I was sitting down to write an article for the Los Angeles County GSDC so they might be a little better prepared for my judging their show Apr. 25, 1999, but then realized most exhibitors will not be members and would not see the newsletter. Thus, I am offering this to any and all. If you want to put it on a website or use it in any other way (wrap fish, line puppy pen) feel free to do so.
Have you looked through the GSD magazines with any idea of comparing the pictures to those of other breeds, or even to the way this breed was presented in the 1960s and before? Have you noticed how different the American AKC GSD looks compared to others in the world? Or perhaps you have not looked beyond our borders at all. If some of what I will say here is “old hat” to you, please forgive me and understand that I hope to reach a broad cross-section of exhibitors, and the GSD fancy is overwhelmingly composed of novices to whom this will be new.
If you intend to show a GSD under me, you should be prepared to show it in the manner that suits me the best, and thus you will insure the best possible chance of your dog living up to its potential. If you show a dirty dog with inch-thick tartar on its teeth to a judge who doesn’t appreciate the apparent lack of care (believe me, it happens everyday), you shouldn’t be surprised if a lesser dog beats yours under some of those judges. Likewise, if you set up a dog in a pose that detracts from its qualities and exaggerates other features, you will probably not do very well in close competition. What I am saying here is the same thing your mother said to you the night of your first date, or your dad or school counselor might have stressed before your first job interview: “First impressions count!” A handler who gives the judge an unfavorable first impression is starting off with a handicap, and he might not be able to entirely overcome it later; this is especially true when there is close competition in quality, and when it is an all-breed show where the judge is more tightly constrained by time limits and another judge is scheduled for his ring at a particular time.
So, how should the dog look when it enters my ring and I get the first looks at it? While I am famous for saying “Character is number one”, in this article I shall assume all entrants are of equally good temperament, and concentrate on structure and appearance. Later we can look at movement. I use the international style of examining individuals, recording them on a notepad as being excellent, very good, good, less than promising, etc. If the class is very small, very little note-taking is needed. If large, I would divide the SG (very good) into SG+, SG, and SG- and do the same with the V (excellent) dogs; the G and lesser-quality groups seldom have enough to subdivide them. Since the 1994 National, when some people complained or questioned my extensive note-taking and rating, I modify the amount based on the club’s desires for detail in the critique. I felt it important to rate every dog from first to last in the National, and in many shows now, I will critique only those placing. However, while I’m on that subject, if you want a critique, stay in line and ask before you leave the ring.
The very first impression of dogs in a class will be one of general attitude, proportions, size, and pigment. A dog with assurance, bearing, expression, and joy will standout, especially if it has correct structure. If I see such standouts, I will usually note their armband/catalog numbers and double check my first picture when I do “the individuals”. A class is usually given a single trip around the ring after all are in, for a few reasons. Any lame dogs might be quickly obvious (in AKC shows, excusal or dismissal from the ring is mandatory), the best gaits can often be seen right away, the younger dogs get an idea of where they are to turn, and the picture of relative quality and proportions can be cursorily assessed. If your dog limps in my ring, though, and you’d still like a complete critique, let me know, and we can do that before it must retire for the day.
After the class is complete and has taken a tour of the ring, the individual exams begin. In some cases, such as a big entry at an all-breed show, or a time constraint where the breed winner will be needed in the group ring, I will segregate the dogs by side-view, standing structure before the exams. I had an entry of some 250 Rottweilers and Shibas at the Scottish KC show last year, and that saved a lot of time, enabling the Rottie to make it to the Group ring in time. By looking at front angles, foot placement, body proportions, etc., you can get a very close prediction of how they will move, and very little change is necessary, mostly due to dentition, temperament, and soundness in elbows and hocks. Once the first dog is set up, the process intensifies. At this point I urge all exhibitors to note what the judge does with the first dog, so you won’t have to be told. Playing dumb gets you no points. One time when I was handling, I was second in a line of adult Dalmatians (no pups entered), with the (British) judge being so fat he couldn’t bend over to check testicles. He told the first handler to pick the dog up by its legs so he could see the testicles. The handler was confused, as all of us were, never having run into this exam style before. He picked up the dog’s rear legs (of course the tail was in the way), and the judge impatiently shook his head and instructed him how to pick the dog up into a two-legged stance so all that was necessary was a glance down the belly of the dog. Well, when it was my turn, I picked the dog up the right way as if I’d been doing it that way for years. We got best of breed that day, and first impressions helped, I am sure.
I will want to see the GSD in as natural a stance as possible. After you get the signal from me to walk the dog to me so I can check the temperament, I will expect the dog to be set up in a NON-exaggerated pose, or even let the dog set himself up. Puppies may need some help, but I expect adults to have some self-control as well as handler control. The right stance, for me as well as judges all over the world outside AKC and CKC, is for the rearmost leg to have the metatarsus (you may call it the “hock”) VERTICAL. This does not mean a little more than vertical so the dog’s topline is sloped; it means vertical. I want all dogs posed the same way, with minor variations, because I am supposed to be ranking them as well as rating them (two different things). The “inside” rear leg should be set by you or the dog so that the toes are not further forward than the stifle joint. The more a dog’s angulation deviates from the “golden middle” of functionality, the uglier the exaggerated pose makes it look, whether the dog is straight as a chow or stands with a back foot a yard behind him. Both these extremes would benefit from very little forward placement of that inside leg. From the side, I want to see a “normal” hindquarter assembly, and the dog that crouches with stifle lower than hock is not normal in the working-dog sense of the word. I take von Stephanitz at his word when he said that a GSD must be a working dog (or he is not worthy of the name). Therefore, I will be looking for a dog I can envision being able to work all day because of drive (attitude) and structure. A ski slope that is manufactured by exaggerated posing only serves to make the dog look even straighter in front and incorrect in rear than he might be if he were the one to decide how to stand.
The pose should also show “working dog” structure in front. A good shoulder layback combined with a long, well-angled upper arm is what an all-day herder, police dog, or jumper needs to keep from breaking down and pounding. A straight front, which is the curse of American linebreeding, is usually accompanied by a “swan neck” by which I mean the head is held so high and the neck so vertical that it almost appears the ears are in a direct vertical line with the elbows. Ideally, the dog should be standing with the neck coming out of the forequarters at about a 45-degree angle, alert, ready to move forward and do whatever work is required. A dog that looks like it is trying to tuck its lower jaw into its throat may pass muster with Gomer Pyle’s sergeant, but not with me. It only makes a poor front look worse and doesn’t help the good or mediocre ones, either. By the way, this is one of the few times a double-handler will help. If the dog is trained to stand quietly (and the doubler is, also), the dog will be alert, as up on its toes as it’s going to get, and the head can be forward instead of up. The “first impression” here is very important because this determines in what order I will later pull the dogs out for the extended gaiting. If you set up your dog to make it look abnormal, you will start farther back in that line-up, and may never catch up to where you might have been. The first look tells me if and how well the dog meets the Standard; the later look at gaiting tells me only how well the dog moves. Since many breeds move, what does that mean? I’m not judging the Herding Group at a specialty like this, so which “look” do you think I’m going to give more emphasis to? Right! The one that helps me decide how the dogs measure up to the Standard, not to other breeds, speeds, or pizzazz.
Therefore, practice setting up your dog to show its 100 years of history, function, working ability, and moderation. Then we can have fun sorting out the more minor differences in gait. By the time we get to the extended group gaiting portion, I will have already noted and penalized the worst pasterns and rewarded the best upper arms, so it shouldn’t surprise the spectators that the dogs up front will be hitting the ground with less impact and firmer feet, while those toward the back may be the ones that land as if they are wearing socks too long for their front feet, and that jostle over the shoulder blades after they have run a while. A dog that is posed correctly and has the structure to go with it will drive with more sureness and power, and his back will remain firm no matter how old he gets or how long he runs. The beginning of the extended gaiting will be at a walk, as the Canadian specialty judge Fraser Anderson taught me more than 30 years ago, and the SV reinforced in the past decade. Here we can see what you saw in the pose, with length of stride confirming the proportions and angles we noted earlier. The fast gaiting, next, is more to prove or confirm what has already been shown in the standing exam and the walk. And it also raises the excitement level and heart rate for those handlers who need it!
Good luck. If you love your dog, you will be a winner in my book whether you get a ribbon or not.