Judging Blinds Part 2

Written by: Ted Shih and Dennis Voigt - August 01, 2009


by Theodore Shih, Denver, Colorado and Dennis R. Voigt


We ended off last issue talking about the purpose, design and initial evaluation of blinds. Now we come to one of the real challenges of judging retrievers, the evaluation of blinds and marks in relation to each other. Each weekend around the country we see great variation in how different judges tackle this topic. Many judges point to particular sections of the rule book to justify their call backs or placement. Another judge, Rule book in hand comes to a different conclusion. So our first issue is “what does the rule book say and what is its intent? Our second issue is the challenge of comparing apples and oranges. The apples are the marks and the oranges are the blinds. It’s not just a case of comparing a rotten apple or orange but also when a particular orange is preferred over a particular apple. Even if apples are worth more than oranges, a good orange may have much more value than a poor apple.


Dennis:  Ted, I don’t know if you like apples better than oranges but I do know that many judges rank marks much higher than blinds. They invariably cite the Rule book. Both the AKC and CKC retriever field trial rules have similar wording although not identical.


What the Rule Books say:

AKC-Basic Principles, “Accurate marking is of primary importance. A dog which marks the fall of a bird, uses the wind, follows a strong cripple, and will take direction from his handler is of great value.”

CKC-Basic Principles, “Accurate marking and memory of multiple marks are of primary importance, but a dog which proceeds to the general area of the fall and uses the wind to hunt the bird out in a pleasing manner is of great value. A dog that handles sharply and positively on a mark should be given credit for its performance based on the relative performance of other dogs participating in the test.

A dog that will handle sharply and positively take directions from his handler on a blind retrieve is also of great value.”


        When I read this carefully, it says that accuracy is primary but that a good hunt is of great value. Both books say that a dog that takes direction is of great value. The CKC book additionally mentions values such as memory, style (pleasing manner) and sharp and positive handling. This section was amended from a version like the AKC wording. Obviously somebody thought it needed elaboration.

        Both AKC and CKC books elaborate later on. The AKC has a supplement whose stated purpose is greater uniformity in conduct and judging of trials. Under evaluation of dog work, it says, “Accurate marking or memory of falls is of paramount importance.” The word paramount is another take on primary and means at the top etc. The book goes on to talk a lot about hunts, area of fall, intelligence, nose, perseverance and style. This is a really important section when evaluating marks and we covered many aspects earlier. This section is followed by the evaluation of abilities acquired through training. It emphasizes that these are of lesser importance in minor stakes but “full refinement” is expected in championship stakes. The importance of control and response to direction is emphasized along with discussion of faults.

        The CKC book has these topics not in a supplement but as a separate section of evaluation (16). Although the lay-out is the same and some additional traits (e.g. sagacity) are identified, the wording is essentially the same-use of the word paramount, and the importance of control and response to direction. Both books state that the judges MUST judge the dogs for their abilities acquired through training as well as their natural abilities.

        When I study all these sections and compare both books, I conclude that we have to seriously consider blinds in relation to marks. Both are of great value. It also seems that a dog must display good marking as judged by accuracy, good hunts and memory. The reference to primary and paramount suggest marks are a first consideration but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they trump all blind work. I’m inclined to think more that it means that if the dog does not display good marks, he is in real jeopardy for call backs or placing. However, the dilemma remains for the dog that has excellent marks but a weak blind. What do you think?


Comparing Marks and Blinds on game day:


Ted:  I have a saying – “Great marks grant a dog grace, not absolution” – that reflects my personal attempt to find a balance between marks and blinds. To honour the premise that “marking is of primary importance,” I will carry a dog that has great marks, but poor blinds. That is the grace great marks obtain.

        However, a failure on a blind is a failure. No matter how great the marks, they do not grant absolution from failure. If you fail a blind, no matter how magnificent your marks, you are out of the trial.

        As for the issue of not considering blinds at the end of the day, I cannot believe that anyone who has seriously studied the Rule book could conclude that blinds are to have no consequence in awarding placements.


Dennis:  I have to agree. I cannot turn a blind eye to a bad blind. But, I do find I have trouble dropping dogs on blinds in comparison to many that I judge with. It has to be a pretty flagrant series of refusals, failure to negotiate hazards or out of control. Only, in such cases, can really good marks can be ignored. I can go along with dropping a dog on a first weak blind only when paired with 2 or 3 weak marks. In other words after 4-5 birds you may not call back a dog who hasn’t failed any one bird but on the other hand hasn’t had any good work either. Quite often such dogs get one more look.

        When determining placements one might encounter a situation where one dog had 6 perfect marks, one poor blind and one OK blind. Dog 2 had 4 perfect marks, and two marks with reasonable hunts combined with 2 very good blinds. I’d vote for Dog 2 but I know that some judges would be so impressed with 6 perfect marks they’d ignore the blinds.

        I often hear judges declare “marking is of primary importance” when they are determining or defending their placements at the end of the day. Thus, quite weak blinds get ignored when awarding the places. On the one hand, perhaps the biggest frustration I hear from fellow handlers is dismay about being dropped on the land or water blinds after excellent marks earlier. We’ve all run those trials where some specific hazard or a critical location becomes the criteria for callbacks. These two examples, ironically, display opposite philosophies. It seems to me that the evaluation of blinds is a source of great variation in field trials on both sides of the border. I often wonder if we are getting it right. Or have we drifted into an area where it’s hard to evaluate blinds versus marks in the interests of finding the best dogs?


Ted:  The more I think about this dilemma, the more I think it may stem from a well intentioned, albeit – in my opinion – misguided effort to eliminate subjectivity from judging.

        By this I mean that people want clear, well defined criteria – objective criteria, if you will – by which to judge dog performance. When judging marking, people judge lines because a line provides a clear objective definition of performance. Similarly, when judging blinds, people count whistles and/or look to see whether the dog has navigated one of several key holes successfully. Those criteria are objective, easy to apply, and easy to defend.

        If a judge focuses on lines on marks, and whistles and key holes on blinds, then it becomes easier for him to judge – and to defend his decisions – than it is if the judge is to make subjective decisions about the quality of the mark and of the “performance of [a blind] in its entirety.”

        My analogy would be that of judging student performance in school. In the public schools, there has been a movement towards assessing student performance on the basis of test scores. Of course, the proponents of standardized testing point to its objectivity. Previously, students were graded individually by teachers. This method was, of course, subjective. Proponents of subjectivity in grading focus on the complexity of evaluating learning and argue that standardized tests do a poor job of measuring a child’s education.

        I think we face the same dilemma here. Curiously, I think that the movement in field trial judging has caused contestants to look for keyholes where none may exist. I recently judged in Kentucky. At the end of the trial, I was speaking with Andy Attar, who was one of the contestants whose dogs I judged. Andy described the different parameters that he thought might have defined our land blind. I told him that he had made the land blind far more difficult than I and my co-judge had imagined. But, I think that Andy’s comments reflect the direction that the sport is moving.


Dennis:  You may be dead on regarding the quest to eliminate subjectivity. I routinely hear “new” judges complain about the Rule book as not being black and white or clear enough. They seem to want the objective standardized testing kind of book. And yet when I read the Book these days, I find all sorts of guidance, philosophy and details about evaluation. Even though I have a scientist’s background I have no problem with making assessments about the quality of work. That necessitates some subjectivity. That subjectivity doesn’t mean that I can’t be consistent or even objective about the quality of work. In other words I should have no bias about breed, owner or previous knowledge of the dog. In your business as a lawyer, surely even the court justice system also has room for both subjectivity and objectivity.


Ted:  In the justice system, laws provide a framework for decision. However, those laws must be applied to a variety of circumstances and then applied to those circumstances through the subjective decisions of judge or jury.        In our sport, the Rule Book provides the framework for how a dog’s work should be judged. Then the judges must apply that framework to the actual circumstances of their field trial.

        I think that what concerns both of us is the frequency with which people disregard the Rule Book, leaving us with subjectivity which ignores the underlying framework for decision making.

        I think that the Rule Book is a marvellous piece of work. Each time I read it I find some new nuance that I had not noticed before. Each time I read it, I have a greater appreciation for the insight and understanding that the original authors had for dog work.

        One thing that has become apparent to me as we have progressed in our series of articles, and especially this one, is how much I value the subjectivity that thoughtful judges bring to the process.

        For example, the word “style” is used eight (8) times in the Rule Book and “poor style” is classified as a moderate fault. Obviously, style was significant to the writers of the Rule Book. Yet, how does one define style objectively? The answer is that it cannot be done so – it is a subjective judgment. The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” I feel the same way about style, “I know it when I see it.”

        I think that style should play a larger role in our evaluation of dog work than it seems to play. More to the point of this article, I believe that the “modern” blind with its many tight corridors and key holes penalize the stylish dog and reward the piggy one.


Dennis:  I agree with your example of judging style as being one of those subjective but extremely important areas that we should all consider. Unfortunately, such traits see much variation in evaluation from one weekend to the next. Our original problem of apples and oranges probably has raspberries, lemons and bananas to consider also. It seems we have a whole bowl of fruit to consider.

        But, even if we just considered apples and oranges, I suspect that we couldn’t paint a simple picture. Granted, we could draw out a dozen performances, discuss each in turn and come to some conclusions. But, I’ve also seen discussions about such diagrams deteriorate into debates on whether Mark A is a good mark an OK mark or a weak mark. Similarly some will argue about how good Blind B is. I think that’s a totally different topic than how to compare marks against blinds. The important discussion for this article is that if we agree on the scoring and value of the marks and also on each of the blinds, how do we evaluate and compare them together to determine call-backs and placements.

        Let’s assume that as co-judges, you and I can agree on the scoring of individual marks or blinds. We agree on what is good and what is bad. Now when it comes to evaluating overall performance and ranking dogs, what factors do we consider? How important is difficulty of a particular marking set-up versus a blind? How will we rank cast refusals on a blind with marking weaknesses such as a big hunt on the wrong side or a grossly cheaty line to a mark. How do we rate a handle on a mark with a dog that missed a hazard on a blind? We need to agree on this for both call backs and placements.

        During call backs I want to look at both the apples and oranges as well any other fruit. But you and I don’t have rank the dogs and their marks versus blinds. All I want to do is look at the overall performance to confirm that we should keep the dog. I don’t care about bruised fruit only rotten fruit! I think that there are quite a few judges that look at recent work and try to find reasons to drop a dog during call backs. They don’t seem to have trouble dropping dogs after blinds. This is quite a different philosophy perhaps because during call backs they don’t look enough at overall performances to find reasons to keep a dog. Then, at the end of the day they declare that `marking is of primary importance and the best marks win. Others say that because you have 2 blind retrieves and 6-8 marked retrieves you are automatically putting much more emphasis on marks to make it primary.

        My personal view is that I think at the end of the day I should strive to evaluate each retrieve and its difficulty in relation to each other (blinds and marks) and each other dog. I do think performance on marks should be directly compared with performance on blinds. I want to see the all around dog-one who can mark but also line and handle. Incidentally, I find it interesting when you do this how seldom the line to the mark is important.


Ted:  I guess I am really fixated on the subjective aspect of judging at the moment. First, when evaluating the significance of blinds to marks in rewarding placements as a general matter, I would also agree that I could not answer without knowing the relative difficulty of the specific tests. For example, if for one reason or another, my marking tests (or specific marks within my land and water marking tests) were easy and many of the dogs smoked the marks, while my land blind or water blind chewed them up, I would emphasize the blind more in evaluating placements. My answer would depend on the specific circumstances.

        Since I am fresh from a recent judging assignment, I offer some examples as to how I approach judging marks and blinds to find the best overall performance.

        The first series was a wide open triple with two retired guns. The field was fabulous, our holding blinds were well concealed, and the wind remained constant all day. The test was very difficult. Of the 62 starters, 24 picked up or handled. Another 8 dogs either hunted two birds hard, or simply had no idea where one of the birds was, and stumbled on it. We brought back 32 dogs to land blind. Of those 32, maybe 5-8 had excellent work on all three birds. The general consensus was that callbacks were generous.

        Our land blind was of average difficulty. Five dogs picked up. A few dogs did excellent work. A few were hacky. Most dogs did okay work. We brought everyone who did not pickup back. Why? Because, other than the pickups, there were no failures, and because there really wasn’t enough separation to justify dropping the remaining dogs. So we brought 27 dogs back to water blind.

        Our water blind was of above average difficulty, but not what I would call particularly hard, because the wind was at our backs, and not cross wind towards land as it was when we set up. I think five dogs picked up. Those dogs failed. Using your analogy, the fruit was rotten. Two dogs avoided the hazards of the test, by swimming way wide of a heavily scented shoreline where we had sluiced the water. In our opinion, those dogs had also failed because they had made no effort to perform our test, and demonstrate the dogs’ ability to take a line and/or willingness to accept directions from the handler in the face. Again, the fruit was rotten. Seven dogs with mediocre marks also had mediocre water blinds. Using your analogy, their fruit was all bruised, with nothing to recommend itself for future evaluation. A few dogs had mediocre water blinds (bruised fruit), but good land marks on a very hard test (perfectly appearing and tasting fruit). So we came back with fifteen dogs to the water marks.

        On the water marks, we had a triple of above average difficulty. Two dogs picked up. One dog handled. Three or four dogs had big rangy hunts on the long retired bird. Although there were slight differences, the remaining dogs had very similar work. In working out our placements, we looked first at our marks. Because there was little separation in the dogs on the water marks, and because our land marks were so hard, we focused on the land marks.

        There were four dogs that had very good land marks. We then looked at our land blind and our water blind, placing more emphasis on the latter, because it was harder. When we went through that process we had two dogs at the top of the heap. The winning dog had slightly better land marks, equivalent water marks, and superior blinds on both land and water. In my mind, the dog’s overall performance on both marks and blinds earned it the win.


Dennis:  Here’s my summary then of picking out which fruit bowl dog is the best. Each one of the fruits has value, be they surrogates for marks, blinds, style or obedience. Evaluation of both taste and appearance may vary among judges but be consistent. Subjective as well as objective evaluation may be necessary. Rotten fruit can ruin the whole bowl. You cannot keep good apples and ignore rotten oranges. Rotten fruit has to go no matter what it is. But don’t prematurely throw away the whole fruit bowl just become some fruit you don’t care for is slightly bruised. If some bowl contains fruits that are much harder to obtain, it should be given high value in comparison to others. You should always look for the best overall fruit bowl, not just the shiniest apples.

        Maybe next issue we should talk not just about the fruit but about the menu-that is, the Rule book. Where can it be improved? Is the philosophy of recent changes and recommendations taking us down the road to better judging?  

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Written by: Ted Shih and Dennis Voigt| August 01, 2009
Categories:  Judging

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