Donald Sturz, this year’s Best in Show judge, has spent the last few days sequestered in his hotel room, isolating himself from any news about the dog that has won the show so far.
“No Facebook, nothing,” Sturz, 60, said by phone. “I’m staying off social media. I posted a photo of me and my husband at the judges dinner on Sunday night and then went silent on the radio.
The idea, he said, is that when he steps into the ring tonight, he will be free of preconceptions.
“Part of the dream of this judging assignment is that you’re walking on the floor and you have no idea who the seven dogs that come in are,” Sturz said.
The best show judgment requires both special and special skills. Dogs are not competed against each other, but are judged on how well they adhere to a specific set of breed standards, as defined by the American Kennel Club.
“It comes down to the dog that has the most virtues as described for their breed,” Sturz said. “They must also convey the essence of their race in their behavior, character and bearing.”
With 209 different types of dogs competing in the show, Sturz must be intimately familiar with the breed standards of each one. So he studied, mostly by looking at countless pictures of dogs in books, magazines, and online, to cement in his head a model of each breed, a kind of Platonic ideal.
Ordinary people who watch dog shows often root for their favorite dogs — showy golden retrievers, for example, elegant Afghan hounds or clumsy sheepdogs — without realizing that those qualities don’t necessarily count as virtues. winners in the eyes of the judge.
“Some breeds lend themselves to a show atmosphere,” Sturz said. “They are more active, flashier, more stylish and have more presence. But what we are looking for is what the breed is supposed to convey. Some breeds are meant to be more reserved, calm and regal, and that speaks just as much to a judge as the dog standing there wagging its tail and jumping up and down.
In real life, Sturz is the superintendent of Valley Stream 24 School District on Long Island. But he’s also a lifelong dog lover who has attended dog shows for 50 years and judged 32 of them, including at Westminster. This is the first time that he has awarded the Best in Show.
When he spoke, Sturz didn’t yet know that one of the dogs in the finale would be a French bulldog – and therefore possibly a personal favourite, given that he has one, named Emmet, at home. (He also has a bull terrier, Lola.)
But he promised that whatever he faced, he would judge as a neutral observer, without fear or favouritism.
“Dogs are works of art,” he said. “I love all races.”