OTTUMWA — Joe Gregory looked every inch the judge as he stood outside one of four show rings in Bridge View Center on Saturday. He should — he has been judging show dogs for a remarkable 55 years.

Gregory is a tall, slender man in an immaculate suit. Soft-spoken and dignified, he has watched as dog shows went from smaller events to national entertainment. International might be a better way to describe it. Gregory’s travel itinerary has included shows in Mexico, South Korea, France, Spain and, now, Ottumwa.

It’s a schedule that would exhaust anyone. If anything it seemed to have invigorated Gregory. He’ll celebrate his 92nd birthday soon, but looks decades younger.

“It gives me something to do. I’m still young,” he said with a laugh.

Almost anyone could identify a beagle or golden retriever. But how many can tell the difference between an Afghan hound and a Russian wolfhound? For a judge, the differences are key.

The shows aren’t the only difference from when Gregory began judging. The dogs are different, too. The American Kennel Club has added breeds. With new breeds come new breed standards, new details for the judges to learn and understand.

“Back then it was easy,” Gregory said. “These days there are so many different breeds, and a lot of them look alike.”

Judging show dogs is a family affair now. Evalyn Gregory, Joe’s daughter, is a judge too. She was with him in Ottumwa on Saturday.

The years and the miles are a genuine test, she admitted. But her father’s love of the work has rubbed off. Evalyn was every bit as enthusiastic as her father. If you’re not willing to go where the dogs are, to keep up on the new breeds and tweaks to standards for old ones, you’re simply in the wrong business.

“That, for me, is just a real test of the love that we have for the dogs,” she said.

Saturday’s event was a big deal for more than just the dogs, their handlers and owners, and the judges. The Wapello County Sheriff’s Department received a major donation for a protective vest to help a new canine officer do the job safely.

Sheriff Don Phillips said the dog and its handler will go to training this fall. A couple months later the department will have a new team to help investigations.

The department’s canine officer probably won’t be showing off in the ring during its career, but the recognition by the show was acknowledgement that dogs fill many roles for people. And whether they’re appreciated for their beauty, unique skills or for simply being a family’s good dog, they’re important parts of life for many.

And dogs bond with people in a way that’s almost unique among animals. That bond is one of the things Gregory looks for when judging. If the handler is acting like they’re the center of attention, instead of the dog, they’re probably new. Veterans will put their entire focus onto the dog, reacting to cues and giving them in anticipation of what will be needed.

“You can tell an amateur in the ring,” Gregory said.

And after 55 years as a judge, he’s seen enough to know.

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Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.