On a routine basis, Melinda Vinson Richardson works as the office manager for the Wellness Institute in Okatie, but about 12 times a year she leaves her desk and heads to Europe, Canada or somewhere in the United States to judge dog shows for the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA).
“I’ve been showing dogs since I was 19 years old. I started showing and training the Australian shepherds 25 years ago, and then I started breeding them,” said Richardson who began judging in 2002.
Although she currently does not have any Aussies in her home, there have been plenty in the past.
“I couldn’t even count, between owning them outright and co-owning them. I think it’s been hundreds,” she said. “The most I’ve ever had in my home at one time that I owned was 13.”
Richardson said she is drawn to Aussies because they are intelligent.
“Aussies are smart enough to learn, and they figure things out,” she said. “I prefer them because I like a dog with a brain, one that’s a free thinker. They’re absolutely beautiful, and they make amazing pets.”
To be an ASCA breeder judge, individuals must meet stringent show and breeding requirements. There are four levels of expertise, each with increasing degrees of involvement and responsibilities in the club and in show rings.
As a judge, Richardson’s responsibility is to find the dog that best conforms to the breed standard as set by the American Kennel Club.
“You’re not technically judging the dogs against each other. You’re judging them to the breed standard, and the reason for that is to better the breed in general, because you want the soundest dogs doing what the dog was bred to do,” Richardson said. “The Australian shepherds were bred to be herding dogs.”
Because they are extremely intelligent, she said, the breed can do just about anything in any number of performance show ring venues, in addition to the conformation ring where the dog is compared to the standard.
Richardson’s favorite part of judging is the dogs, but she also enjoys several of the herding trials. These are competitions in which the Aussies do what they are bred to do: herd other animals.
“Duck trials are always very entertaining. They’ll just lay down. They like to burrow, find little tiny holes somewhere and just hide there,” she said. “Then the dog is there flipping it with its nose trying to get it to move because the dog knows it’s supposed to be with the rest of them.”
Stock herding is interesting and fun to watch, Richardson said.
“I like the cattle only because I think it’s very challenging, and it’s nice to see a 40-pound dog in there controlling a 2,000-pound cow,” she said. “I really like all the stock work only because it’s the true meaning of what the breed is for.”
While most of Richardson’s judging activities are enjoyable, the competition also comes with disappointment for those who didn’t win.
“The hardest part about judging is hurting people’s feelings. Unfortunately, there can only be a few winners,” she said.
And sometimes, those few winners are hard to pick. Choosing from among competitors is sometimes difficult, Richardson said, because “none of the exhibitors in your ring are what you yourself would consider a high quality. As long as they meet the breed standards, you have to place them accordingly. Those will be the hardest part for me: picking the winners, for different reasons.”
Getting a show dog to the ring begins with the bloodline, Richardson said.
“Some lines are smarter than other lines. You’ve got your cheerleaders on one side, and you get your jocks on the other side, so that is very strong about the bloodlines,” she said. “Then you’ve also got to factor in the amount of training the person has in training a dog.”
Since herding is the breed’s main purpose, owners can run a herding instinct test on a litter at eight to 12 weeks old just to see if they’ve got any instinct to them.
“Believe it or not at eight to 10 weeks old, you can say, ‘Look, this one knows what it’s doing.’ The training itself is a bit harder, and takes a little longer,” Richardson said. “If you’re taking a conformation dog into the ring that has zero herding instinct, zero herding bloodlines kind of thing, it would be a bit more difficult to train that dog to herd than it would one coming straight out of herding bloodlines.”
If there is a competition, there must be a reward or prizes, and Richardson said there is.
“The right of saying ‘I won in the ring.’ That’s one of the best things about it,” she laughed.
For owners of a male dog, winning means interest from those seeking to breed their females. “If he’s dual-titled and he’s just an exceptional male, competing and winning, and with a nice pedigree,” Richardson said, “people are going to want to breed to that dog.”
The same thing applies to a female Aussie, which would prompt people to say they want one of her puppies.
“The end result is it’s all about the breed quality for conformation, and then the performance title shows that the dog also has the brains to do what it’s supposed to be doing,” said Richardson, “so you want an overall Aussie: one that can do everything and that comes from a nice mix of pedigrees. And they can still come home and lay on the couch with you.”
Richardson will be judging the ASCA Nationals in Texas at the end of October.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.