Judging Canine Superstars

For more than 30 years, Anthony DiNardo, D62, has been a renowned arbiter in the dog show circuit

Anthony Di Nardo and his dog

Anthony DiNardo, D62, peers into the mouth of the sturdy 4-year-old while a woman in pink looks on fondly. After a careful look, DiNardo appears satisfied. But rather than offering a smile, sticker or sugarless lollipop, DiNardo simply says “down and back,” and the young Rottweiler, with his elegant handler, trots briskly across the blue carpet. Spectators applaud as the dog returns and poses like a statue.

DiNardo is judging Best Bred by Exhibitor in Show at the 2013 American Kennel Club/Eukanuba World Championships in Orlando, Fla., and Tug, the Rottweiler, is one of seven canine superstars competing for the title. A win here is highly coveted; being invited to judge at the show is equally prestigious.

The audience is hushed as DiNardo writes his selection in his judge’s book, then turns back to the finalists. “Very nice lineup,” he says, before pointing to an enormously fluffy Old English sheepdog, who receives the award. The dog, Grand Champion Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect (Swagger to his friends), and his handler run a victory lap around the ring as the crowd cheers. This is one of the very rare dog shows where prizes include money; for besting more than 900 competitors, Swagger has earned $15,000.

DiNardo has been an AKC judge since 1980, and he and his wife, Sheila, also a judge, have owned many top-winning dogs. Their four children all showed dogs as junior handlers when they were growing up. Daughter Gina is now an assistant vice president with the AKC. It would be hard to find a man, or family, more immersed in the sport, but DiNardo says it happened by chance.

“My wife and I were looking for an activity that we could share as a family. I wasn’t particularly attracted to purebred dogs. The only dogs I’d seen in my life were Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.” A quest for a family pet led to the purchase of a Great Dane puppy that unexpectedly grew up to be the successful show dog champion Kim’s Sabu of Lyndane.

Sabu’s success led DiNardo to bichons frisés and the breed with which he’s most widely known: Doberman pinschers. He bred a record-setting Doberman, Champion Eagle’s Devil D, who was number-one dog in the breed from 1982 to 1985, as well as the winner of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America’s Top 20 and the breed’s national specialty show. Over the years, he and Sheila have also owned winning beagles, boxers, golden retrievers, Jack Russells and whippets. Portraits of the DiNardos’ dogs, best in show ribbons and scrapbooks bulging with show photos fill their Connecticut home.

In the DiNardos’ home today are Amazon and African gray parrots, a black pug with a graying muzzle, a Norwich terrier that’s been known to nip ankles and a delightfully friendly Doberman, D’s Big Girls Don’t Cry—known as Frankie—who strikes a perfect show pose when DiNardo offers her a treat (“bait” in dog show parlance).

Judging Against the Ideal

While the AKC Rules Applying to Dog Shows is a 60-page booklet, the basics of showing in the conformation, or breed, ring are simple. Each of the 178 breeds recognized by the AKC, the preeminent U.S. registry for purebred dogs, has a written standard that defines the ideal example of that breed. Specifications may include height, weight, shape of head, color, coat texture, eye shape, ratio of height to body length, stride, number and position of teeth and even personality. Each standard also points out what departures from the ideal are considered serious and what faults disqualify a dog from the ring.

All entrants at a show are judged against that ideal. Males and females first compete against their own sex for the title of “Winners,” an award that carries with it points toward an AKC championship. The two Winners then compete for the title Best of Breed with other dogs that are already champions. Each breed falls into one of seven groups—sporting, hound, working, terriers, nonsporting, toy and herding—and the Best of Breed winners in each group compete to win that group. The seven group winners then vie for Best in Show. Many dogs are shown by professional handlers hired by their owners, so some shows also have a Best Bred by Exhibitor competition, limited to dogs shown by their breeder and owner.

What makes dog shows intriguing, exciting and frustrating is that each judge interprets the breed standard differently. Because no dog can be perfect in every respect, it becomes a question of which flaws a judge will forgive and which strengths he or she will reward. Will the judge accept a slight coarseness in head in return for more correct markings? Will superb movement or an elegant head tip the scales?

Judges often refer to a dog “asking for the win,” and DiNardo saw that extra spark in Swagger, the Old English sheepdog at the World Championships in Orlando. “You get a feel. I never go against that. If I feel it, that tells me what I need to know.”

Becoming an AKC judge requires a number of years of experience owning, exhibiting and breeding dogs; a personal interview; a written exam; a number of practice assignments at competitions at which no championship points are awarded and three provisional assignments at regular shows completed under the watchful eye of an AKC representative.

DiNardo is approved to judge the working, sporting, hound, toy and nonsporting groups; Best in Show and more than 140 different breeds and varieties, from St. Bernards to chihuahuas. The bedrock principle for a good judge, he says, is to know and follow the standard. His careful examination of Rottweiler Tug’s teeth was due not to the fact that DiNardo is a dentist, but to the Rottweiler standard, which disqualifies any dog with two or more missing teeth.

“You’re nervous at the beginning,” DiNardo says. “And you’re nervous on your own breed, because you probably are overjudging.”

There’s a special excitement judging at the very highest levels—Best in Show at Westminster or the World Championships—because “you know you have achieved what you’re trying to achieve.”

A Thick Skin

“The biggest thrill is to judge a ring full of quality,” says DiNardo. “The hardest judging in the world is a ring full of mediocre dogs.”

He has judged in Europe, Jamaica and Argentina as well as across the United States. While judging dogs may sound glamorous, it means hours of travel and enduring broiling sun and pouring rain at outdoor shows.

A thick skin doesn’t hurt, either. Only a few exhibitors at any given show can win, and the competition is fierce. Exhibitors ringside can often be heard muttering about the incompetence or dishonesty of the judge.

Because a dog in a show is identified only by a numbered armband on the person showing it, in theory, judges don’t know the identities of the dogs that are entered. But many dogs are shown by well-known professional handlers or breeders whose reputations earn them careful consideration. Dogs that are at the top of their breed and highly ranked within their group or among all breeds are heavily advertised in magazines read by dog show aficionados. To “campaign” such a top dog can easily cost a quarter of a million dollars a year or more for expenses, such as travel, handler’s fees and advertising, so owners will often secure the support of a financial backer.

DiNardo acknowledges that professionals win more often than amateurs, usually because they present their dogs far better. But even for the best handlers, he maintains that “success starts with the dog.”

He’s proud of having an eye for young unknowns that go on to be top dogs. Among those he “discovered” was Ch. Snowshoe’s Escape to Big Sky, or Montana, which won Best of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club and was the number-two golden retriever in the U.S. two years in a row. DiNardo liked him so much he gave the 6-month-old puppy Best of Breed over champion competition and later became Montana’s co-owner.

A Life in Balance

Dog showing crept up on DiNardo unexpectedly, but he knew he wanted to be a dentist even before high school. “My family was Italian, and they wanted a doctor or lawyer in the family. I felt dentistry would be more conducive to work-life balance.”

Originally from West New York, N.J., DiNardo was raised in Seattle. After pursuing a predental curriculum at the University of Connecticut, he attended Tufts School of Dental Medicine and then volunteered for the Army Dental Corps. “Dental school was wonderful,” he recalls. He also relished his two-and-a-half years of army life at Fort Meade, Md. Today he’s a full-time dentist in the general practice he started in East Hartford, Conn., 48 years ago.

As he’d hoped, dentistry gave him a satisfying profession that allowed him and his family to pursue the avocation they discovered so unexpectedly when Sabu came into their lives. “What I really want people to know is that the dog hobby is great for the average family. It gives children what they can’t get staying home. Our family drove to shows, stayed in hotels, made all sorts of acquaintances. We had a lifestyle you can’t find in most hobbies,” he says.

Otherwise, “my wife would have had to watch me bowl.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Kim Thurler, the director of public relations at Tufts University and a Great Dane exhibitor, can be reached at kim.thurler@tufts.edu.

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