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Judging: The Weakest Link?

By Gerry MacKenzie | Apr 09, 2019

The winter months always seem to feature cold nights — nights spent relaxing indoors in front of the warmth of a cozy fire. What with the seeming lack of anything worth viewing on network television and the controversy surrounding many of our sports “heroes,” following their “deprived” multimillion dollar careers has diminished their entertainment value, at least to this writer.

So, what better way to while away those hours spent at fireside than reading?

In my youth, back before the days of television, I was a voracious reader, entertaining myself with books from the library, my Dad’s outdoor magazines, the weekly Saturday Evening Post, and as a last resort, comic books. Note the glaring lack of text books in that list, but focus on the word “entertaining”.

Thus, in order to amuse myself on those cold January winter nights, I chose to tear a page out of an old book and do some reading. Some of my favorite subject matter I find in the pages of The American Field’s annual Christmas Issues. Even though I have read most of the articles, re-reading them after a period of time is almost like reading them for the first time.

The first Christmas Number I chose had an article by James C. Foster entitled “Judges and Judging”. It can be found in the 2014 Christmas Issue on page 13.

Conversations I frequently have with former colleagues and other noted experienced field trialers arrive at a consensus that the weakest aspect of the sport today is judging. That being the case, an article bearing such a title caught my eye and prompted me to read it with great interest.

In the first four paragraphs the author offers the premise that there are no dishonest judges. Au Contraire! With fifty years of competition under my belt corroborated by input from those with whom I communicate with frequency it seems Mr. Foster’s point of view came from an “ivory tower” perspective. But then, for the sake of fairness, perhaps dishonest is too strong a word. For now, let’s substitute the word prejudiced.

Reading the aforementioned article did provide the stimulus for writing this piece. In order to establish a broader background on the subject, I read similar articles by Harry Townshend, Horace Lytle, and Jack Harper, and which for the most part dealt with judging standards and attributes which a prospective judge should possess.

Jack Harper’s article began by praising those who would take on such a “thankless job” and how the field trial fraternity owes them a debt of gratitude for, without them, field trials could not exist. He suggests that from his perspective 90% of all judges are honest, but then ironically offers several anecdotes wherein his dogs were blatantly robbed of placements they deserved. Was that so because of dishonesty?

I will offer several such anecdotes in this writing, which in my opinion occurred due to four major reasons. I offer these reasons as the main cause for most judicial blunders. They are: Ignorance, Stupidity (ignorance can be corrected – stupidity can’t), Dishonesty, and Fear, or put another way, lack of self-confidence.

There is an underlying cause for ignorance and fear. Some judges have not had the opportunity to develop a basic understanding as to why bird dogs and related issues such as weather, terrain and game birds’ habits cause the dogs to perform as they do. That understanding has been acquired by many in past generations by going afield and bird hunting, especially when native birds were part of the equation. Because of the decline in game populations and available places to pursue them, very few are afforded that opportunity anymore. They do not acquire that “grass roots” education that a discerning judge should have. Many judges graduate directly from novice field trialers to judicial candidates.

Not only can judging a field trial be a thankless job, it is also a very difficult job. Hours spent in the saddle oftentimes in the most inclement weather conditions negotiating terrain that can be harsh and dangerous on horses the very best of which can be subject to unpredictable sometimes hazardous behavior. All of that to arrive at a decision that at best will only make two people happy, and occasionally only one.

Why then, accept such an assignment? Especially when lack of knowledge and experience should act as a warning that to do so creates a situation where the individual has to be somewhat aware that he or she might be getting into something well over his head?

There is no single answer to this question. Every individual has his own reason for so doing. Perhaps the most prevalent being the prestige attached to a judicial invitation.

I recall when I was but 25 years of age, with all of just one season of field trialing under my belt, and the majority of that at the puppy and Derby level, I was asked to judge the Viszla National Championship at Volo, Illinois. Talk about being in over your head! I had never seen a Viszla and up to then had only judged a couple of puppy stakes. My pride and youthful arrogance would not allow me to decline the offer. Fortunately I was teamed with an person quite familiar with the breed  and who had much judicial experience. Thus disaster was averted.

As the years went by and I gained valuable experience as a fanatic bird hunter, in actual field trial competition, and via exposure to many trials in a variety of venues, I learned to accept assignments that I was confident that I could handle effectively, either as a judge or reporter. Even at that, there were still instances where I felt like a fish out of water, but was usually fortunate to be working with individuals who could help me get through them.

Before getting into some anecdotes I would like to touch on a practice of selecting judges.

Many sponsoring clubs when featuring a full slate of events will assign the puppy and Derby stakes to inexperienced and sometimes beginning judges, assuming they will “learn” at that level.

In reality, the juvenile events should be the most difficult to judge. The separation points that should be used to evaluate the performances are much more subtle when evaluating the youthful performers. What oftentimes happens is that the inexperienced arbiter hangs his hat on the obvious, such as range — how wide and fast the performers run. One should acquire an understanding, by scrutinizing the mature dog events, of what the finished product should entail, before being asked to determine how the candidate gets there.

To offer an oversimplified parallel, a prospective major league baseball scout cannot learn to evaluate a prospect by watching little league baseball. He needs to learn what it takes to make a major leaguer by watching major leaguers.

And so, after offering a rather lengthy foreword to the gist of this article — judicial decisions and the reasons for them — allow me to present many that I have seen or have had related to me by respected colleagues. I will offer my opinion as to what was the reason for each of them. You are free to formulate your own opinion, and offer rebuttal or response.

To begin, let’s go way back to 1975. The venue was the Green River Wildlife Area near Ohio, Illinois. The event was a half-hour open shooting dog stake. It was the first brace of the morning following a night of steady rainfall. The dog in question established a solid point next to a multiflora rose windrow. As the handler and judge were approaching, the dog seemed to relax, and very slowly lowered his head and picked up a dead quail that was apparently what he had pointed. He then turned and carried the bird to his handler who had dismounted and was walking towards him. The handler accepted the bird, wet and lifeless, and told the judge that the bird appeared to have been dead for some time.

“Lemme see that bird,” the judge ordered. Removing a glove, he inserted his index finger as far as it would go into the bird’s rectum, and then declared, “This bird is still warm inside. Pick up your dog.”

One could surmise that said judge had been watching episodes of CSI, except that CSI had not even been invented yet. Which of the four reasons mentioned earlier would apply here? Stupidity? Nah, the judge was a high school biology teacher. If you knew the principals in this scenario, you might suggest prejudice.

The next event took place in the mid-1980s. The scene was the Tennessee Open Shooting Dog Championship held at the Fort Campbell area near Clarksville, Tennessee.

One of the most important attributes a field trial judge must possess is the ability to concentrate — to have unwavering focus on the action. A minor distraction for just a fleeting moment could cause a judge to miss something so critical as to affect the entire outcome of the trial.

The grounds at Fort Campbell featured three one-hour courses. At about the 48-minute mark of the third course, the field trial party had to ford a creek. The ford was in a depressed area so that when passing through it the steep banks prevented seeing anything that transpired up above the crest. The course ended at the trial headquarters, where large stock tanks were present to provide water for the horses. Throughout this entire trial, one of the judges chose to water his horse in the creek while crossing the ford. With other horses passing through creating splashing and confusion, this task lasted far too long, creating the possibility of missing a potentially critical part of the action. It seems logical that the horse could have survived the twelve minutes it took to get to headquarters, where “cool water, cool, cool water” awaited the thirsty nag. His apparent concern could have been alleviated had he chosen to ride a camel! I vote for stupidity on this one.

Moving ahead to the mid-2000s, an incident occurred at the Dolan Lake area in Southern Illinois that unfortunately was commonplace at many of the weekend trials held throughout the state. In the open shooting dog event Dog A was initially more forward in pattern than Dog B. Dog A scored a good find, and even with that delay in forward progress continued to leave Dog B farther and farther in arrears. However, a couple of gunshots could be heard coming from the rear where Dog B appeared to be having some bird work. The judge covering Dog B apparently did not understand that field trials are won “up front”, as he was obviously allowing a second trial to take place in the same brace.

Riding a properly run trial will point out that if a dog is delayed and gets behind, even if the cause is some legitimate bird work, the dog’s handler will heel that dog to the front. This is especially critical if the trial is run on wild birds. Once pointed, they don’t stick around to be pointed again as released birds often do. Bottom line is, “it’s what’s up front that counts.” Chalk up this faux pas to ignorance.

Relocations. A properly executed relocation is an exciting scenario to watch. It clearly demonstrates a dog with a great deal of bird sense, and can serve as the icing on the cake, helping to nail down a winning performance. An improperly executed relocation can have just the opposite effect. The aforementioned is provided that either is analyzed correctly by the judiciary.

This writer was competing in the Rend Lake Open All Age stake when it was still held on its namesake venue. I was handling a fine pointer female registered as Summer Fragrance. At the 30-minute mark she was espied at the very end of one of the long treelines common to that area, scoring a scintillating limb find. This was consistent with her ground effort, which was consistently forward and far flung. I knew then if she could put just a little something with it she would be hard to beat.

At about the 50-minute mark that “something” seemed to materialize, as she pointed well forward and dead to the front. The initial attempt to flush was fruitless. She then executed a thrilling relocation on a running pheasant — done with alacrity and precision — having to quickly move up twice before pinning her quarry in a patch of sedgegrass.

The icing on the cake? The judge that covered that brilliant piece of work came to me and explained that he really liked her performance, and that she would have won the trial “were it not for that screw up on the pheasant”. As it was she placed third in a trial she should have clearly won. This was due to a judge who was out of his element, having had no experience on pheasants. Ignorance was the culprit. This was a national championship qualifying stake, and ignorance cost the dog a leg on qualifying for that event.

Now for the flip side of that scenario.The venue is the Green River Wildlife Area. On the far east end of the area there was a shelter belt comprised primarily of planted pines. It was about 200 yards long and 30 yards wide, with an assortment of weeds and grasses growing therein. A handler’s dog pointed on the southern edge of this objective, staring intently into a small clump of grass no more than two feet from the end of its nose. The handler initiated his flushing effort several feet beyond the clump of grass and  raised nothing. Suspecting a false point he approached the dog to collar it and take it on. As he passed by the clump of grass a rabbit skittered out from beneath it. Obviously relieved to escape an unproductive he began to walk his dog away from the shelter belt when a quail could be heard whistling about 60 feet away, on the opposite side of the shelter belt. He released his grip on the dog’s collar and began walking it towards the whistling bird, whereupon it located and pointed it, and was mannerly at flush and shot. This bogus “relocation” catapulted the dog into first place, and it won the stake. Considering who the principals were in this scenario it reeked of dishonesty.

A similar situation occurred at the Pelican Classic, a one-hour National Championship qualifying stake held at Poplarville, Mississippi. A handler ran a dog in this event that had won the National Championship a year or two earlier. For the first 30 minutes of the dog’s heat, it was absolutely brilliant, literally tearing that big country to shreds and scoring a dandy find. At about 32 or 33 the dog pointed at the south end of a long stand of timber. What ensued was a 25 minute relocation effort culminating in a shot heard coming from deep in the woods and almost to its north end. The brilliant first 30 minutes of work followed by a 25-minute relocation “earned” the dog first place. Go figure! The two judges at this event had a great deal of experience as competitors and judges. Perhaps they were swayed by reputation?

The fourth reference to relocations shows that some folks just don’t understand what they have seen. I was running a great bitch I had the good fortune to compete with — Alabama Shining Star — in the Illinois Winners’ Classic open shooting dog stake. The venue was once again the Green River Area. “Dixie” was putting down a scorching race and had one honest to goodness stop to flush, a point on a rabbit, an unproductive, and four perfect finds with about five minutes remaining in her hour. She then pointed again at the edge of one of the hedgerows on the area.

My initial flushing effort was fruitless, which scared the hell out of me. I’d already had one unproductive, and couldn’t be sure how the rabbit point would be considered, and thus did not need another unproductive at this critical juncture. So, I tapped her on the head asking her to relocate what I was certain was a running pheasant. She moved up about ten yards and established again. Still no luck producing anything. Sent her on again and she threw her head up into the wind and made a bee line out into the adjacent rye grass field, and WHAM! Hit the brakes. I circled in front of her and put to wing one of the gaudiest, most raucous cock pheasants I’d ever seen. What a fantastic piece of work “with the game on the line!” Sure enough she was named the winner of the 32-dog stake. I walked over to thank the judges and the only one I could find was not the one who had covered that meritorious effort. He allowed as to how much he had liked Dixie when he was able to watch her. I then asked “What did your partner say about her relocation?” His answer: “What relocation?” I couldn’t believe it.

To examine a classic case of judicial convoluted logic let’s go back to the Pelican Classic. Dave Grubb had a strong performance with the setter Memphis Cowboy. I don’t recall if his performance was worthy of winning the stake, although I do know it was definitely one of the top three in that event. However, let us examine what the judges told Dave was the reason he was not named one of the three dogs that did place. Their reasons: his only find was on the breakaway, and early in his hour his ground pattern suffered because he pulled off of an “edge”. We will get to his bird work later, but first let us examine the so-called “edge”. In field trial vernacular, what is an edge? It can be an overgrown fenceline, a hedgerow, the grassy, weedy area next to a woodsline — in short a portion of topography that is an appealing objective to a dog searching for game.In this instance the edge was a woven wire cattle fence next to a rye grass field with adjacent growth not capable of hiding a field mouse. Obviously, the dog displayed more intelligence than the judiciary.

Now, as far as his bird work, these grounds were never exactly teeming with quail. Usually a find or two would put you in the money. You really could not afford the luxury of willing your dog to point birds in a glamorous setting. To repeat the refrain given to handlers by the late Glen Sharp while judging trials in central Illinois back in the day: “Keep your eye on your dog and your hand on your gun, and the birds are where you find them.”

To offer a parable fitting to this scenario: Two football teams end regulation play tied 7 to 7. Overtime is in order. Can the referees deny team A from this opportunity because their touchdown came on the kick-off return at the start of the game? Stupidity or ignorance could not be a factor in this scenario, as both judges were seasoned veterans. What reason does that leave us with? You make the call.

The stake is a major Open Shooting Dog Championship. A respected colleague, the late Harold Stevens and I are in the gallery waiting for the next brace to be turned loose. Both dogs are released, and Dog A turns and runs 180° backwards from the direction the course is supposed to go. Dog B goes on ahead. Harold and I opt to remain with the judge covering Dog A., as its handler is now in hot pursuit of the misguided canine. After nearly 10 minutes both appear, and off we go finally in the right direction. Soon Dog A has a find — all in order at the flush and shot, but when the handler reaches to collar the dog, he rolls over on his side. Much to our disbelief, the handler elects to go on with the dog. Soon it has a second find, and the exact scenario is repeated. Once again the handler elects to continue. A third find occurs right behind the headquarters area with the dog once again rolling over on its side as the handler reaches to collar it. Harold looks at me and says, “Ain’t no use ridin’ to watch anymore of this *&##%. Clubhouse is right over there. Let’s go in and beat the lunch crowd.” I certainly had to agree, and so we rode on in.

As we were unsaddling and cleaning our horses, we heard three or more shots ring out. Soon the gallery came riding in and we questioned a few of them as to whether the shots we heard were for Dog A. “ Oh yeah, but the damndest thing, every time his handler reached for him he rolled over and laid down.” “Every time?” we asked. “Sho’nuff, every time” was the answer. Dog A was named the champion in that stake.

Now I am not one of those who expects a dog to stand rigid after the flush and shot and not let down an iota, but this was just too much. This same pair of judges officiated the Derby Classic that accompanied this championship and never demonstrated any degree of incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. And both had a lengthy history of experience. That only leaves dishonesty as the only logical reason for such a blunder. Oh, and by the way, the runner-up wasn’t much better.

Sometimes too great a degree of familiarity can lead to prejudice. It will create a situation wherein a judge will allow what a dog did last week to influence how he looks at it today.

I was running a dog named “Jack” in an Open Shooting Dog Championship in one of the Western states. My bracemate was a dog named “Joe”. The two judges were men I knew both personally and by reputation. Both were highly regarded as honest individuals. One of them, Judge A, was my neighbor, and I knew him to be painfully honest. At about the 20- minute mark Jack pointed not far ahead of me and out in the open. Judge A was covering him at the time.

Meanwhile Judge B had fallen behind while Joe and his handler were trying to regain the front. Joe ran by the motionless Jack, nearly running in to him in the process, a blatant failure to back. Judge A opted to wait until Judge B rejoined him before ordering Joe to be picked up, as a matter of courtesy. When informed of what transpired, Judge B responded by claiming what he had been told could never happen “because Joe always backs.” Judge A’s response was “Well he darned sure didn’t today. Tell your handler to pick him up.” And so Judge B delivered the order to Joe’s handler albeit reluctantly. The situation created some tension between the two judges, which fortunately didn’t affect their decision. This was a situation wherein familiarity created prejudice which in turn impaired sound judgment.

We return once again to a major Midwest open shooting dog championship. It is the first brace after lunch. The dog wagon is parked in close proximity to the breakaway point. The handlers remove their dogs from the wagon and quickly the brace is underway. After a few minutes, the scout for Dog B appraises his handler that the dog being run as Dog A is really one of their dogs, having been removed from the wagon by mistake. Dog A’s handler is informed that he is running the wrong dog. The dog wagon has not moved, so he returns to the wagon and unloads the dog he should have been running in the first place. By now at least seven minutes have gone by in the hour. The judges say not a word but let him continue on what has to become an abbreviated brace. Fortunately, as the hour (the real hour, not the shortened one) nears its end an error eliminates the replacement dog from contention.

Now, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to win an hour stake a dog must complete the entire hour. What in the world were these two supposedly experienced, competent judges thinking when they allowed the guy to continue? Hypothetically, suppose he had put down a winning performance. What were they going to do about the missing seven minutes? Sadly, this was but one of a series of gaffes this pair was guilty of during this trial.

For the grand finale in this collection of “blunders” anecdotes, we return to the Rend Lake Area and the running of the Egyptian Open Shooting Dog Championship.

Eddie Rayl was running a fine pointer female named Breezin’ Easy (Eddie won’t mind revealing names here as this incident was a source of amusement to him at the time. I will not use the judge’s name, however).

She had been doing a fine job for about 30 minutes. She then got on the backside of one of the long hedge rows that are so prevalent there. Scout was dispatched to keep an eye on her and soon thereafter a succession of “WHOAS!” could be heard coming from that vicinity, and a horse was seen racing along the hedgerow through the trees. Suspecting a problem developing, Eddie quickly galloped ahead to avert disaster. The judge and gallery then came on the scene, and what did his wondering eyes then espy, but a poor hen pheasant preparing to die. This was in the middle of a plowed field, and Breezin” had a mouthful of feathers and the pheasant was still fluttering. Eddie instructed Donny, his helper, “Put the harness on her. We’ll pick her up.” The judge rode up, saw the dog in the harness, the fresh corpus delicti, and feathers still stuck to Breezin’s muzzle. “Watcha doin?” he asked Eddie, who no doubt thought it a rhetorical question. “We’er pickin’ her up” Eddie answered. “Why? I didn’t see anything wrong,” explained the judge. “So you say we don’t need to pick her up?” Eddie asked. “Nope, go ahead and run her on.” “Okay, if you say so. Take the harness off of her, Donny, and let’s go.”

And so they did. She did not finish her hour, and resultantly did not place. Those riding in the gallery could not believe what they had just seen. Perhaps most of the evidence against her was circumstantial, but was there ever a lot of it. Johnny Cochran would not have defended her. Throw the aforementioned reasons for judges’ blunders out and apply a new one to this scenario — a brain addled with alcohol.

As you might guess, there were other controversial incidents involving this same judge, resulting in most of the handlers leaving the trial in a disgruntled frame of mind.

The anecdotes here presented involve serious judicial blunders and speculative reasons as to why they occurred. Every one of them, as hard to fathom as it may seem, was the absolute truth. The twelve were taken from a list of 24 that I jotted down when preparing this article. If I sit and meditate many more come to mind. These are situations that I am aware of. You can rest assured that any of my colleagues could come up with lists as lengthy based on their own experiences.Bottom line is, all of this adds up as prima facie evidence supporting the title of this article and its inference – judging is the weakest link in the sport of field trialing.

What is disconcerting about the entire scenario is that those judges who are guilty of such blunders, for the most part, are hired over and over again to judge more and more trials. One of the reasons for this, in my opinion, is due to wishy washy reporting. Many reporters feel that it is their job to make every dog and every person involved with a trial look good. That is not honest reporting. It is unfair to owners who cannot attend trials because of other commitments. They deserve to have an accurate, honest assessment of their dogs’ performances. Judges who habitually are guilty of blunders such as those described in this writing should not be protected. Club officials who sponsor trials should be made aware of habitual incompetence, lest they continue to solicit those guilty of it to judge their trials. Describing less than stellar performances on the part of dogs or persons need not be done in a cruel manner, but honestly and diplomatically. Thus it stands to reason that to carry out such a responsibility a reporter must be knowledgeable and understand what he is looking at, and then be able to describe what he saw in a logical manner. And to say that he must be able to describe what he saw he must ride the trial. If a reporter takes on the role of constructive critic in his reports, he darn sure better write about what he SEES, not base his comments on hearsay.

Unfortunately attrition is taking its toll on capable, experienced judges. This is compounded by the burgeoning number of trials taking place at the classic level and above, and the diminishing number of trials at the grass roots level where newcomers can make their bones. It is a real problem.

What is the solution?

Readers are welcome to comment.

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