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Here Comes the Judge!
Here Comes the Judge!

                            Rita J Biddle Esq.

AKC Judge for the following groups: hounds, working dogs, non-sporting dogs and about a half of the herding dogs group

Westminster season descends on New York City every bitter cold month of February, bringing a glam filled show of beautiful dogs from just about everywhere in the country and beyond. As every year, the exhibitors fight frigid temperatures, making their way to the Piers, Madison Square Garden or on to their hotels.  The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show goes on no matter what, and people look forward to all the surprises and victories it brings.

 

                                  Another balmy day at the Piers, day 2 of the show....

It’s a fascinating production, with thousands of dogs in attendance, but how can a person judge so many coiffed and regal looking dogs, one more perfect than the other? How does one select one dog to be "Best of Breed", then "Best in Group" and on to "Best in Show"? There were so many questions I had to ask, and the only answer to any of this would be to speak to a professional.

 My friend Debra helped me by introducing me to a dear friend of hers: Rita Biddle, AKC judge with over 25 years of experience.

               Rita Biddle at Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show here with my friend Debra Crespo

Rita is an impressive person. She is warm, engaging and most enthusiastic about her career, but so very busy our interview had to be quick. Even so, she kept her word, contacting me on my cell a few hours in advance of our scheduled time, asking if we could "do this on the fly”. It was at the Piers Vendor area, in the busiest section, on the last day of the shown that we set up in front of an empty booth to have our chat. Thousands of dog enthusiasts strolled booth to booth around us, and as it was getting close to lunch rush hour the crowd grew thicker by the minute. I was afraid the noise would distract her, but on the contrary, and in true professional form, she blocked out everyone around us and delved back to the beginning of her life with dogs.

                                 

            At home, with two of her Akita's (photo courtesy of Rita Biddle)        

The first thing that came to her mind was that she always had a strong relationship with dogs.

A significant childhood memory made an impact on her life. When she was a 10-year-old girl she
owned a Border-Collie mix. She loved him very much but her mother never really cared for the dog. One day upon her return from school, she discovered the dog had disappeared. She then found out her mother had given the dog away. This painful memory propelled her to purchase her first dog, as soon as she was able. She was a graduate student at The University of Wisconsin when she chose her first dog, a German Shepherd. She started to show the dog, marking the
beginning of her career in the dog world. She showed him in Madison, Wisconsin and he won first place in a large class, which made her happy, but the "dog show bug" had not bitten her yet.

Her next dogs of choice were Great Danes, whom she owned from 1965 to 1997. It was in the
early 80’s when caring for a friend’s Akita, that she fell in love with the breed. There was no turning back at that point, she went on to become to be an Akita breeder, which she still is today. 

Rita explained that being a Judge is a natural progression. It requires a mix of science and art.
Judges are required to thoroughly know every detail of each breed, their history and what they
are meant to do. They should recognize structural exactness. If one was to take a white outline
of a purebred in profile on a black background, a judge should be able to recognize the
breed.

In addition to such comprehensive knowledge, Rita confirmed that being a woman never
made her feel hindered in any way. It takes a determined and strong-minded person such as Rita to forge ahead the way she does. Nothing gets in the way of her desire to learn about and judge dogs. Even so, she does not come off as a “tough” person. She is compassionate with others in her work. 
For example, when she judges a new dog or new handler, her goal is to help them feel relaxed
in her hands. The experience should always be enjoyable.
She does not judge the handler, it is the dog that counts. The owner/handler should be almost
invisible when they enter the ring. However, she recognizes the importance and expertise of a
professional handler. Their skill is to bring out the best in their dogs, which in turn should help
the dogs stand out.

                           

                       Rita with a new litter of Akita puppies (photo courtesy of Rita Biddle)

For example, if she gets to judge a new dog or new handler, her goal is to help them feel relaxed in her hands. The experience should always be enjoyable.

img_8464       img_8465      Rita in action, judging the Non Sorting Group, Dalmatians at The Holyoke Kennel Club Dog Show.

I asked her about some of her favorite dog show moments. Without hesitation she replied: “when I see an incredible dog”. One year at the big AKC Eukanuba show, there was a competition for foreign dogs from many countries. They entered the ring, each dog with a handler and a person bearing the country’s flag. There was a dog from Italy. No one knew what the breed was, but they all knew it was a great dog. It was the Bracco Italiano, the Italian Pointer. A hush fell over the crowd as he gaited around the ring, then everyone erupted in applause.

What makes her most happy is the progress and maturity dogs develop. She feels that after 25 years as a judge, she has become familiar with some of the lines in a given breed and can recognize them. When she sees a new dog with potential, she wants to see them again and see them grow.

                Rita with 12 year old Quinn, one of her Akita's (photo courtesy of Rita Biddle)

Judging is not with eyes only. Hands are equally as important. How the dog feels will confirm condition and texture of the coat, muscle and bone structure. Her hands help her determine how well the dog measures up against the standard of his/her breed. Gait is also very important in order to see how all those features fit together in action. Above all, Rita stressed how important it is for her to continue breeding dogs. From whelping to seeing them live long, healthy lives, it is the experience she needs to stay in touch with all her “hands on” experiences with dogs. She never forgets all of the work it takes to breed and show a top winning dog.

In addition to being a Judge, Rita is a board member of the American Kennel Club to which she dedicates around 10 to 20 hours a week.

She got her law degree late in life and is a member of the state bar of Michigan. She has also served on AKC trial boards and is a current member of the AKC boards appeal committee.

The AKC board was involved with the move of the Museum of The Dog from St. Louis to New York City. This museum opened during Westminster week, and it was a great success. If you happen to be in New York City, don’t miss it!

            A porcelain exhibit at The Museum of the Dog (photo courtesy of D. Crespo)

Her career as a judge has taken her to England, Canada, Mexico and Europe.

She also lived in Poland in 1968 for a year to do research for her PhD. While there, she was an English tutor to post doctorate students. She already spoke Russian and was able to learn some Polish.
Rita was born and raised in Indianapolis and has spent her adult life in Michigan. Away from the ring, she enjoys going on river cruises.

Living in the country near a small river makes walking all the more enjoyable, something she looks forward to but always in company of one of her dogs. Pleasurable moments are to sit on her deck and enjoy looking out on her acreage which is planted with soy beans or corn. Asked if she had time for any hobbies, she told me she grows her own garlic and plants about 50 bulbs a year. “Obviously, I really love garlic!”, she added.

Time was up, Rita had to keep up with her busy schedule and off she went, forging on through the crowd.

Our conversation changed the way I look at these professional dogs. I hope to have a better perspective and understanding of all the effort that goes into the preparation for every special moment. It is a collective effort to remind us of the sheer joy involved in the sport of purebred dog shows. 

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