Michael Forte: The Interview
Shortly prior to his journey back to Dublin and with lovely impressions from the 3rd Specialty still vivid in mind, F.C.I. judge Michael Forte willingly shares some thoughts with us...
interviewed by Chrysanthe Michalopoulou, O.KA.E. vice president
photos: Thanos Fotakopoulos, kynology.gr
Sometimes exhibitors don’t realize that a judge makes mistakes. We are only human. And we remember our mistakes.
Q. What made you become a judge?
A. Good question. I've always liked a challenge. When I was showing originally, I would stand outside the ring and say to myself "I like this dog -whatever breed- I like this one, I like that one" and I'd always be interested to see what the judge would do. And if you put up something different I would always say: "Oh I got that one wrong". You know, I obviously didn't see that correctly. And then one day, they were doing in Ireland a show and they asked about 12 people: "Would you like just to do a judging course?" So I said "Yes, why not?" and so I did it. We used to have a lot of limit shows, they were not open shows or championship shows, they were just for silly things, like the dog with the nicest head, the dog with this, the dog with that. It was a great learning time, because the dogs that would come were all pedigree dogs. This was always on a Sunday and you would get maybe 100 - 200 dogs and they'd have maybe 4 judges. So, a river runs right through Dublin and you have the north side of the city and the south side of the city. And some of the classes could perhaps be all dogs living on the north side of the city. In that class you would might have 40 dogs and they'd be Terriers, Gundogs, Toys, everything. So, you got your hands on and you sort of judged what you thought could be winners. And then I got really enthusiastic, because I liked the idea of the challenge of it all. Later on, I did more studying and then they asked me that I do my own breed, which at the time was bobtails and so that was my first breed to judge and I really enjoyed it. What I love so much in judging is the challenge of it and the excitement of what you might find. I love going to a place that I know nobody and I don't know any of the dogs, which is even more challenging, of course, because you're picking from things that you've just seen at that moment. Sometimes exhibitors don’t realize that a judge makes mistakes. We are only human. And we remember our mistakes, we remember the dogs that we should have given maybe 1st and instead we gave 2nd or 3rd place.
Yes, you remember that, but you only have 2 or 3 minutes to evaluate movement, type, everything. It is quite complicated but it is challenging and that is what I love so much.
And that is why different dogs win. Because everybody is forgiving something different.
Q. How objective can a judge be?
A. A judge must be 100% objective.
Q. But he still is human..
A. Well, yes, I think a judge tries to be objective: but judging is about forgiving. And so, when you forgive something... For instance, I like a dog that is well-balanced and if the topline of the type is supposed to be level, I like it when the topline is level, I like the way a dog carries himself and I like soundness and of course breed type, that all comes into it. But some judges would forgive specific things. For example, I would forgive slightly closer rear movement to get the balance and the topline, because that is what I like. While another judge would want really sound movement and, so, he would forgive a weak topline, a little bit, we're only talking in small details... And so he would forgive that, to get what he wants. And that is why different dogs win. Because everybody is forgiving something different.
"I'm really sorry, your dog is absolutely showing herself off, but for breed type and for real real quality, it's the male."
Q. Have you ever had a dilemma in a show? And how did you cope with it?
A. I had a dilemma once in Palm Springs. I judged a big show and it was the starting show of the year. I was doing Best in Show and all the top dogs from America seemed to be there for this particular show. Most of these wonderful dogs had won their groups. I had the choice of picking one of these dogs. And I found it almost impossible. Because all I had to do was pick one. I couldn't even place 2nd and 3rd at a time, it didn’t exist. You don't. In America it was just the one. And I had these 7 dogs that were quite spectacular. And it was silly things, like, one of the dogs moved down and kind of jumped over something blah blah blah and I thought: “Ok, then I don't pick him.” It was that close. Everything about the dogs was so superb. And there was a dog that did absolutely nothing wrong. He just stood there, he was perfect and I just gave it to him. But I could have given it to my 2nd choice or my 3rd one. Those 7 dogs were so spectacular that that was my biggest dilemma. In Europe, most judges hate when they go and they find nothing that they like and they have to give "VERY GOODs". All judges what to give things. And so, when the quality is not up to it, you (as a judge) don’t, of course. So, you go back to the hotel disappointed, because you want to see good dogs. But it’s a good process, because you can withhold and say it’s a VERY GOOD or it’s a GOOD. You know, there have been times where I’ve done a breed and there's maybe only one EXCELLENT, and all have been only VERY GOOD. You don’t like doing it but it’s important. And so, that dilemma is taken away from you. If you don’t have the quality there is no dilemma, because you don’t have to give anything out. The only dilemma for me is when I get wonderful dogs and I’m thinking: “How am I going to pick one of these wonderful dogs?” But eventually you do.
If you don’t have the quality, there is no dilemma.
Q. Can you please describe what in your opinion the typical, standard Cavalier is?
A. For me it’s of moderate size, they're not too big, they're not too small. I like them with a beautiful outline first of all. When I see them going around the ring -and maybe this is because of my dogs, because they were bred for this- their heads are held at a nice angle, and their tails come straight out from the back, and thus you have a beautiful outline and free movement -first of all going around the ring. Even more importantly, it's the wonderful Cavalier temperament that everybody absolutely loves. Shy never gets placed by me at all. I like full eyes, I like eyes that are big, I don’t like to see white around the eye or even on the side of the eyes, for me it's something that I don't like. I like a soft gentle expression, I like fullness under the eye, soft cushioning and a nice foreface, a good neck and that's it. I think Cavaliers are very basic easy dogs, there's nothing strange about them, like for example English Bulldogs that have all kinds of angles and shapes. I mean, a Cavalier is quite a standard constructed dog. So, that is what I look for: the softness of the eye and expression, the nice head -I don't like a domed head (because you do see some) - I like it when the ear set gives a “flat” (but not flat) impression.. And then when I say: "Go around the ring" they go around the ring with good reach and nice movement from the rear with this wonderful line of balance.
There were 5 dogs that I liked and I could put them in any show that I'd judged and I'd still be looking at them and say "I'm picking you out of my line and let me have a look and see what I'm going to do with you now".
Q. What is your opinion about owner handling and professional handling?
A. In Ireland we don't have any really professional handlers. At all. Our Dog Shows may be from 1,100 dogs to 3,000 dogs and 99% of the dogs will be handled by the people who own them. Or, if somebody is too old or whatever, they would just give it to any of the other friends saying: “Would you mind showing my dog?” With no charge, of course. On the other hand, if you are a professional handler, you can get more from a dog. There's no question about that. Because I’ve seen it. Even though I judge, I wasn't a great handler. The dogs wouldn't listen to me particularly. If they didn't have it naturally, I certainly couldn't make them do it. And yet I remember I had a very difficult Tibetan Spaniel that wouldn't do anything for me and a friend of mine from England came over and she said: “I'll take him to the ring for you. Would you like me to?” And I said” “Oh, please, he's so naughty”. And she could do anything with him. He performed like a dream for her. Because he knew that I wouldn't be too strict on him… I was so dopy. And I don't actually penalize... well, for instance: If I have a dog that I like and it's not going particularly well with the owner handler and then there's another dog that is really going so well but is not the type that I'm looking for, I don't care about that dog. I would go for the dog that is maybe quite performing the way he should do. I intend to say to the owner: “Please, do this, take more lead or less lead or don't look at him” or do whatever so that the owner handler would do it better. And most of the times it works. And to be honest, all I want to see is the owner and the dog going around once doing it properly. If he messes in place afterwards, I don't mind. I would still give it to him, because I've seen what he can do. I am not there to just put up a dog that just performs beautifully. In fact, that actually happened in Scandinavia, where I was doing French Bulldogs many years ago. And the male was absolutely spectacular. The breed type, everything that the dog had. The female? Not as good. But she showed her heart out. I mean she really, really showed so beautifully. But I said to the female's owner: "I'm really sorry, your dog is absolutely showing herself off, but for breed type and for real real quality, it's the male. I'm giving it to the male." But you have to do things like that. As I said, other judges might say: "No, I'm giving it to the one that's showing really beautifully". And that's fair too.
I was expecting out of the 32 dogs maybe 25-26 that would be pets... Just pets. And ordinary nice. Nothing special...
Q. Now that the CKCS Specialty of Greece is over, what is your honest opinion about the level of the Cavalier breeding in Greece?
A. This is a very easy question for me now (laugh)... Before the show, I didn't know what to expect and I thought a Club starting off just now, like 6 years or so, this is your 3rd breed show, and I was expecting out of the 32 dogs maybe 25-26 that would be pets... Just pets. And ordinary nice. Nothing special... And I was so surprised; I was so thrilled and delighted for the club. I saw a beautiful puppy that I loved, a minor puppy that I loved, a junior black and tan that I loved... And then the other dogs started coming in, the Opens and the Champion Dogs... There was some real quality there that I felt that they could be anywhere and they would still be competing and perhaps winning at times. And there were certainly ones that you would not ignore and say "They are not up to that standard". There were 5 dogs that I liked and I could put them in any show that I'd judged and I'd still be looking at them and say "I'm picking you out of my line and let me have a look and see what I'm going to do with you now". And ok there might be there some nicer, I don't know, but they would certainly be considered.
Q. Would you consider revisiting one of our next Club Specialties just to see how the current dogs have developed?
A. (laugh) Funny you should say that... Ι was thinking that I've had such an amazing time that I would love not even to tell you I was coming but simply come back for a week's holidays and maybe do an island for two days and then come to Athens and just pop into the show because I would love to just sit there in that atmosphere, because the atmosphere was so good outside the ring, you could feel it, and it would be actually lovely sitting in it and enjoy watching what the next judge is going to do.
We are thankful to Michael Forte for this lovely interview.