At approximately 10:45 next Tuesday night Percy Roberts (above), a 77-year-old dog fancier who used to be known to friends as Mr. Airedale, will enter the main ring in Madison Square Garden to judge the best-in-show of the Westminster Kennel Club. Roberts is a professional judge, the first professional to preside over best-in-show at the Garden in 10 years, and he is one of the most knowledgeable dog men who has ever lived. Moreover, he is an old-fashioned sporting type who brings an air of Dickens and Surtees into the ring. English by birth but American by naturalization, Roberts has been deeply involved in what he calls "doggy doings" since he was a lad in Cheshire. As a professional handler, he holds the record of having had four best-in-shows at Westminster, and he twice has won with dogs that were absolute unknowns.
While in England on a buying trip in the fall of 1933, Roberts happened to spot a female wirehaired fox terrier on a street in Liverpool. The bitch, almost 3, was on the way to a small show with her owner, "a white-collar man," Roberts remembers, "an amateur." She was a bit scruffy about the face and legs, but Roberts was so taken with her natural lines that he immediately struck a deal with the surprised owner and that December shipped her to the U.S. on behalf of Stanley Halle, a New York stockbroker and a client. Named Spicy Bit, she won at Westminster six weeks after arrival. In 1937 Roberts, still handling for Halle, won with another wire bitch, Spicy Piece, a dog that Roberts considers "a jewel," the best he ever has seen. He discovered her in England when she was sent to a friend's kennel to be serviced. She was then 4, and she never had been in a show in her life.
As a judge. Roberts retains his sharp buyer's eye. "When I step into the ring," he says, "I have the idea that the handlers are trying to sell the dogs to me. I buy the best." All told, Roberts will judge six dogs at Westminster: the pick of the hound, sporting, nonsporting, working, terrier and toy groups. As they parade into the ring with their handlers, Roberts will get insight into their balance and type. After the dogs are lined up for inspection, he will go over each one carefully, running his hands across the mouth, then the foreface, skull, ears, shoulders, back, hindquarters and tail. "The head is the map of the breed," Roberts says. "You look into the mouth to see if the teeth are all right. A man once said to me after I'd put a dog fourth that he had put it first. I told him the dog had teeth missing. He said that didn't matter, but I said to him, 'Try to sell a dog with missing teeth!' Then you feel the dog's skull. On some breeds there should be a balance between the fore-face, from the nose to the eyes, and the occiput. Ear carriage is important. The neck is obvious, but the placement of the shoulders is very important. They should be well laid back, so that the dog has a length of stride, and well-laid shoulders give a reach, a grace and elegance to the neck. A dog's back is measured from the point of shoulder to the hipbone. And the tail is important. A Doberman pinscher or a terrier, for example, should have a tail stuck on top. No dog is good without good feet. If a dog stands on all four toes on each foot, you know he's well balanced. His pad—his heel—if it's good, is round like a plum, and it throws his foot forward on the toes." Picking the best-in-show at Westminster should take Roberts no more than 15 minutes. "I know I can pick the best dog," he says. "That's what I'm there for. I'm not that bloody modest."
The American Kennel Club, the ruling authority in dogdom, has licensed only 30 persons as competent enough to judge all 115 recognized breeds. Speaking from on high, the AKC maintains that those 30 "all-rounders" are equal, but in the dog game five or six all-rounders are regarded as tops. Roberts is one of them. Indeed, to call him simply another all-rounder would be like saying that Oliver Wendell Holmes was another member of the Supreme Court.
According to John W. Cross Jr., chairman of the dog show committee of Westminster, "Percy has a way with animals. I don't mean dogs, but any kind of animals." In truth, Roberts is an expert on cattle. Although he never has judged cattle, he can become excited by a good Angus, Hereford, Jersey or Guernsey. He is interested in horses, too. Not a gambler, he visits the track just to see the horses and watch them run. When in Sydney several years ago to judge a dog show, he made a special trip to a museum in Melbourne to gaze at the stuffed remains of the great horse Phar Lap. Roberts says, "Why, I'd be interested in a good-looking donkey. Did you ever see cleaner legs than a donkey has? I mean a good donkey. There are some buggers with bumpy legs."
If an animal has quality, Roberts can sense it. On one of his trips to England he happened to see a Rouen duck that struck his fancy. He thought a dog client, who was interested in ducks, might like to have it. The owner agreed to sell the bird to Roberts if he could keep it for another six months to show. Roberts assented, and the duck won best bird at the Royal Agricultural show in London.
With his carefully waxed mustache, Roberts looks very much the country squire. Of medium height, he has a wardrobe given over to paddock boots, high shoes that have been made for him by Hindes of Liverpool for the past 50 years, odd trousers and checked sport coats with nipped-in waists. The coats have extra-large pockets so Roberts can conceal a dog-show catalog and a few pieces of liver. Some breeds, such as the Labrador, are supposed to have a certain expression to the face, and Roberts sometimes uses liver to arouse a dog's attention and see if the expression is up to snuff.
Roberts' father was a Welshman, a horse dealer, who settled in Heswall, a village in Cheshire, buying and selling hunters. Percy was the youngest of seven children. "My father was a good man," Roberts says. "He used to say, 'Always think of the fellow that's coming behind you.' There was never a person he dealt with that he couldn't deal with again. That's something for the horse business! And that's what I've done in dogs. One time the brother next youngest to me bought a horse that had faults. My father saw the horse, and he asked my brother, 'Did he impress you when he first came out of the barn?' My brother said no, but he had thought he could correct the faults. And my father said, 'Never buy a horse that doesn't impress you when he first comes out of the barn.' "
From the beginning, Roberts' passion was dogs, not horses. He hunted ferrets with terriers. He was fascinated by collies, intrigued by greyhounds and whippets, and obsessed by bulldogs.
When Roberts was 16 he answered an advertisement for a kennelman that had been placed by J. J. Holgate in Doncaster. "I was radiant when he accepted me," says Roberts. "It was like going to college." Holgate was the premier dog-man. As a judge, dealer and breeder, he toured the United Kingdom, the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Russia, and he was known in the canine world as "The Globe-Trotter." Roberts says, "Holgate told me I would learn more from him in six months than I would from anyone else in six years. It was true. I learned dogs from the ground up. I cleaned out the kennel. I exercised the dogs. When I had a spare hour I learned to trim."