I didn’t see the incident in question. But I got the story from a number of people who did. Apparently, the winning dog spit out a bird at one of the gun’s feet and had to be handled to, or coaxed back to the bird, in order to finish the retrieve, and eventually to win the trial. Many who observed felt that this should have kept the dog from a placement, if not put it out of the running all together. For many, the situation could only be explained by blatant favoritism on the part of the judges. It was even termed a ‘tragedy.’
The situation created an animated discussion of ways to prevent this from happening in the future. It was suggested that an alternate judge, or a 4-judge system would help to insure the integrity of the placements as well as to make sure that the title of NFC would hold merit. Each dog would be scored by both judges, which would require everyone to be more honest and accurate (one would hope). True, it would obviously cost more money and eliminate the judges pool at a much faster rate, and there was some stink that if a judge is selected for the national based on experience, merit, and reputation, then why the need for another set of eyes watching to make sure that everything is on the up-and-up? The counter-argument is that an extra set of eyes is a good idea, especially given the number of dogs that each judge has to look over and the length of time they are watching the dogs work. Interestingly enough, every time an idea was presented, there was a great deal of objection, and it’s been a struggle to move the process along in any meaningful way. Essentially, nothing was done and nothing has changed,
So, fast forward to the 2010 Cocker Nationals where after two years of ideas and discussion and little or no agreement, we get more or less the same result as the so-called ‘tragedy of 2008.’ Though maybe not as big of a tragedy since the dog in question didn’t win the trial and was not awarded the title of NFC, it is nevertheless a situation that has no place in a legitimate field trial. The issue has to be addressed.
There were two instances at the trial where a handler verbally corrected the dog, put the lead back on the dog, and then walked back up to the line and was allowed to continue working. In the most blatant instance, the dog flushed a bird and then broke on the shot and fall. The handler, yelling and running after the dog, took the bird away from the dog, placed the lead on the dog, and began the ‘walk of shame’ in front of the gallery to take the bird back to the judge. Out of nowhere Super Judge appeared with his magic pencil and asked to see more. Unbelievable! (I love positive judging. Without it, there’s really no way an inferior performance like this could land a dog in the placements.) The sad truth is that this dog and handler went home with someone else’s ribbon, a big head, and more than likely a story to tell that is incomplete, because the truth would undoubtedly raise some eye brows. My initial reaction was to lead a revolt of the gallery, waving an AKC field trial manual over my head and shouting, “C’mon everybody! Let’s kill the bastards!’
In my dreams! Unfortunately, my timid demeanor prohibited me from acting on this impulse.
As a handler, it’s hard to see everything that goes on at the trials that the judges see, but when you do see a dog that clearly violates the rules you can’t help but remember, especially when you know the dog and the handler. When you see something bad happen you feel sorry for the handler and dog, maybe not for long, but we’ve all been there and it’s part of trialing. At the same time, when a dog breaks, or otherwise commits an unpardonable sin, you naturally take that dog off the list of dogs to beat. So you can imagine the disappointment and dismay when you see things like this happen and the dog continues to run, and in this instance receives a placement at the end of the trial.
The other issue I had was with the number of dogs receiving a certificate of completion. Nearly one-third of the dogs entered did so. If the National is intended to separate and reward the best dogs and their abilities, how do you explain this? Were the dogs that good, or was the agenda skewed just a bit? It was as if we would forget what we saw if they just let everyone keep playing. I received two certificates of completion, when to my mind I really only deserved one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to place it on my results page and take credit, because this is what sells pups, right? (If your intention is to purchase a puppy from Absolute, please stop reading here. We certainly wouldn’t want you to believe that our dogs are not spot-on perfect every single time.)
Emma, a champion, and who by all rights is a great representative of the breed, had a terrible trial. It happens, and it happened. It began in the 1st series and then became slightly less impressive on each of her next runs. As I said, she’s a great dog, but was terrible this weekend, but not terrible enough apparently to prevent her from completing the trial. Did the fact that she’s a champion influence the judges, causing them to give her the benefit of the doubt? I can’t think of another explanation. Some handlers might appreciate this, but for me, I want the best dogs that day to complete the trial and win the placements, whether they are mine or someone else’s, but preferrably mine.
Spencer, on the other hand had an ok first series, followed up with 4 of the best series possible (in my eyes, which admittedly can see things differently than the eyes of the guy keepin score). He was showing the things that the dogs are bred for, and he did it without breaking the rules. He was unbelievably fast, efficient, and surprisingly responsive for the level of intensity he projected on the course. Yet he got nothing for it. (Kennel blind, you say….Absolutely). Fair enough, I’m a little upset about that, but even more upset by what I saw with other dogs and issues that apparently went unnoticed or were purposely ignored by the judges for reasons unknown to me and to everyone else who followed the action closely. Where was the integrity and willingness to make the tough but fair calls during the most important trial of the year?
In my opinion there should be just as much or more criticism surrounding the judging of this Cocker National as there was for the trial of 2008. The current judging standard is counter-productive to the end goal of ‘bettering the breed’ of this great little dog. I think that the ECSCA really needs to re-visit the options available to maintain the integrity of the Nationals. I’m not attached to any one solution, but it’s time to take a hard look at finding a solution, both for the sake of the breed and field competitions in general.