On a cold February day more than two decades ago, Ted Eubank, a dog breeder from Texas, stepped into the ring for the first time at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. That was the first year that the Cavalier King Charles spaniel – a dog with smooth ears and disc-shaped eyes that was Mr. Eubank’s specialty – was allowed to participate in the prestigious dog competition, which was then held at Madison Square Garden. Recently, he recalled that the crowd around the ring was up to 10 people.
“Speaking of adrenaline, my goodness,” he said.
In the years since, Mr. Eubank has become a seasoned opponent of Westminster; His cavalry, including an undaunted champion named Rocky, have been repeatedly named the best of their breed.
But on Monday, Mr Eubank will be a rookie again when he makes his debut as a Westminster judge. He hopes to feel a familiar vibe when he steps into the ring. “I will have butterflies,” he said.
More than 2,500 dogs — small warblers, mastiffs and more — will compete in this year’s Westminster Dog Show, the second-oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States. Westminster is a show for winners; Only dogs that have scored at other competitions are eligible.
For a dog show judge, receiving an invitation to judge these canine champions is an award of its own. “I felt like I won the lottery when the letter arrived,” Michael Faulkner, of Center Cross, Va., who first assessed at Westminster in 2001, said. “I actually cried.”
When Sharon Redmer, of Whitmore Lake, Mich., received her invitation, she was so excited that she “nearly dropped the envelope,” she recalls. And Betty-Anne Stenmark, a judge in California, was unprepared when she was selected to judge Best in Show 2018. “I’m sorry there’s no champagne in the fridge,” she said.
The Westminster judges said picking the best of the best was both a science and an art. The task requires the application of exacting, rigorous (sometimes arbitrary) standards, but in the end it often comes down to personal preference.
“We all see things differently,” said Cindy Vogels, who will judge at Westminster for the ninth time this year. “That’s the beauty of it. And that’s what keeps people coming back.”
Westminster is known as a profile show, and the profile rater’s job is to gauge how well a purebred dog performs for its breed: Is that poodle a Plato’s ideal of a poodle? Does that golden retriever look like it can get it?
“You are observing dogs and trying to determine which dog is giving you the signal that it may have completed its originally described job,” says Patricia Craige Trotter, reviewer Best in the program in 2021. “What we’re doing is trying to get to a near-perfect level of making an animal that works.”
Shape raters must have a clear understanding of breed standards, which state the ideal version of each breed in exquisite detail, specifying everything including desired nose pigmentation. and favorite facial expressions.
In the United States, becoming an approved judge typically requires more than a decade of attending dog shows, breeding and raising multiple litters, creating a number of champions, completing courses in dog anatomy, pass at least two tests and interviews and enter a contest. Institute reviews, among other requirements.
“It’s harder to be a dog examiner than a brain surgeon,” said Mr Faulkner.
Some judges only work a few shows a year; others work over the age of 40, traveling on business in Europe, Asia and Australia. To win a position at Westminster, where invitations are sent two years in advance, a judge must be established and experienced, said Donald Sturz, who said. rated as the best in the program in 2022 and is currently the president of the Westminster Kennel Club. In particular, the Best in Show mission is “the pinnacle for a dog show judge,” he said.
Judges can spend months preparing for Westminster. Mr. Eubank, who will be evaluating eight breeds and a variety of toy dogs this year, reviewed official breed standards, watched review videos at past shows and reconnected with several mentors. of his, who first helped him master the art of dog evaluation.
Britt Jung, of Houston, who will judge for the first time at Westminster this year, says being a good judge also requires quick and clear analytical thinking. Ms. Jung, a former football player, feels a responsibility to be at her best for dog owners and groomers who have worked so hard to get to Westminster, so she is Prepare for this event like an athlete.
“How am I going to get ready for a big game?” she speaks. “I eat well. I make sure I get a good night’s sleep. I make sure I follow a routine.
Golden hour of dogs
When judgment day finally arrives, the opportunity can feel very important. The crowds in Westminster overwhelm the crowds at many dog shows. Ms Vogels, who did the assessment, said: “You can feel the electricity in the air when you step off the carpet to evaluate. Best in the program in 2012.
A TV audience bets. “You hope you don’t fall and hit your head or trip over something and become famous for the wrong reasons,” Ms. Stenmark said.
But the judges said their nerves calmed and the crowd noise subsided as soon as they started doing what they’ve been trained to do: sizing the dogs.
Because the dogs of Westminster are already seasoned champions, the title of Westminster can depend on small details: the condition of the coat, the accuracy of the haircut or the synchronicity between the dogs. dog and handler as they move around the ring. “Is it just pure poetry in motion?” Faulkner said.
Usually, the more indescribable qualities win the day. “It was a little extra sparkle,” Ms. Stenmark said. When evaluating Best in Show in 2018, she chose the bichon frise Flynn, a true cloud of fangs, is her winner. “This dog asked for it,” she said. “Every time I looked at it, it would come out of its head and wag its tail at me and then nod its head and say, ‘That would be me, wouldn’t it?'”
When Dr. Sturz rated Best in Show, he knew he had found a winner when a hunting dog named Trumpet – who commands the limelight “in his own way, in a way befitting a hound” – gave him goosebumps, he said.
On another night, another dog might have made it to the top. “You know how great athletes can get a night off? Well, big animals too,” said Mrs. Trotter.
Although breed standards provide blueprints, judges have their own preferences and priorities. Mr. Eubank said that for some judges, judging a Cavalier King Charles spaniel is primarily about finding a pretty face. (The breed standard requires a “sweet, tender, melting expression.”) But for Mr. Eubank, who grew up with super strong sports dogs, a winning Cavalier also has to move beautifully around the ring.
Audiences, which can be boisterous in Westminster, often have their own preferences. But if there is wisdom in the crowd, it cannot be trusted by a configuration judge. “Audiences just look at something and they like it,” Ms. Vogels said. “They don’t have the expertise to know if it’s great or not.”
Dog show reviews have its downsides. The trip can be tiring. Dog bites are an occupational accident. And where there are winners, sometimes there are painful losers. “You’re smart if the dog wins, and you’re an idiot if the dog doesn’t win,” Ms. Stenmark said.
However, the judges said they could not imagine giving up the pursuit, which they were attracted to for a variety of reasons. “I guess that’s my drug of choice,” says Ms. Stenmark, who said she was “emotional” when she saw a new best dog come into the ring.
For Mr. Faulkner, who is also an artist, evaluating dogs engages the creative part of his brain. “I like the whole part approach to herd evaluation,” he says. “And I love balance and symmetry.”
And then, of course, there are dogs. Although Mr. Eubank is still a Cavalier man, he loves all the breeds that he will be evaluating on Monday.
“I love pug, I love little pins,” he said, referring to the miniature pins. “I love Beijing.”
Pomeranians? “They are the cutest.”
Havan? “Go crazy for them,” he said. “I love them all.”