The Power of Positive Judging

by Wayne Cavanaugh

Sociology 101 teaches us that when humans are speaking, they are most often speaking about other people. Specifically, most of those human conversations involve describing some minor faults of friends and loved ones. The logic is that we focus on the faults of others to feel better about ourselves; we love to fault judge. It follows, quite unfortunately, that we have a natural proclivity to find faults in the dogs we judge both in and out of the ring. This natural human tendency, combined with the fact that it is easier to find faults than virtues, results in compound fault judging at dog shows.

Finding virtues is more difficult than finding faults for one simple reason: you actually have to know the finer points of a breed to find its virtues. Any fool can identify faults. It wouldn’t be difficult to take a person off the street and, in just a few minutes, teach them how to find a bad rear. It could take years to teach them how to find proper Pointer head type or correct make and shape. To be a competent judge, you have to know enough to pick out the positive type characteristics in each individual dog. Then, you have to prioritize those characteristics in your head and reward the dog with the most positives, not the dog with the fewest negatives!

Negative judging doesn’t work for a lot of reasons. The most obvious is because an absence of faults does not mean that a dog has a corresponding number of great virtues. (You might want to read that last sentence twice, it’s important.) Often, the dog that has an absence of glaring faults turns out to be mediocre and generic, a dog lacking in any outstanding breed characteristics. Accordingly, fault judging often rewards the most mediocre dogs in the ring – mediocrity is the drag of the breed! Mediocre dogs may not have many glaring faults but they are certainly the first ones we must learn to leave out of a breeding program to preserve breed type and character. Since judging is, or should be, an evaluation of breeding stock, the problem of rewarding mediocrity through fault judging becomes a serious problem in the breeding shed.

On the other hand, a truly great dog brimming in exquisite type details, the very things that define a breed, often may have one significant or easily observable fault. It is wrong to discard that dog on the basis of that one easily identified fault; especially if we really are evaluating breeding stock instead of a canine beauty pageant. (It’s even more pitiful when a dog is discarded for breaking stride for one good leap on the final go round, or squirming at just the wrong second, but that’s a topic for another day.)

It is said that great dogs ‘carry their faults well’; that is, the dog is so superior in other areas that his fault fades into the background when you recognize his virtues. When you see it, and you cannot see it if you are busy finding faults, it is a beautiful thing to behold.

It’s not so easy to recognize virtues. However, the more you know about a breed, the easier it is to judge that breed based upon the positives. Moreover, if you study a breed long enough and well enough, you may even begin to consider where a breed is currently weak and may reward dogs that have particular strength in that area. In doing so, you can actually have a positive impact on the future of a breed. Of course, the insecure judge can always just point to the flashy dog, the one who “nails the stack”, or the ones with the fewest faults. The fault judges at ringside will nod in approval, and you can ride off into the sunset thinking you were brilliant…even though you just put one more nail in the breed coffin.

It won’t come easy at first. When you walk down a line of dogs the first time, it is too easy to say to yourself: I don’t like that head, I don’t like that topline, I don’t like that front, I don’t like those feet. When you get to the end of the line, you haven’t stored anything in your head that you liked. It’s all negatives.

Instead, walk down the line, and with a picture of the standard in your mind, begin to focus on the positive: beautiful body proportions, correct head shape, eye set, and placement, wonderful legs, bone and feet, perfect tail shape for the breed. When you get to the end of the line this time you have already identified something positive about each dog in the class, and you haven’t even gone over them individually yet. This creates a positive mindset. It sets the tone to begin to celebrate the virtues that make a breed spectacular.

While you continue your examinations, if you make a catalog of positive points in your head and sort your placements based upon the way the standard prioritizes qualities, you will be able to see past the faults that every single dor in the world has. When in doubt, always look to the positives in the original purpose of the breed. Ask yourself, which of these dogs has the most functional characteristics? If it’s still real close, imagine you have one shotgun, one live round, and that you haven’t eaten in days. Then, simply ask yourself which dog you are taking to the field.

If we rely on finding faults in Pointers, we will end up missing those dogs which have the characteristics that define a breed. Like every one of us, not one Pointer is perfect. If we only award ribbons to the dogs with the fewest faults instead of the ones with the most important virtues we are destined to destroy the fabric of the breed. Our forefathers created this breed by combining the most spectacular examples of the dogs at hand, NOT the ones with the least glaring faults. We owe it to the breed to do the same.

CREDIT: This article is reprinted with permission from the August 2010 issue of ShowSight Magazine. While many of the characteristics important in Shih Tzu may be different than those valued in Pointers, the principle of positive judging remains the same, and this article should provide judges and prospective judges with much food for thought.