Shelties Online: The Weekly Online Magazine for Lovers of the Breed

2015 ASSA Best of Breed Critique

Judge Tom Coen

I guess that after fifty-plus years of hands on experience it is inevitable that I would have definite ideas and strong opinions concerning our breed. During that time I’ve lived through all the fads and seen every “dog of the hour” come and go. Through it all the one thing that has remained constant is the breed standard and it is the final word. I’d like to share with you some thoughts and opinions regarding our breed and judging that are important to me.

Shape, outline or overall picture is a key distinguishing characteristic of the Sheltie. The standard breathes balance in every paragraph and is also specific about certain proportions, such as length of leg. The shape, which is balanced, symmetrical and graceful, is determined by the skeletal structure and for the breeder to make changes in structure can take generations. For example, just try to breed those forward set fronts back where they belong, add length of leg or neck, or shorten the loin. I think we need to be careful not to evaluate our dogs from the “outside in.” That is, we don’t want to rely on the groomed picture rather than the actual skeletal structure under the coat.

To me the functional movement that typifies our breed is smooth, easy, effortless, efficient, and ground covering. Theoretically, if the structure is correct the dog should move well but this often is not the case. Condition is not just a matter of abundant coat and correct weight, it also should include good muscle tone. Upon examination, there were many exhibits without well muscled thighs. I know that the severe winter in the Northeast made it problematic, if not impossible, to exercise the dogs, but we do need to keep musculation in mind.

Head, another distinguishing characteristic, has its own structure and shape. The standard calls for a long blunt wedge tapering slightly from the top and side. Given the diverse background of the breed the backskull, a key element of quality and class, has always been one of the most difficult virtues to perfect. Even today, the lean skull with smooth zygomatic arches, flat frontal bone and fill all the way to the occiput, giving the illusion of “corners,” is a rarity that needs to be rewarded and preserved.

Regarding another area of the head, it is possible to check the mouth by gently lifting the lips in a single motion with no need for a judge’s fingers to ever touch the teeth or the gums. I was surprised to see quite a number of exhibits with teeth that needed cleaning and gums that were red and puffy. Routine maintenance is important to total health.

The head shape, the set and use of the ears, the placement, shape and color of the eyes, combine to produce expression according to the standard. I think there is more to it than this. To me, expression is the reflection of what’s inside the dog – call it soul or character, and that is what produces the alert, gentle, intelligent and inquisitive outlook that is distinctly “Sheltie.” I hope that in our quest for head detail we don’t forget the importance of the face.

As the senior veteran dog, seventeen-plus years, went around the ring, slowly, deliberately and without limping, he brought the house down and rightly so. Lasting quality is a hallmark of the best of our breed. I don’t know if my early mentors stressed that the good ones get better with time or if it was the privilege of seeing the beautiful CH Sea Isle Serenata at fourteen and a half years when I was a teenager, but lasting quality is always a key consideration for me.

I don’t think I really understood the concept of “judging the dogs on the day” until I had been judging for a while. It is amazing how different a dog can look from day to day and even hour to hour. It is the judge’s responsibility to evaluate them at the moment rather than out of their personal history or past performances, and that is no easy task. Dogs, just like people, have their good days and bad days, bringing to mind the saying, “every dog has his day.”

I think that judging can be educational. I appreciate being able to follow a judge’s thinking and rationale, whether I agree with the placements or not. With the above priorities and these thoughts in mind I began the task of sorting through eight groups of specials. After the individual examination I made a series of cuts eventually resulting in a final group which included the Awards of Merit winners, the top winners plus the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch. The dog winner was a charming and very poised junior puppy with beautiful head, eye and expression. He traveled with authority and took it all in stride. The bitch winner was a mature, moderate, beautifully colored blue with a pretty face and exceptional side gait that reinforced that there is beauty in motion.

From this group I eventually selected four dogs and four bitches for final consideration. I have never understood the “head or movement” or “pretty or sound” arguments, as if these virtues are mutually exclusive. These finalists were living proof that it is possible to have it all. To me, they were close to my mental template of breed type and are a credit to our breed, the standard, and their breeders.

This blue bitch had it all and it was her day. Her picture, with balance and symmetry, drew me to her immediately and she held up under closer examination. Her well-shaped head has detail and refinement and her expression is soft and feminine. Her movement was true coming and going and she covered ground easily from the side. She was truly the total package and an outstanding representative of our breed.

owned by Marty and Michelle Miller and Anne Power

Here was another eye-filling blue bitch with curvaceous body lines. It was no surprise that she covered ground smoothly with exceptional reach and drive. Her skull was lean and smooth with flat frontal bone and her dark eyes were properly set. Once again, here was proof that it is possible to have both movement and head quality.

owned by Greg Speeks and Doug Mock

This sable bitch has what I call “quiet quality.” She wasn’t flashy or especially showy, she was just correct in so many ways. Her head is smooth and well shaped with pretty dark eyes, and her expression was soft. In motion her side gait was also “quiet” with beautiful reach and foot timing, giving meaning to the term “effortless.”

Owned by Linda Nicholas

This nine-year-old sable veteran was another stellar example of lasting quality. Her angulation and body lines were exceptional, resulting in a ground-covering side gait that belied her age. Her head was smooth to the touch with beautiful skull and eye quality.

owned by Cheryl Pike and Donna McCulloch

This masculine tri-color dog presented a picture of total balance that was truly eye filling. He has a smooth, round muzzle, nice eye shape and color, flat skull, good legs and feet, strong back, good prosternum and ribbing and was exceptional coming at me. He put it all together on the day and drew me in with his smiling expression.

Owned by Jennie Hynes and Rose Tomlin

This young dog is age appropriate and has an outstanding frame. His bodylines are correct, balanced and elegant, and his movement reflects this. His head is light and well detailed and he had expression to burn.

Owned by Kim Aston and Peter Culumovic

This quality sable dog excels in beautiful smooth muzzle, eye shape and color and moves well on the "go round." Unfortunately, on this day, he didn’t want to use his body or ears to show his outline or expression to best advantage.

Owned by Linda Nicholas

Time has been kind to this veteran dog and he was having quite the day. His overall appearance, with his rich stand-off sable coat, took me back to some of the old Sea Isle dogs. He was balanced in body and head, covered ground well, and his expression conveyed that he was having the time of his life.

After looking at the catalog I realized that there were some interesting relationships within the finalists. One of the dog finalists was the sire of one of the final bitches. One of final bitches was the granddam of one of the dog finalists. Quite remarkable in an entry of this size!

Thanks to Rita Von Pusch and Keith Kozakiewicz and all the members of the show committee for yet another great National. Bravo!

Thanks to my fellow judges, Gayle Eads and Barbara Wright, for sending me such nice winners. Great job!

Thanks to Marjorie Tuff and Marcia Bittner and their team for their long hours of work to keep the ring moving. They are truly the heartbeat of the show.

Thanks to all the exhibitors for their participation and good sportsmanship. Without you there would be no show.

And finally, kudos to the breeders for creating such beautiful and inspiring dogs. You are the future of our breed.

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