Dogs. Dogs. Dogs. So many to choose from. So many to love — especially for people who judge dog shows.
“I can’t tell you my favorite dog,” said a laughing Jim Covey, a Ballston Lake resident who will soon be judging for the third time at the Westminster Kennel Club’s 145th annual dog show, which this year will be at the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown on June 12-13.
Actually, he has his favorites but he couldn’t reveal them prior to the show. But he had plenty to say about dogs and judging.
“I started doing kennel work … bathing, cleaning and then when I was 16, learned how to groom Irish setters for conformation and performance,” Covey said.
Conformation means a dog’s physical appearance according to its breed’s written standard. Each judge has a picture in their mind of what the ideal dog should look like.
“Some of that is black and white, such as how much pigmentation is on its nose. Other things are subjective, such as how long its neck is. Then, it’s the judge’s idea of how closely the dog fits the standard,” he said.
Covey was hooked.
Not only did he begin showing dogs in 1970, but by the 1980s he also began breeding English cocker spaniels and Norfolk Terriers with several going on to become champions. He discovered that winners get ribbons or the occasional trophy, lots of applause and bragging rights and big smiles.
But to judge, he had to become approved.
“Initially, I started with English setters, Irish setters and, I think, English cocker spaniels,” Covey said. “I observed other judges, did kennel visits, and attended match shows, which have informal training events for puppies and where judges can learn about judging.”
By then, because of his background, he centered his judging on the sporting group. For all dog shows there are seven groups: sporting, hound, working, terriers, toy, non-sporting and herding. Within sporting, there are 26 different breeds, which include pointers, retrievers, setters, spaniels, vizslas, griffons, and weimaraners. This year, a new breed has been added, called a barbet, which is a French water dog.
Within each group, there are a team of judges. For the upcoming show, this includes five judges who choose the best of each of the 26 breeds. Then Covey takes a look at all these dogs and chooses four to represent the best from the sporting group. The one that places first of those four (the Best of Breed) goes on to compete in the Best of Show and possibly for the grand prize.
While Covey has judged at numerous smaller shows that can number 500 dogs, such as the annual Ballston Spa Dog Show, which will be held Aug. 13-15 at the Saratoga Fairgrounds or the Glens Falls Kennel Club show June 6 in Queensbury, a big show like Westminster will have 2,000 dogs. Most of these dogs are not newcomers to the circuit.
“They’ve been to more shows, are well trained, experienced. Most are three to four years old. Larger breeds mature slower, whereas a cocker at a year and a half can be in the middle of a career. And every show has a veterans’ class for dogs seven years or older that come out of retirement,” Covey said. “Some are spectacular dogs. It just shines through. For this Westminster show, you must also be invited or be the number one dog by statistics. That’s due to space.”
Covey’s job will be focused only on Sunday, June 13.
“Usually doing a group takes only up to forty-five minutes,” he said. “But for Best of Breed, a judge can work up to 175 class dogs during the day. For groups, a judge can start at 7:30 a.m. and go until 5 p.m. and start again the next day. Sometimes there are hundreds — up to 300 — of sporting dogs and so many judges are involved.”
Handlers, too, get a workout. Not only must they keep the dogs comfortable but they have to stay fit since they have to run around the ring with the dog. Many also breed and train the dogs. But they make a good living, Covey said, and some specialize.
“An American poodle or grooming cockers can be a handful to have the right trim, and coat care,” he said.
The popularity of dog shows and the number of dogs involved have been ebbing a bit over the last twenty years.
“There seems only a partial interest now, plus the cost of doing the shows and handlers have to work,” he said. “And some shows are down from three days to two days. Of course, some of that had to do with COVID.”
The pandemic cut short Covey’s judging activities.
“I haven’t judged since October 2019,” he said. “So I’m very excited [about doing Westminster]. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime . . . the epitome of what you work for. I don’t know what dogs I’ll see or be judging. Suspense.”
To get ready, he’s doing his homework on what each of the sporting breeds look like and what their acceptable clips will be both as puppies and adult dogs. But the show comes at a difficult time as Covey is mourning the loss of his beloved 15-year-old Norfolk Terrier, Ch. Aberschan Tom Sawyer, a few weeks ago. Tom had won the 2016 Norfolk Terrier National Specialty veterans’ class.
“We’d bred Norfolks since the 1980s and had had all his relatives.” Covey said. “We’d lost his mother and his sister. We’d delivered him in our bedroom. We’re still devastated. There will never be another like him.”
Because Westminster is not allowing spectators, it will be televised on Fox and live-streamed for free on www.dogshowtv.com.