Donald Sturz, this year’s Best in Show judge, has spent the last few days in his hotel room isolating himself from news about which dog has so far won which prize in the competition.
“No Facebook, no nothing,” Sturz, 60, said by telephone. “I stay away from social media. I posted a picture of myself and my husband at the judges’ dinner party on Sunday night, and then I became radio silent.”
The idea, he said, is that when he enters the ring tonight, he will be free from preconceptions.
“Part of the dream of this refereeing job is that you go out on the floor and you have no idea who the seven dogs are that are coming in,” Sturz said.
Best in exhibition judging requires skills that are both special and peculiar. The dogs do not compete against each other per se, but are judged on how closely they adhere to a particular set of breed standards, as set by the American Kennel Club.
“It comes down to the dog that possesses the most virtues as described for their breed,” Sturz said. “They must also convey the essence of their race in behavior and character and transportation.”
With 209 different dog types competing in the show, Sturz needs to be familiar with the breed standards of them all. So he has studied, mostly by looking at endless pictures of dogs in books and magazines and on the net, to cement in his head a template of each breed, a kind of platonic ideal.
Regular people who watch dog shows often root for their favorite dogs – flashy golden retrievers, such as elegant Afghan hounds or silly sheepdogs – without realizing that these qualities do not necessarily count as winning virtues in the eyes of the judge.
“There are some breeds that lend themselves to an exhibition atmosphere,” Sturz said. “They are more active, flashy, more stylish and have more presence. But what we are looking for is what the breed should convey. “Some breeds are supposed to be more reserved and calm and regal, and that speaks 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 the Valley Stream 24 School District on Long Island. But he is also a lifelong dog enthusiast who has participated in dog shows for 50 years and judged in 32 of them, including in Westminster. This is the first time he has voted Best in Show.
When he spoke, Sturz did not yet know that one of the dogs in the final would be a French bulldog – and thus possibly a personal favorite, as he has someone named Emmet at home. (He also has a bull terrier, Lola.)
But he promised that no matter what he was confronted with, he would judge as a neutral observer, without fear or favoritism.
“Dogs are works of art,” he said. “I love all races.”