Rita Bell of North Collins is an American Kennel Club judge who is devoted to dogs. Born in Girard, Pa., Bell moved to Western New York after graduating from Edinboro State College (now Edinboro University). For more than three decades, Bell worked as a math teacher in the Eden Central School District.
Bell is now retired, and she spends much of her time with her German shorthaired pointers, including Phoenix, a grand champion. Next weekend, Bell will be one of the judges at the Nickel City Cluster dog show, which features AKC clubs from Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Ashtabula, Ohio. The event, which runs from Wednesday through Sunday at the Fairgrounds in Hamburg, will draw hundreds of entries.
People Talk: Were you always into dogs?
Rita Bell: We always had dogs in the house, but I grew up showing horses. We had a pasture and barn in our backyard, and for my sixth birthday, my grandfather brought over a pony called Bobby. My parents were not real thrilled.
PT: What attracted you to pointers?
RB: I’m not really a toy dog person. I like all dogs, but I wanted to have a dog that had a job to do. Pointers hunt birds, and they’re very good with people. They’re protective, but they’re not aggressive. This breed appealed to me. I think they’re a very attractive dog.
PT: Was earning your accreditation with the American Kennel Club an arduous task?
RB: Absolutely. We kid each other about the time we spend being approved to judge. We could have been doctors or lawyers. I took my first test and had my first interview in 1995. Because I was a breeder, I was only allowed to apply for one breed. I was approved in 1996 to judge German shorthaired pointers and junior showmanship. It took me six or seven years to be approved to judge the entire sporting group.
PT: Why does it take so long?
RB: There’s a standard for each breed. Many of the breeds have disqualifications, and you have to be able to recite them during an interview. A certain number of times you have to be observed by an AKC field representative. If you get a number of positive evaluations, they will approve you for permanent status.
PT: Do you command respect in the ring?
RB: I taught math in junior high and high school in Eden for 31 and a half years. Teaching for that many years gave me the ability to go into a ring, judge a dog show and command a certain amount of respect.
PT: Don’t dog judges have to make their decisions in a matter of seconds?
RB: Yes. AKC recommends a judge take two minutes for each dog. If you have a class of 30 dogs, you are expected to finish in 60 minutes. So you can’t stand and stare and think about it. Like, this one has a wonderful head. This one moves better. You can’t stand and analyze. That’s why you need to know the breed standards.
PT: Is your decision final, or can it be challenged?
RB: There are no challenge flags thrown at a dog show. An exhibitor who may not like what a judge decides could choose not to enter their dog under that judge again.
PT: Have you ever been bitten on the job?
RB: No, though that could be a job hazard. I mean, some judges have been bitten, and the dogs are disqualified. Biting a judge is highly frowned upon. You can tell by looking at the dog’s eyes, usually. There are aggressive biters and there are fear biters.
PT: Are there other drawbacks to being a judge?
RB: The travel, and going through security. Very seldom do I have a direct flight anywhere I’m going. So the travel is very tiring. Standing on hard floors is tiring.
PT: Do judges have a dress code?
RB: No. I try to wear a skirt, or in the summer a dress. I don’t often judge in slacks.
PT: What makes Westminster Kennel Club shows so special?
RB: Westminster is a bench show. Dogs have to be in the building all day. They have to be in a crate on a platformlike bench. Philadelphia is still that way, too. Spectators can walk up and down the aisles looking at the dogs in the crates.
PT: Why are dogs so popular these days?
RB: People are realizing how wonderful dogs are. People kind of come and go, but dogs love you unconditionally. If you’ve been gone all day, they’ll still love you. If you yell at them, they forgive you.
PT: Is there a shortage of judges?
RB: I wouldn’t say so, but it is difficult for a judge to come up through the system and become an all-breed judge. There are seven groups. I’ve been doing this since 1995, and I have two groups, but I didn’t pursue it as rapidly as I could. It takes a good part of a lifetime, so by the time somebody is an all-rounder they’re old.
PT: What makes you good at what you do?
RB: I care about dogs. I want very much to do the right thing.
PT: Do you agonize over decisions after the fact?
RB: Sometimes, but it’s a learning experience. You can’t go back and second-guess yourself. You can’t beat yourself up over it. You do the best you can on the day
PT: How can you tell a show dog is having a bad day?
RB: Their tail might be down. They might be uncooperative with their handler. They have to stand still. The judges will feel them to see if they’re solid. A lot of dogs have long coats, so you’re feeling to see what’s under all that hair. Because some of the groomers are very skilled, they could cover up faults by grooming and hair spray.
PT: As a judge, what are you known for?
RB: I’m a sporting dog judge who likes movement. When I’m standing in the ring judging, I’m watching and I ask myself: Can this dog do the job it was bred to do? A pointer must be able to run in the field, pointing at birds. A retriever must be able to swim in water.
PT: Does judging dogs pay well?
RB: You get paid, but when you first start out, it costs you more than what you earn. You have to go to seminars, to specialty shows. That’s all costly. Judges base their fees on the number of groups they judge. You have to love what you’re doing.