Donald Sturz, this year’s Best in Show judge, has spent the last few days sequestered in his hotel room, insulating himself from any news about which dog has won what prize in the competition so far.
“No Facebook, no nothing,” Sturz, 60, said by phone. “I’m staying off social media. I posted a picture of myself and my husband at the judges’ dinner party on Sunday night, and then I went radio silent.”
The idea, he said, is that when he enters the ring tonight, he will be free of preconceptions.
“Part of the dream of this judging assignment is that you walk out onto the floor and you have no idea who the seven dogs are who are coming in,” Sturz said.
Best in show judging requires skills that are both particular and peculiar. The dogs are not competing against each other, per se, but are judged according to how closely they adhere to a specific set of breed standards, as set down by the American Kennel Club.
“It comes down to the dog that possesses the most virtues as described for their breed,” Sturz said. “They also need to convey the essence of their breed in demeanor and character and carriage.”
With 209 different types of dog competing in the show, Sturz has to be intimately familiar with the breed standards of all of them. So he has been studying, mostly by looking at endless pictures of dogs in books and magazines and online, to cement in his head a template of each breed, a sort of Platonic ideal.
Regular people who watch dog shows often root for their favorite dogs — showy golden retrievers, for instance, elegant Afghan hounds or goofy sheepdogs — without realizing that those qualities don’t necessarily count as winning virtues in the eyes of the judge.
“There are some breeds that lend themselves to a show atmosphere,” Sturz said. “They are more active, flashier, more stylish and have more presence. But what we’re looking for is what the breed is supposed to convey. Some breeds are supposed to be more reserved and 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 the Valley Stream 24 School District on Long Island. But he is also a lifelong dog enthusiast who has been attending dog shows for 50 years and judging for 32 of them, including at Westminster. This is the first time he will award Best in Show.
When he spoke, Sturz did not yet know that one of the dogs in the finals would be a French bulldog — and thus possibly a personal favorite, given that he has one, named Emmet, at home. (He also has a bull terrier, Lola.)
But he pledged 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 breeds.”