Richard Meen, who is judging Best in Show at this year's Westminster Dog Show, at Central Park in New York, Feb. 13, 2016. Dog shows in North America employ just one professional judge to evaluate best in show, and at Westminster on Tuesday, that responsibility will fall to Meen. (Yana Paskova/The New York Times)
Photo: YANA PASKOVA
Photo: YANA PASKOVA

Westminster Dog Show judge is alone on center stage

He, and nobody else, will act as judge and jury to anoint one dog as the exemplar of breeding standards. For Meen, it is an honor and a great responsibility, he said recently. Naturally, he seemed as nervous as a Chihuahua crossing Seventh Avenue.

“You can’t help but feel the second-guessing,” Meen, a Toronto psychiatrist, said. “But you try to make a decision rooted in experience and knowledge. I trust the energy that comes through me while I’m looking at the dog. In those eyes, I’m looking at the history of that breed through the ages. That’s what judges should be doing, looking into the ancient past — the dog’s function, its country.”

Dog shows in North America employ just one professional judge to evaluate breeds, groups and best in show. It is an odd tradition. Nearly every other judged competition in the world demands the rankings of several arbiters. Boxing, figure skating, gymnastics and even “American Idol” would never trust the opinion of a single judge.

Dog shows are different, with an implicit assumption that champions are anointed in a more personal manner: The tastes and training of the individual judge are every bit as important as the specimens standing in the ring. A different judge might well choose a different champion.

“Personally, I prefer it this way,” Meen said of his solitary role as kingmaker. “In England, at specialty shows, you’ll have a minimum of two or three judges, and then the negotiations between them can become complicated and nasty. With one judge, you’re getting a consistent approach from one background.”

The owners and handlers, naturally, are forever trying to analyze the judge’s predilections. Many entrants have poured tens of thousands of dollars into promotion, travel and training. The last thing they want at Westminster is a judge who has snubbed their dog at another show and may do so again. In some cases, an owner will skip Westminster after scrutinizing the list of judges and finding it unpromising.

“When I was exhibiting,” Meen said, “I knew what the judges liked and didn’t like. Many exhibitors have done their research. They will have an opinion, but they can’t read my mind. The problem with dog people is they hang out together and talk.”

Meen’s sweetheart affair with dogs began in Canada in 1959, when he was a medical student at the University of Western Ontario. On his daily commute, he would walk past a house with two Afghan hounds in the backyard. He instantly became enamored and was soon a breeder of borzois, or Russian wolfhounds. Years later, he was licensed to judge five groups.

In the claustrophobic world of dog shows, there is always a fear of cronyism or, simply, prejudgment. Will Meen prefer hounds because of his background? Will he be tougher on that group because of his high standards? Will he ignore a slightly ill-formed haunch on behalf of an exhibitor friend?

“It’s a small world,” said Thomas Bradley, the chairman of the Westminster show, who selected Meen to judge best in show. “I’ve judged since the late ’60s; everyone knows me.”

He added: “But it’s stupid to run the other way when you see a friend. You’re supposed to look past that.”

Bradley said he liked the idea of multiple judges for each event, but the American Kennel Club’s rules prohibit that format.

In order to eliminate the perception of favoritism, Meen will stay far away from the judging events that begin Monday. He said he preferred a fresh start and had plans to attend the theater.

Among the pressures Meen will face Tuesday night are the vocal demands of the Garden fans, who typically prefer the more popular breeds, exemplified by the 2015 best in show champion, Miss P, a beagle. Meen must ignore such siren cries. He will also try to forget that he ever saw any of these dogs at other events or in expensive trade magazine ads.

“It’s impossible not to see the ads since they are everywhere in the mail and at dog shows,” Meen said. “I enjoy reading the columns, but often I am amazed at the pictures used, frequently showing major faults even by attempting to hide them. When you’re in the ring, there’s no time to reflect on the influence of advertisements.”

Bonnie Threlfall of Cary, North Carolina, a group judge this year at Westminster, agreed that her job was subjective and that canine perfection was in the eye of the beholder. Yet she found some owners’ attempts at photo makeovers to be ridiculous.

“In the magazine ads, some will have dogs moving in action shots,” she said. “It’s hideous. What were they thinking?”

Threlfall added, “If you are secure in the knowledge of the breed, the thing we thrive on, that’s how you make a difficult decision between two dogs.”

Bradley, in his 15th year as show chairman, chose Meen for his experience, his temperament and their friendship over 40 years, he said.

Meen, a former president and chairman of the board of the Canadian Kennel Club, is the sixth foreign judge in 140 years of the Westminster show. His appointment was quietly made two years ago. In order to avoid whispering and influence-peddling, the appointment was kept secret until 2015.

Bradley said he believed he had made the correct choice but joked that Meen might extend the already too-long show, broadcast on USA Network.

“He’s a psychiatrist, and he should have been an actor,” Bradley said. “His voice has great resonance, and he’s going to want to give a lengthy speech. We ran over time last year, and the network was asking if it can be shorter. I’m thinking, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ ”

Already, Meen appears to be polishing his oration. He said he could not read the minds of dogs, or at least not as easily as he tended to the egos and ids of his human patients. He said he fully believed, though, that they were all heavenly creatures — even the ones that do not quite manage a perfect strut.

“Dogs are responsible for humanizing us,” Meen said, “rather than the other way around.”

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