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From the Judges' Stand
by Lori Herbel

Border CollieThe phrase "written standard" is a familiar one to those who are affiliated with the breed ring. In conformation, it is well known that a judge must be extremely knowledgeable about each breed standard before becoming approved to judge that breed. It is the judge's duty to compare each entry with the written breed standard, and to evaluate how well that dog fits the standard. The breed standard is a detailed description of the "perfect" specimen, describing everything from body type to temperament; coat texture to eye color; and much more. Many breed standards also describe undesirable features which may be designated as faults within the breed, and others which may be considered severe enough to be a disqualification.

In the herding world, there also exists a written standard; it is the white rulebook, "AKC Herding Regulations." This standard is similar to breed standards in that it describes perfection, and also covers faults and disqualifications. However, rather than describe the physical attributes of a particular breed of dog, it describes the perfect herding run for each course. It also offers a guideline for assigning point values to faults.

Herding test and trial judges are asked to follow this standard each time they evaluate a herding run. Becoming familiar with this herding standard will enable handlers to understand what a judge is actually looking for on the trial field. Productive use of this knowledge in handling and training can give those who use it a competitive edge over their fellow herders. Interestingly, exhibitors in the herding venue often overlook the judging guidelines and thereby toss away the perfect chance to learn how to earn a better score. Essentially, these handlers are bringing a dog before a judge that exhibits known faults (splitting, overflanking, refusing to obey commands, etc.) and then questioning why the judge didn't "like" their dog.

Turning to the back of the rulebook to read the suggested scoring has caused more than one handler to become immediately overwhelmed at the number of errors which are addressed there. At first appearance it looks as though one might need to be a human calculator to keep track of all of the infractions to look for and evaluate! However, it all really boils down to two things - either its right, or it's wrong. If the run is going according to the written standard, all is well and no points are coming off the score sheet. If it's not going according to the standard, points are being lost.

The farm/ranch course (Course A) and the open field course (Course B), are the most commonly offered in AKC trials. Both are considered "line courses". Each have obstacles and a designated order in which they should be completed. Throughout both courses, from the exit of each obstacle to the entrance of the next obstacle is an imaginary straight line. Widen this line into the specified zone (width of the zone varies from one course to another, and with different types of stock), and this is the area which the livestock should travel throughout the course to maintain the perfect score. Keeping the livestock in this zone is preferred as it takes the stock through the course efficiently with the least amount of steps. Livestock that are pushed all over the arena, or allowed to retreat or be lost off line are subject to being constantly stressed and even overworked.

Every exhibitor enters the arena or field with a perfect score of 100. Any deviation whether minor or major, from the perfect written standard as described in the rulebook, must be assigned a point deduction by the judge. Points may be deducted in either half or whole point increments, depending on the severity of the violation. Room must always be left for the dog that could put the livestock through the course with a "perfect" run.

How does a judge decide how much to take off for an error? Each infraction listed has a correlating suggestion in the rulebook of "up to (number) points off". The minor problems have a suggestion of up to one point off, the major problems can be up to 20 points off, or essentially the entire points assigned to that obstacle.

Many judges take advantage of the "grid" system. This enables them to judge consistently across the board, from one run to the next. For example, if the stock are off-line, the suggested deduction is up to three points each time the error occurs. Once the stock leave the zone, the grid system helps determine the severity of the error. This is an error worth "up to 3 points off", so the arena (or field) can be divided into three equal sized areas. If the stock remain in the first zone closest to where the offline occurred, then 1 point will probably be deducted. If the livestock enter into the second zone, the judge can consider that error worth two points. The third zone, or the area of the arena which as far as the stock could possibly be 'off line' would be worth the maximum penalty, or three points.

Errors in the herding arena or field can basically be grouped into three categories: Handler, Dog or Stock. A few examples of each include:

Handler - Leaving the Handler's Post prematurely
Excessive Commands
Handler moving the stock
Handler touching the dog or stock
Handler walks through obstacles

Dog - Crossover between the handler and stock on the outrun
Dog circling the stock
Dog leaving the stock due to lack of interest or off contact
Dog refuses to obey commands
Dog uses unacceptable grip

Stock - Stock run down the course out of control
Stock weaves because of over-flanking
Retreating on course
Stock are off-line
Stock miss an obstacle

One should realize, however, that all of the errors that can be placed in the "stock" category are actually caused either directly or indirectly by actions of the dog and/or the handler. The deduction for that error is simply based on the range of behavior of the livestock.

Each of these are considered "faults" as far as the herding standard is written, comparable to the breed standard that may state that missing teeth, blue eyes, or specific coat types are faults. While the faults are not harsh enough individually to keep the dog from winning, or qualifying, they are cause for point deductions.

There are excellent opportunities that will enable a handler to learn more about the judging process. The best method is to volunteer to serve as a scribe or timer at a trial. These are two jobs that do not necessarily require herding experience. As a scribe, you are simply recording deductions and notes as the judge calls them. Watching the run as you hear the judge's narration will allow you to make the association of the deduction with the action as it happens. The timer's job is to simply run a stopwatch, which gives another excellent opportunity to listen in as the judge evaluates the run.

A second and even easier obtainable opportunity to study judging is to video tape a trial. Watch the runs over and over with the rulebook in hand, and look for some of the more common errors. Copy a few blank score sheets and judge some of the runs as you watch. Take the liberty of pausing and/or rewinding the tape for "instant replays". (Oh, if only we had this opportunity in the real judging world!) If you have some of your own trial runs on videotape, compare your official judge's sheet with the runs as you see them on tape. You should be able to see errors and correlate them with deductions on the score sheet. The more you study the tapes and consider how the action is perceived through a judge's eyes, the better you will understand judging and how to use that knowledge to earn better scores (Keep in mind that the point of view of the camera, and the point of view that the judge has may differ slightly).

The ability to evaluate consistently from one run to another is an extremely important element of judging. This consistency makes the ribbon ceremony at the end of the day make sense, as the best run of the day should be accepting the High in Trial ribbon. Theoretically, the conditions for each run should be close to equal so that the judge can concentrate solely on comparing each run to the "perfect" standard. However, we all know that herding rarely happens in a perfect world. Dealing with the weather, livestock, outside interference, and other such inconsistencies occasionally call for on-the-spot decisions. Each judge must then draw on their experience and knowledgeable background to make these snap decisions to the best of their ability.

At the end of the day, ribbons will be awarded by the judge to those that exhibited the best example of the herding standard that day in his/her eyes. Though only five places can be awarded in each class, good work can always be awarded with a green qualifying ribbon. Even better, good work can be rewarded with that satisfying feeling of a job well done!

A few interesting trivia facts about AKC herding judges:

  • There are approximately 100 people from 26 states approved to judge AKC herding events. One judge is from Canada.

  • When the AKC program began in 1990, judges were 'grandfathered' in from other herding programs.

  • In order to apply to become a judge now, you must have trained and shown a dog to a Herding Advanced (HX) title, and must have acted as a Judge's secretary or observer judge at least three times for each test/course applied for. Applicants must also pass a written test.

  • Judges must attend an AKC Herding Seminar at least once every three years for continuing education.