After more than 40 years judging dogs, J. Donald Jones has achieved one of the greatest accomplishments in his canine career–serving as Best in Show judge at the Westminster Kennel Club competition, which takes place February 11-12, 2008, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Jones tells Smithsonian.com about the dog eat dog world in which he lives.
How did you get into this line of work?
First of all, it's not a job or work necessarily. It's a hobby. I'm a retired counseling psychologist and a university dean. I've been judging dogs since 1966, and I am 75 years old. I got started like mostly everybody else does who's a judge–by having my own dogs and showing them. Shortly after I got out of college, a friend gave me a German Shepard dog, and I showed it, and I won. That's a sure hook right there. As I moved along eventually, my profession became more demanding and after breeding a few litters of puppies and having several dogs that I've shown over the years, I didn't have as much time to do that as I used to. I needed to start doing something else and I started judging just a few shows now and then, early on. You develop your skills and you start with a few breeds and you keep adding breeds along the way that you can judge and that's what I did. When I retired, that just gave me more opportunity to expand my judging and it's carried to many interesting places.
What kind of background or training do you have?
You have to study. Experience is very important. You have to go to seminars that are on judging certain breeds. Judging dogs is both an art and science. The art would be having the eye that observes carefully and you can see balance and symmetry, shape and form. And then the science has to do with studying the breeds and learning the specifics of the breeds. Each animal has a standard of perfection–a written standard that describes what the perfect one would look like. You review the standard, and you judge the dog against that standard.
What is your typical day at a dog show like?
You go to the show grounds or the show building and you are assigned breeds to judge. You may have just a very few or you may have 12 or 15 different breeds to judge during the course of each day. That's according to the number of entries at the show. A judge can only judge 175 dogs a day. You go through and pick a best of breed in each of the breeds, then, at the conclusion of all the breeds being judged, you have those best of breed winners. They then compete in a group. Dogs are divided into seven groups. That group is determined by their purpose or what they were designed to do. Working dogs lead the blind, do police work, things of that sort. Then the first place from each group go into the ring and compete for Best in Show. So it's an elimination contest.
What's the most interesting part of your job?
I enjoy seeing the dogs because they're wonderful. They're beautiful. I enjoy the people at dog shows. I like people, I like dogs and I like to talk to people. The whole dog show is very interesting to me. You have to touch and examine the dogs, so you get to them, directly to the dogs and see their responses – wonderful responses most all the time.
What's been your most exciting moment on the job?
The most exciting time while judging (until now) has been judging a group at The Garden [at Westminster]. That's an exciting time because you're involved with the very best there is. This assignment will be the highlight, judging the Best in Show. But I've judged a group twice at The Garden. I've judged breeds at The Garden about six or eight times, so I've had that exciting experience. One of my really fine assignments was in Italy where I judged a large entry of Newfoundlands and they were the most beautiful, wonderful dogs I've ever judged.
Are there any downsides to your job?
Occasionally there may be, but I don't dwell on those at all. You might have a day where some of the dogs are not very good and you much prefer to see only good dogs. Then you might have a case where some of the people aren't exactly happy but that's rare.
Do you have any advice for someone who is interested in getting into this profession?
You don't get to be a judge until you've been involved with the dogs for years. You've got to be around for at least 10 years and you've got to have a great deal of experience in the breeding and showing of your own dogs.
What is the strangest thing that's ever happened to you while judging?
One of the funniest things I ever had happen was I had a Samoyed come into the ring and he went around the ring, stopped and I did the initial examination. He came back to go around again, and he looked a little funny. It took me another examination to discover that they had tied the tip end of the dog's tail to the hair on his back with fishing line. In other words, the dog wasn't holding its tail up like it's supposed to. If it doesn't, it's not going to get anywhere, so they made sure the tail stayed up. Of course that dog had to be sent from the ring.
What are you looking for in a Best in Show dog?
You are looking for the dog that is nearly perfect for his breed standard. That's basically what you're doing, not necessarily comparing the dog.
Show dogs always have some of the most unique names. Why is that?
A judge never sees the catalogue or the name of a dog. The individuals who name the dogs generally have a plan. Sometimes the dogs' names all begin with the same letter or there might be a Shakespeare litter where all the names are picked from Shakespeare characters. They have their kennel name, which is like a family name. You could even have a "Gone with the Wind" theme. It would be Scarlet of Wipperwillow or Rhett of Sand Mountain.
Do you have any dogs yourself?
I do not have a dog now. I travel extensively. When my last dog went away, I have not replaced it because I travel and I live alone. So I satisfy my dog play activity with the dogs at the dog show.