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The COVID Crufts 2020

   Supporting agility dogs with specialist lifetime cover

We zoom in on two of the judges...

Martin Cavill

David Isbister

 Photos: Linda Gore Photography

Another year and another of Crufts. Overall it was a great success despite being overshadowed by COVID-19. The courses ran well and competitors loved them. The audiences went wild in the aisles, and the dogs lapped them up – getting better and faster than we could have ever imaged. But did the judges agree? Photographer Linda Gore and Julie Stevens talked in-depth to  two of the senior judges - Martin Cavill and David Isbister.

Q. Do you  know how the Crufts judges are chosen?  Do you have to apply or are you approached direct?

David:  I'm not sure exactly how the Kennel Club selects judges for Prestige Events except they are picked from the Champ judges pool. Martin, however, is on a few of the committees so will have a better idea.

Martin: As I sit on the Prestige Events Working Party at the KC, I know how judges are selected for the prestige events like Crufts. There is a defined pathway which has been followed for quite a few years, starting with the judging of Semi-finals for Olympia, working through to Crufts YKC finals, Discover Dogs Finals, then onto Crufts Finals and Olympia Finals and the ultimately the Crufts Championship Final.

 David: I did not apply. I was invited by a letter direct from the Kennel Club.

Martin: There is no formal application process for Prestige Events like Crufts. You are recognised by the selection committee and put onto the path. One of the pre-requisites for the Main Arena is having Champ judge status. Whilst this is the case for the main and Championship judge - and historically has been the case for the YKC Final judge - the process changed a few years ago with a drive to bring on the up and coming judges who have been through the YKC process.

Q. What was it like having to keep it a secret for so long!

Martin: I was asked to judge about three years before the appointment which, at the time, it seemed a long long way off.  Of course, you're not supposed to tell anybody, but inevitably word gets out that you are doing it. For me, it was an honour to be asked and I wanted to tell people what I was doing, but right up to the event you cannot advertise it or mention in any way.

David: It was not too difficult for me keeping it quiet. I just had to make sure I was not selected to judge any Crufts qualifying events for 2020.

Q. You mentioned that judges get to shadow the previous years judges. What does that mean?

Martin: Shadowing is a good opportunity to see how things work both on the floor and whilst the agility was running in a short time as well as what happens behind the scene on the day.

David: This year for the first time, the Kennel Club introduced the Dog Walk Up Contact Judge which meant that there were two of us in the Main Ring. The Crufts ring can be a lonely place so having Martin as my Dog Walk Up Contact judge was great. I believe this is a step in the right direction because It means the judge doesn't have to run the dog walk and can design courses to take that into account.

Q. This year for the first time the Kennel Club brought in an Assistant Judge. What was her role?

Martin: Amanda Pigg was great. She was there for times when either Dave or I couldn't be in the ring due to a family conflict. It was a bit of trial and error but overall I think we would agree that it was a positive thing especially when there was a decision that we weren't 100% sure about. A nod or thumbs up is very reassuring especially when you have the big screen right above your head replaying every mistake the dogs made - something I did not like.

David: Although the role of Assistant Judge is not as high pressure as being the main judge, I believe they can play a constructive role in enabling the main judge to be in the correct position all the way round the course, especially with the current speed of dog walks. I think it also is a reassurance for the competitors, too as there is an extra resource to minimise any possibility of mistakes and to backup correct decisions.

Q.  What did you have to keep in mind when designing the courses – I am thinking about the size of the arena, the surface, noise etc.

Martin: We were expected to submit our courses for approval earlier in the year. When designing them, you have to bear in mind that for the competitors it's a final, but for the crowd it's an entertainment and exhibition of what is possible. Nobody wants to see dog a go wrong, so my courses were designed to test a variety of skills to demonstrate what the partnerships could achieve.

Having judged recently at competitions in Europe and preparing for the European Open, placement of obstacles and reuse of obstacles has become a greater consideration for me. If a pole drops, you want the ring party to be able to reset as easily and quickly as possible so that every dog completes the same course.

David: In the past, the artificial grass was a major issue, but now it is really good and the dogs don't seem to slip.

Martin: The arena is surprisingly bigger than you think. It's not much smaller than a standard KC ring. I think the KC committee have done a good job of making the ring as big as possible to benefit the agility. I intentionally set the obstacles more into the ring than you normally would to allow a bit more of a ‘run off.

David: You definitely do not want the dogs banking the side walls!

Martin: And it's important to remember that a number of the dogs have not seen the carpet before so safe dog liNES ARE IMPORTANT.

David: One of the more unusual things to bear in mind is the second judge in the Agility classes. While it gave more flexibility in one respect, it also meant another person in the ring to factor in when designing them course.

Martin: Another thing to take into consideration is the VIP seating in the evening sessions. The last thing they would want is for a dog to run full speed running across the laps of the VIPs in the red seats whilst trying to negotiate a sequence.

Q. Do you think there is a difference between judging the various sizes at such a big event? Do you prefer Jumping or Agility?

Martin: I used to prefer judging Agility, but now I feel that Jumping gives me the freedom to design technical challenging sequences without the constraints of the contact equipment.

David: I am not sure there is a difference in judging the different sizes. I wanted all sizes to have challenges and also for the handlers to be able to go out and enjoy their time in the ring. For a lot of people, it is a once in a lifetime experience.

Martin: I agree. There is no difference. Agility is so fast now that the dogs are travelling at similar rates and completing the courses in similar times. The hardest thing to plan for when all heights are running the same course (Crufts Singles etc.) is ensuring safe lines and approaches to contacts and that any sequence or test is appropriate for all sizes of dogs

Q. Was there anything that surprised you after that experience?

Martin: You realise how much you need and rely on the ring parties help.

David: I agree. The ring party was amazing and they really do a lot of the hard work. I did not appreciate just how much work goes on behind the scenes. That it runs so smoothly is testimony to the job they all do.

Q. What about support at home from family, friends, grooms and clubs?

David: One of the issues we had this year was that both Martin and I had partners who had qualified for Crufts. It meant that the classes had to be rearranged so that we did not judge our partners. It also meant that we could not act as second judge or assistant judges in those classes. Happily that's when Amanda stepped in and I must say that she looked very at home in the Main Ring.

Martin: The family judging rule certainly complicated matters for both of us. For instance, my wife Rosie could not qualify for the Olympia Finals in 2018 and then couldn't qualify for Crufts events for 2020. Nevertheless, she has been very supportive of my judging, and I really do appreciate it.

Luckily, David and I are good friends and we agreed with the Organising Committee that, should either of our partners qualify for any event, we would request not to judge. The Committee was very accommodating and allowed our partners to still compete in one event each and worked around this. This I believe is one of the first times this has happened, and we are grateful for it.

David: My family support was great. As the father of two young children it was a little more challenging for my partner Selena Bray who had to take care of the kids. However, I did take over for the Sunday as Selena had qualified for the Small Champ.

Q. When the big day arrived, where did you stay? How long did it taken for them to get to NEC?

Martin: All judges are put up in the Hilton which is very convenient for the NEC and it's only a short 10 minute walk away.

David: I have to say that the Kennel Club really did go out of its way to ensure we are well looked after in terms of accommodation. There was always a table booked at the hotel so that, if we wanted, we would not have to either make our own arrangements or eat alone and, of course, there were always Martin, Neil and Ryan to spend the downtime with.

Martin: Unless you have judged at a top event, you might not appreciate is how much work is involved before and after your 20 minutes in the ring. There is an hour of build up beforehand, and a good hour afterward with presentations and photos etc. Maintaining maximum focus and concentration in those short periods is actually very tiring and after three days, it's nice to be able to just go back to hotel and put your feet up for an hour or two.

Q. And now the big question... How did you choose what to wear? Shoes? Clothes etc.

Martin: No matter how you attend Crufts - as a visitor, competitor or judge - you walk miles every day so everything needs to be comfortable. The dress code is strict for the Main Ring as you would expect so for me it was just a choice of what colour shirt, suit or tie to wear. David and I tried to co-ordinate a bit also.

Martin: Martin and I both have jobs that require us to wear suits at work and to judge and  so we simply wore what we would normally wear, although maybe slightly nicer suits than if we were standing in a field on a day that was likely to rain.

Martin: The one thing you cannot prepare for is the heat. The lights can be extremely hot especially when the arena is packed.

Q. How did you feel afterwards? Must have been a bit of a let down especially as COVID-19 got all the attention.

Martin: The end of the show is a bit of an anti-climax. You are on a maximum high for three days solid and, after the last run, it all comes to a sudden halt. That was and is the hardest thing at the end of a big finals competition.

COVID is COVID. We have all had to learn how to live with it like we probably will have to for a long time still to come. At Crufts everything possible at the time was being done and all guidance was followed. I'm glad that Crufts was probably the last Agility that took place before everything locked down as so many people had committed and worked hard for it to happen. What COVID holds for 2021 we don't know.

David: I felt I was very lucky. I had thought it would be one of those appointments that I would not enjoy it until after it was over. As it turned out, I enjoyed it all. While there is an element of nervous energy when about to start a class, I cannot think of any aspect I did not enjoy at the time.

After it was over it was back to life as normal... well, for a couple of weeks at least. I do not feel that it was a let down. I was very fortunate to have had that experience, and I doubt anything will replace the Saturday nights' final for me. An amazing sense of energy and excitement right up to the end.

Q. With hindsight is there anything you would have done differently?

David: Nothing. Not every class ran as I had hoped but it's the culmination of everything that makes the whole experience an event to remember. All the competitors and their dogs coped really well under great pressure.

It is difficult to start mentioning names but I did feel that Martin's experience shone through. His calm effective approach coupled with his modern course designs were very well received by all. When he was not the main judge, he was there assisting me which made my role so much easier and more enjoyable

Martin: No. Is there a better place to showcase our wonderful sport that is Agility? Is there a better dog show in the world? I doubt it!

First published 19th June 2020


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