Catching the Judge’s Eye
Becoming a successful competitive groomer requires not only great grooming skills, but also careful preparation, smart dog selection and impeccable conduct in the ring.
Judging grooming competitions is not an easy task. In fact, sometimes, the judges are just as nervous as the contestants—if not more so. They take the responsibility of selecting the best-groomed dog in the ring very seriously and consider it an honor to judge a group of highly skilled peers. While scrutinizing over every aspect of the groom presented to them, judges understand how much time, energy and money every competitor has invested in honing their craft.
That appreciation comes from years of experience in the same position as the contestants they are evaluating. Competition judges are usually great groomers, past top winning competitors who have been successful in the dog show ring and have been on a groom team—either in the USA or abroad—multiple times. Some are even dog show judges. As a result, they have a good understanding of canine structure, breed standards and techniques based on all the different coat types and ways to properly prepare and maintain them.
An advanced level of knowledge based on a clear understanding of what is important in each breed being judged is essential. Of course, evaluations can get a little personal for breed specialists, based on their interpretation of the breed standard and how they prioritize these standards, overall balance and symmetry, finish and degree of difficulty. However, one thing that is consistent among all quality judges is that they put a lot of work into each of their assignments, even before they are accepted.
While contest judges are chosen based on their areas of expertise, they will usually refresh themselves on the breeds and groups they will be judging before they embark on the task. For instance, someone judging Poodles might visit a local dog show and watch the Poodle classes, or read over the breed standard.
In the ring, before the contest starts, I look over and place my hand on each dog to feel the structure under the coat, as well as the coat’s cleanliness, texture and the amount of coat brought into the ring. I want to feel how the structure and coat measure up to the breed standard. I ask myself, “Can the groomer achieve the standard and overall balance needed to compete and win based on the preparation of the coat? Do they have enough coat to make a considerable change and show me their skills?” Again, this is done before the contest even begins.
Like me, every judge has things they look for and may give extra consideration to before the competition starts. Judy Hudson, my Grooming Professor partner and fellow competitive grooming judge, says that the most important thing she looks at prior to a competition is the level of preparation done by contestants. In many cases, she has a very good idea who will end up on top before the contest ever begins just by observing who has taken the time to perfect their preparation on their competition dog.
Judges are also very aware of what groomers are doing during the competition. Many groomers are very nervous because they lack experience. We try and make the competitors feel at ease, as we were all in the same place at some point in our careers. As judges, we all want to see the industry grow, and we are there to help.
The Right Preparation
Something that all competitive groomers should do is make sure they look their best when they come into the ring. Wear your best grooming attire or dress clothes under a smock. Also, think about the colors you are wearing. You are the background that your dog will judged against, so wear a color that shows it off best.
Contestants should be ready ringside when their class is called, have the correct equipment and table based on the contest rules, and have their number and comb out for the judge when he or she enters the ring to do their pre-judging. It helps to not only have a clean well-prepared dog, but also have your contest dog well-trained. This means your dog should stand to be examined and be OK with strangers handling and combing them.
A contestant should also try their best to present a well-conditioned dog. The dog should have a healthy weight, ears, eyes, teeth, skin and coat. Trimmed nails and all approved sanitary work should be done before entering the ring. It also helps when contestants have watched previous classes to understand the ring procedure.
Don’t forget to review the contest rules. Many shows tweak their rules every other year, based on Groom Team USA rule changes. Judges also study the rules prior to a contest. This is a place were we all can be on the same page, provided we read and study the rules prior to each contest.
Conduct in the Ring
Judges usually must examine a dog in two to three minutes. This means that you must make the most of the limited amount of time you have in front of them.
When the judge approaches your dog to be examined, make sure it is set up. It is also important to stay out of the judge’s view of the dog by moving around it as the judge examines. It’s frustrating when we cannot look a dog over properly both before and after the contest. I would recommend always having your dog stacked and its profile facing the judge until you are released. You never know when a judge might be reviewing your dog at a distance.
Don’t ever assume what a judge is thinking. I have observed groomers unnecessarily feel let down because I only went over their dog once. In many of those cases, I liked
the groomer’s work so much that I knew they were in first place. Still, I wanted to be able to look back from time to time and visually compare those first-place grooms
to other placements. This way, I can make sure I am consistent in my selection’s overall balance and profile.
The best contestants are invisible, so the judge can focus on the dog. Teach your dog to show itself with minimum effort. I know it’s difficult to relax and feel confident in the ring, but try to convey that your dog is the best-groomed dog in the ring, even if you do not always feel that way. Contestants whose nervousness affects their behavior in the ring to the point that they don’t set their dog up correctly can make it hard for a judge to do their job.
Judges can find faults all too easily. One of the primary mistakes a new competitor makes is to show off the flaws while trying to hide them. If your dog has a poor topline, don’t continually fluff the coat to conceal it. Keep the dog stacked to hide it, if possible, until the judge releases you. Most judges are trying to reward virtues, not penalize flaws. Show me your gorgeous scissor work, that you know what a sound dog is and your dogs breed standard by fixing a low tail-set, dippy topline or crooked legs.
Also, don’t talk to the judge about your past grooming accomplishments until after judging is over. Each judge has developed his or her own eye based on past experiences and education. One judge may not agree with another’s past selections. Maybe your dog looks different today—because of water softness or weather conditions, or it didn’t have as much coat going into this contest. Whatever the reason, each contest is different.
Judging the Judges
There is no room for rudeness or unsportsmanlike conduct. Contestants have entered a competition and paid for the judge’s opinion. Even if you do not agree with your judge, you need to take your critique and try to learn from it. If you are still unhappy, you may not want to show to that judge again. However, our pool of contest judges is small, and eliminating one from your contest roster could really limit your point potential for groom team qualification.
When I was competing, I kept a book in which I wrote down comments about each judge. I would keep an open mind and tried hard to figure out what the judge liked, based on their placements. For example, it was easy to see when a judge’s priority was more about finish work. I also noticed some judges like more coat or a heavier look to their grooms. Some pay no attention to parallel lines but weight heavy toward pretty or even extreme profiles.
I would always give a judge multiple tries, altering my trims to try and suit what I thought they might like based on my evaluation of past experiences.
Some contests use judge’s sheets or a set of judging criteria. Some contests may leave the decision up to the judges, relying on them to know the contest’s rules. However, many contests will have set criteria by which they want their judges to abide. Over the years, the judge’s sheets and processes have changed, based on our competition classes. Still, many breed standards have not been altered for many years—only the interpretation of the standard and its refinement have changed. There’s a lot to know about each breed, so a detailed description helps the judge know what to look for in each dog. In the freestyle or mix-breed classes, we look for balance and symmetry, as well as what was done to complement the dog's structure.
Just liking a dog’s groom ringside does not guarantee a placement, but it is a good place to start. Sometimes a judge may not like a lot of the grooms in the class, but they will try to give them the same review as all the other contestants before assuming this to be the case. Some parts of the groom may not appeal to your judge on a personal level, even though they are to standard. They might be looking for more definition, for example. When I say definition, I mean refinement of the standard. Showing your detailed knowledge of the breed standard.
For some judges, it is easier to determine why they dislike something than why they like something. However, they all try to be objective. A judge might dislike your entry simply because it is not their style or does not appeal to their own perception of the standard, but they will not reject it.
There are some standard questions judges should ask themselves when looking at a contest entry. For example, does the entry have enough hair to create a balanced breed standard trim and the coat condition for a great finish? During the judging, they will ask themselves what contestant met the criteria, overall. Some dogs may be well-scissored but have very little definition based on the breed standard. Some dogs may have a beautiful profile, but the finish work is very rough. Some dogs may have a nice side profile but lack in soundness between the legs. When we find a contestant who masters soundness, structure, profile and finish, it is a wonderful day! PB
Chris Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, grooming show judge and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since . For years, she served as national training manager for Oster Professional Products, where she developed new initiative educational material to educate at schools and conventions all over the world. Pawlosky is currently working with Judy Hudson to produce the Grooming Professors—a service through which the two industry veterans share their many years of grooming, competing, dog show conditioning and handling with groomers across the country via Facebook and through an interactive website where visitors can access webcasts and videos about everything grooming-related.