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Who’s a Good Boy? Ask These Westminster Judges
For dog lovers, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the ultimate championship event. Every February, nearly 3,000 dogs descend upon New York City and compete in various breed-specific categories in hopes of being crowned Best in Show.
Judging these dogs are experts in the field, who have spent years studying the standards of each breed and what it takes to be a top-notch representative of that breed. But what exactly are these judges looking for? What qualities make a dog stand out in a sea of competitors? We spoke with a few Westminster judges to find out.
First and foremost, unsurprisingly, judges are looking for a dog that adheres to the breed standard. “The breed standard is a blueprint for what this animal should look like, how it should move, how it should behave,” says judge Dr. Steve Keating. “Our job is to evaluate the dogs in front of us in comparison to what the breed standard asks for.”
This means judges are taking into account things like size, shape, coat texture, and coloration, as well as more subtle qualities like gait and temperament. “We’re looking for that X-factor, that je ne sais quoi,” explains judge Bill Shelton. “For example, in a German Shepherd, we want that regal bearing and self-confidence. In a Dalmatian, we want that happy-go-lucky, outgoing temperament. When a dog embodies all the qualities of their breed, that’s when we get excited.”
But how do judges separate a good dog from a great one? For many, it comes down to how well the dog presents itself in the ring. “The dog is like a model,” says judge Ken Buxton. “They have to strut their stuff, bring attention to themselves, and show themselves off. When we see a dog that’s confident, alert, and attentive, that catches our eye.”
Of course, presentation alone won’t cut it. Judges also want to see a dog that’s athletic and well-structured. “We’re looking for a dog that’s not only beautiful to look at, but can actually perform the tasks their breed was originally created for,” says Keating. “For example, a good Sporting dog should be able to retrieve a bird, a good Terrier should be able to dig out a rat. It’s important to remember that these dogs were bred with a purpose, and we want to see that purpose shining through.”
While breed-specific traits are important, judges are also looking for dogs that stand out from the crowd. “We want to see a dog that’s got something special about them,” says Shelton. “It could be their exceptional movement, their incredible coat, or their amazing personality. Whatever it is, it’s something that sets them apart from all the other dogs we’ve seen that day.”
Judging at Westminster is a marathon, not a sprint, with dozens of breeds being evaluated over the course of multiple days. For judges, staying focused and objective is key. “We always have to remember that we’re there to judge the dogs, not the people handling them,” says Buxton. “We have to be able to separate our emotions from the dogs we’re evaluating. It’s not always easy, but it’s crucial.”
Despite the pressure of the event, judges agree that there’s nothing quite like judging at Westminster. “There’s just something magical about being there,” says Keating. “The energy in the room is palpable, and you feel like you’re a part of something really special. And at the end of the day, we get to crown the Best in Show, which is a huge honor.”
So, who’s a good boy? Well, according to these judges, it’s a dog that adheres to the breed standard, presents itself well in the ring, performs the tasks it was bred for, and has that special something that sets it apart from its peers. And while not every dog can be a top contender at Westminster, the judges say that every dog is a good boy or girl in their own way. “Every dog has something unique to offer, and that’s what makes them so special,” says Shelton. “At the end of the day, we’re just happy to be surrounded by these amazing animals, and to be a part of the Westminster tradition.”