be a contribution toward keeping the judging honest. If a judge is going to be less than objective in the ring, at least that judge is going to have to try to justify his decisions in writing and, knowing that up front, some might find it more palatable to forego the games, do the right thing, and actually judge the dogs.  And perhaps those that are not prepared to do the right thing, whether intellectually or ethically, might not accept those specialty assignments where a critique is expected. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing boon to our sport? Sure, a master game player might find a way to write up a justification of his actions, but at least he is going to have to add lying on paper to his list of sins, and then the rest of the fancy will actually have it in writing!

An honest critique can be hard on the exhibitors ego. I know this well, having felt the thrust of the judge’s felt- tipped sword myself. But, you know what? He was right. He was right about something that I had not realized about my own dogs, and I became a better breeder for having it pointed out to me. We had a very good day under this particular judge, so I went away from that show happily convinced that he had loved our dogs. I would have never had the full benefit of his expertise without having read that critique. But I do remember my initial reaction…I was devastated. Because I had so much respect for the man’s reputation and history in the breed, the negative part of his opinion was a bitter pill to swallow, as good medicine often is. It is often said that an entry fee is paid to get a certain judge’s opinion,  (in truth, don’t we usually pay in hopes of winning under that judge?) but what we get is not an actual opinion, but a ranking. For my money, it is not the same thing, and perhaps the game is worse off for the difference.

I was once asked to submit a critique after judging a specialty overseas, said critique to be published in the club newsletter. That critique was never seen by anyone but the newsletter editor, because he did not like part of what I had observed about one of his dogs! Human nature being what it is, I suppose that isn’t so surprising, but it was quite unfair to anyone else who might have liked to know what the judge for the only specialty of the year in their part of the world thought of their dogs! And whether I as the judge was right or wrong in my observations, perhaps as a result of the critique some discourse among the breeders might have ensued that would have been of some benefit to someone.

Sincere breeders need to be able to accept observations of their dogs that include the shortcomings. Why is that we all agree that there is no such creation as a perfect dog, but so many of us cannot accept that our own are flawed? How can we improve our own bloodlines and make contributions to the advancement of the breed if we are unable to accept honest evaluations of our animals? Critiques can serve many purposes, but surely their best contribution could derive from breeders giving earnest consideration to the judge’s observations. The judge is human and will not always be right. But right or wrong, a good critique will give a good breeder something to think about.




© Lisa and Andrew Warren, all rights reserved