The Westminster Dog Show was held earlier this month, and I watched part of it. Owning two English Springer Spaniels, I watched the Sporting Group competition and then the Best in Show competition in which one of the seven group winners won the Best in Show prize.

At the beginning of the Best in Show competition, one of the announcers mentioned something that caught my attention.  In talking about the judge, the announcer mentioned that the judge had previously judged certain breeds and not others and so may be biased.

Bias- I never thought about it having a role in judging dogs. But, a 2010 article in the New  York Times entitled  Hype, Money and Cornstarch: What it Takes to Win at Westminster by David Segal noted  that the not so secret key to success at this and the other top dog shows is money. Very much the way money is spent on advertising and campaigning by nominees for the Oscars, the same is true with dogs:

…money will quietly play a role in determining the winner, just as money quietly shaped the field of contenders and just as money shapes almost every nook and cranny of the dog show business.

Among breeders, owners and handlers, it’s understood you can’t just turn up with the paradigm of the breed, if such an animal exists, and expect a best-in-show ribbon. To seriously vie for victory, a dog needs what is known as a campaign: an exhausting, time-consuming and very expensive gantlet of dog show wins, buttressed by ads in publications like Dog News and The Canine Chronicle. (Id. at 1.)

The article notes that such a campaign includes roughly 150 dog shows a year which requires the cost of a professional handler, plane tickets and other travel expenses plus about $100 000 a year on advertising (in 2010 dollars!)  such that a “top-notch” campaign can cost more than $300,000 a year.  (Id. at 2.)

And then there are the professional handlers:

[There is a] “… widely perceived bias in favor of professional handlers, and campaigning dogs, known to insiders as “specials”. Nobody thinks the outcomes are rigged. But it’s assumed that the playing field is far from even, especially at major events.” (Id. at 3.)

Thus, while the judges deny favoritism, they know who the professional handlers are and implicitly think that if a particular handler is handling a dog, the dog must be good; otherwise, the professional would not be wasting his/her time and reputation on showing a particular dog. (Id. at 3-4.) And, without doubt, “every judge brings his or her own priorities and preferences to the task” of judging. (Id. at 3.)

Anyone who has watched a dog show has learned that a dog is judged by how closely it “embodies the breed standard defined by the American Kennel Club. “(Id. at 3.)

Thus, as Hal Herzog, Ph.D.  points out in his  2014 article, The Dog Show vs. The Olympics: The Judges’ Dilemma, the judge for the best in show  competition “is not supposed to compare the animals directly against each other. Rather, [the judge’s] charge is to evaluate each dog how close it comes to the elusive Platonic ideal-the official American Kennel Club “breed standard”. “(Id. at 4.)  And unlike other major competitions such as the Olympics where there are several judges using a scoring system, and thus a way to combat implicit bias, the Best in Show is selected by a single judge without any sort of scoring system but using a “standard” that may be a bit ambiguous. (Example, Clumber spaniels are to be “independent thinkers” and have a “pensive expression.” “Huh?” (Id.))

As Dr. Herzog concludes, the Westminster Dog Show violates the “major principles of good judging” by having a single judge who is comparing “apples to oranges”. (Id.)

Even so, I will still watch it as will many other dog lovers: as biased as the outcome may be, it is still fun to watch.

FYI: Buddy Holly- the petit basset griffon Vendéen (from the hound group) won the Best in Show this year beating over 3000 other dogs.  It is the first time this breed won at Westminster.

… Just something to think about.


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