'The Cream of the Crop': How the National Dog Show's Top Judge Evaluates Dogs in the Best in Show Ring
On one of the biggest dog show weekends of the year, Jeffery Pepper is sitting outside the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in a motorhome. He's bored.
He's taken a nap and read through emails, but all his friends are inside, where group judging at the 2021 National Dog Show presented by Purina has begun Saturday afternoon. But as the Best in Show judge, Pepper isn't allowed inside. He can't see the group-winning dogs until they enter his ring.
So he waits, with enough time on his hands to educate a pair of reporters for nearly 40 minutes on how he approaches his craft.
"I've got the easiest job," the judge with 36 years of experience says. "... I've got the cream of the crop."
Pepper, from Boynton Beach, Fla., only has to judge seven of the 1,584 dogs who started the day. The dogs he later inspected—German shorthaired pointer Jade; Kuvasz Mo'Ne; Scottish deerhound Claire; Lakeland terrier MM; affenpinscher Chester; English bulldog Winter; and Pyrenean shepherd Sasha—each won "best of breed" and later their groups.
He has no bad options, but his job is definitely not simple to a dog show dummy like me. His Best in Show decision will be based on his evaluation of each dog—how they match their breed's written standards, how they show in the ring, and whether they have a special something that makes them stand out.
"You have to focus on the whole picture," he says.
Pepper was speaking right after the herding group finished, so he had the breed standard for the Pyrenean shepherd on his iPad before him. If he knows the breeds he's judging, he always goes through the standards beforehand to prepare. He's been in the game so long that they're just refreshers, but he still needs them fresh in his mind.
That's because he'll get less than three minutes to look at each dog. The time actually drops to about 90 seconds when you take out all the paperwork and procedural processes, he says. So his judging starts right away, when the dogs enter the ring while he's nearby waiting to be introduced.
"I'm making some overall evaluations of how close they come to the written breed standard for that particular breed, on how well-balanced they are physically, their athleticism or lack thereof depending on what the breed's purpose is," he says.
None of the dogs are "perfect," so he'll have to decide where he might compromise. But what if he can't decide between two dogs? It's happened before, when he was judging a hound group that had two contenders: an Afghan hound and a whippet. They both moved well, but the whippet "held her curves" as she moved, and that's rare. So she earned Pepper's nod.
"It had something a little bit special that fit within the requirements of the breed standard that you don't see that often, so you reward the excellence of that," he says.
He dropped other knowledge during the interview: the variance of judges; how to get involved in showing (go to a show and talk to people); and how maybe just maybe a character in Best in Show was named for him. (He doesn't really know, though he probably could name who some of the characters are based on.)
After Dog Show 101 with the reporters, Pepper threw on his tuxedo and finally got to go inside. He awarded Best in Show to the Scottish deerhound, her second consecutive National Dog Show Best in Show. He said the dog "really filled my eye," part of his own continuing education.
"I'm still learning today," he says. "Every time I go into the ring, I learn something."