I have been competing in Agility (Dog Jumping) for just about 22 years. I qualified as a judge 15 years ago, due to our Kennel Club rules only allowing individuals to judge at 18 years of age, I have been judging for the last 13 years. I thoroughly enjoy both the competing and judging side of things and have many ideas of how things 'should be'.
Due to our small numbers here in South Africa, you will often hear judges defending themselves or being defended by 'weekend warriors' or non-competitors and at some point the statement will come out 'but we can't lose him/her as a judge, so just leave it/let it be'. A statement to which I COMPLETELY disagree. If a judge cannot fulfil their duties, due to a lack of interest, ignorance, laziness, bias intentions, inability to understand the sport, refusal to admit shortcomings or any other fixable reason, then I would rather have one less judge.
Yes, more often it is competitors disrespecting judges, but tonight I need to vent with regards to judging.
I realise that judging Agility is generally a thankless, hot, unpaid job. I do it often enough myself to remember this. However, handlers spend hours and a small fortune on training and preparing for competition, as a judge you owe the competitors some time and commitment. Designing appropriate courses and studying them takes time, if you do not have a good few hours in the weeks preceding your appointment, don't accept it. On several occasions this year, I have 'assisted' judges in setting up courses, except there is no course plan and they are making it up as they go along? This goes hand in hand with laziness, where a judge will change a course from Grade 3 to the lower grades, but be unwilling to move one jump, change one angle, often making it more difficult for younger, inexperienced dogs.
Some judges spend so little time thinking about their courses that they are completely unjudgable (my own made up word). Can I effectively judge all my contacts? See all tunnel entries and exits? Will I be in the handler's way? Will I be standing at the correct angle for important obstacles like the tyre, long jump and wall jump? Can I judge all dogs/handlers equally on this course? Surely these are questions that any judge should not only be taught to answer when being qualified, but should realise very quickly when they start to judge? Design grade appropriate courses, think about what you are testing at every single obstacle or turn. Right it down and ensure you are not testing the same thing 3 or 4 times over and that you are not testing too little or too much.
Contact obstacles cannot be effectively judged from 20m away... or even 10m away really. Not at the speed dogs are moving in modern Agility. A dog walk cannot be judged accurately with a judge standing still, there has to be SOME movement. Or ask for an up contact judge! This is not admitting defeat, it is respecting competitors enough that you try to judge as accurately as possible. Try and design your courses so that the majority of the handlers will NOT be between you and the contact zone.
When measuring a distance between obstacles, use a measuring wheel to ensure that the distance IS in fact legal, pacing it out just will not do at the end of the day. If you measure it too short, you cannot just 'measure wider' to try and justify the distance. The dog's natural path is not the 'dog's adjusting to judge's measuring path'. While judges might differ dog's natural path, you cannot adjust measuring to justify yourself. On that note, use distances greater than 5m (much greater like 6m and 7m), this will avoid having this problem. Don't depend on software to dictate the distance, measure it on the day to be SURE you are happy. If your ring is suddenly smaller than expected, rather adjust your course to what it is on paper, don't 'squash' things!
If it is suggested in guidelines or rules that you have a 'straight approach' this means that it is for safety reasons. Saying 'but there is enough space to straighten your dog out', is NOT valid. The approach should be straight. The end. This also does not mean that the obstacle is necessarily 'straight on' from the previous obstacle, but that the dog's natural path will be straight on. It is a good idea to study dogs running on a regular basis to understand the natural path and straight approaches.
I think most importantly KNOW your rules, make sure that you read them each time the night before you judge. Look at the guidelines for refusals. Jumping over a tunnel if it is the next obstacles is NOT a refusal, handlers jumping over dog walks is an elimination, the long jump maximum distance is not 1.9 meters, you can only get 1 standard fault in the weave poles, touching the dog is faults, repeating the see saw after a fly off is a disqualification, you are allowed an up contact judge on the dog walk only, you cannot change timekeepers or scribes in the middle of a class... to name just a FEW I have seen this year!
Yes, the benefit of the doubt should always go to the dog, just remember that for each mistake you make in not calling a fault, another dog is losing out on a placing or a qualification or a win or a prize or just the knowledge that they finished in a top 10 or 5 or 20 for that matter. ALL judges will inevitably make mistakes, going both to the advantage and the detriment of the dog, but if you can say you made an honest mistake while being aware, having the knowledge, giving your best effort, that is okay. If it is due to bias against the handler, because you were busy on your phone, because you were looking away, because you were too lazy to move, because you didn't know your rules... then I think you should reconsider why you are judging!
I have all the time in the world for judges that TRY, I will continue to help them build courses, scribe for them, discuss judging with them and enter under them, despite any shortcomings. But for those that have shortcomings due to ignorance, bias, superiority... I think I will rather spend the time playing with my dogs, thank you.