The Judge Among Us

One Madison man’s road to Westminster.

At five years old, Jason Hoke was barely as tall as his family’s German shepherd. Yet every weekend, rain or shine, he’d don an awkward suit and tie and head out to one of the American Kennel Club–sanctioned dog shows that were held across the country.

Falling into “junior handling” seemed to the young Jason like a natural progression—his mother had enjoyed success as one of the nation’s top breeders and groomers of Great Danes. Whether he knew it or not, Jason was taking his first steps toward walking onto that famous green carpet at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the world’s most prestigious sporting event, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

For the next 25 years, Jason showed breeds in a range of sizes, temperaments, and styles—from Pekingese to Great Danes to terriers—and won hundreds of awards, including more than 50 best-in-show ribbons. He worked as a handler, groomer, and assistant to some of the most noted dog-world celebrities.

After finding a new life partner, Jason moved to Madison in 2007, where he and I opened Madison’s first dog spa. The creation of
SPAWOOF gave Jason the opportunity to start working with dogs again after a six-year hiatus, and he began to focus on honing his judging skills through extensive exams and applications with the American Kennel Club, which oversees all judge selections and appointments.

Applying for a judge’s position for a specific breed with the AKC requires a combination of experience, skill, knowledge, and fieldwork. After all these criteria are met, the applicant faces an extensive application and interview process that requires a precise and exhaustive knowledge of breed standards, as well as canine personality traits and idiosyncrasies. Size, shape, coat type, color, stance, disposition, and demeanor must all be analyzed, mastered, and described.

Armed with an initial representation of eight breeds, Jason was invited to submit his AKC application for expertise with 25 breeds. Some 72 pages of essays documenting his experiences and expertise with each of the breeds was submitted, followed by a three-day interview with a registered AKC representative. Jason succeeded in the grueling verbal test for each breed and ultimately qualified for judging all of the 25 breeds in dog shows nationwide.

As word of Jason’s re-entry in the world of dogs and his qualification with the AKC spread, Thomas H. Bradley III, show chairman of the Westminster Kennel Club, invited him to become one of only 32 judges at New York’s 2013 Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

So it was that Jason and I found ourselves boarding a plane on a snowy February weekend bound for New York. At 42, Jason was one of the youngest judges for the AKC. He suited up to view five breeds: Yorkshire terriers, Great Danes, Chinese cresteds, Pekingese, and pointers.

The highlight of his 2013 Westminster participation came as Jason served as the judge for the important junior-showmanship finals, where junior handlers were judged on their handling abilities instead of on the merits of their dogs. What a fitting role for a man who had begun his career as a junior handler. And what a pleasure it was for him to award prizes and scholarships to four talented young-adult dog handlers.

As the final moment arrived, the television coverage began, the cameras rolled, and a tuxedoed Judge Jason Hoke made his way to the center ring, ushering in a group of eight young handlers and their dogs. Filled with pride of place, he not only relived his early days of showing at Westminster, but also put his knowledge and experience into action as he invited each entrant to “proceed around the ring.” The scene was electric, with dogs, junior handlers, and judge all proudly participating in and experiencing the pleasure and the privilege of being part of Westminster’s great sporting tradition.

To learn more about the American Kennel Club and the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, or to view video coverage of Jason Hoke’s 2013 junior showmanship finals, go to  westminsterkennelclub.org.