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As dog show judge, Idaho man determines leader of the pack

A judge looks over Pembroke Welsh corgis at the Spokane Kennel Club dog show, May 29, 2022.
Jmar Gambol
A judge looks over Pembroke Welsh corgis at the Spokane Kennel Club dog show, May 29, 2022.

If you’ve never been to a dog show, you might think it’s all about poodles in tutus performing tricks. But a dog show is less about dubious talent and more about strict standards of appearance, anatomy and movement.

Most modern dog shows are called conformation shows, where the goal is to conform to a written breed standard as closely as possible. Determining which dogs meet those standards – that is, which corgi is the corgiest, or which Great Dane is the Daniest – is the job of a dog show judge.

Experienced judge and Idahoan Rick Gshwender came to Spokane this week to evaluate canine contestants at the annual Spokane Kennel Club show. He will be one of 21 judges at the show, which this year drew 958 dogs and their humans.

“The [American Kennel Club] has over 200 recognized breeds,” Gshwender said in a recent interview. “The standards will describe in detail what the dog looks like.”

Some of the written standards are very exacting (for instance, “color and markings” make up 25 out of a possible 100 points for dalmatians) and others are more generalized. The official standard for greyhounds is a single page; the standard for a Pyrenean Shepherd clocks in at more than 1,900 words and three pages in length.

The standards tell a judge what the dog’s physical form should look like, what kind of coat it should have, and how it should move. The judge evaluates the dogs in person, feeling the dog’s musculature and backbone (called a “topline”), examining its teeth, and watching carefully as the dog walks alongside its handler.

“So you’re looking at what the standard calls for, and how dogs conform to those standards, and then place them accordingly,” Gshwender said.

Gshwender’s career in dog shows began in the late 1970s, when he was a handler. About twenty years later he put a foot into the world of judging, beginning with a single breed: the bouvier, the same type of dog he exhibited and had the most experience with.

“You have AKC reps evaluate your judging. They critique you, and they write up reports on you,” Gshwender said. “You attend seminars, you talk to breeders, and you judge matches. So it’s a learning process, and it’s a long learning process that takes years.”

Gradually, Gshwender built experience with other dog breeds and secured the certification necessary to judge them. Today, he judges more than 100 breeds. He is also licensed to judge broader categories called groups, and Best in Show competitions. His wife, Debra, also judges dog shows and will evaluate more than a dozen breeds in Spokane, including pointers, vizslas, and Australian cattle dogs.

Gshwender arrived in Spokane only two weeks after judging at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York, the country’s most prestigious show. Winning or judging at Westminster is an honor, Gshwender said. He considered his role at this year’s show the highlight of his judging career. But he said the job remains the same regardless of the venue.

“Whether you’re at Westminster, which is all champions and top dogs in the country, or in Spokane or somewhere else, you’re doing the same thing,” he said. “You’re evaluating the dogs in comparison to what you have in competition at that specific show.”

Judges appear at dog shows at the invitation of the local kennel club. It means a judge might have several shows on consecutive weekends, all in different parts of the country, then a quiet period for weeks at a time. But as dog shows shrink and budgets tighten, judges with broad experience may find themselves in high demand.

“The more breeds that you judge, I think the more opportunities you have to get invited,” Gshwender said. “They need judges that can judge more than one group. Bringing people in, covering their expenses and airfare, is such a big part of [the consideration].”

But Gshwender judges for more than a paycheck and a trip across the country. He gets a thrill from seeing contestants whose characteristics match the ideal. An example that stood out in his mind was a giant schnauzer he judged in South Carolina last year. The dog, Gshwender said, was as close to the breed standard as any he’d seen in his career.

Gshwender met the very same schnauzer this month at the Westminster Kennel Club show. The judge was just as impressed, and named the dog the best of its group.

“All the pieces come together,” he said. “It’s fun when you find the good ones.”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.