Texas-Sized Love of Four or Two

In 2001, Dorothy Nickles was chosen for the "Lifetime Achievement" award in conformation judging by the AKC, an acknowledgment of the overwhelming respect she has earned from judges and breeders throughout the country. Even with a judging history that covers more than 60 years and so many dog breeds that she cannot name them all, Nickles says of the award, "It was a complete surprise. But I was so thrilled they chose me."
  • education
  • history
  • judging
  • obedience
  • Standard Poodles
AKC Gazette in December 2007

Nickles has recently celebrated her 97th birthday. When asked to speak about her life, she made one thing clear, with a feisty Texas drawl: "I'm not retiring, you know." Far from it. She had just come back from judging a show in Michigan, and was getting ready to head out to Idaho for another show.

Early Experiences

Nickles did not grow up in a show-dog family. "We had a Boston Terrier and a Beagle, but they were definitely pets." She describes herself as a tomboy who enjoyed outdoor activities like tending horses. In the mid-1920s, she began playing basketball. At just under five feet tall, she learned to tough it out among the other girls on the court, and played the game all the way through college.

After earning her Masters degree, Nickles began teaching high school English in Fort Worth, TX, in the late 1930s. She eventually became the vice principal of her school.

Around this time, Nickles bought a Boxer and tried obedience training, which was a very new sport. Before long, she was taking her Boxer to trials each weekend, and doing quite well. "Back then, we just had these matches in people's back yards, but the judges were very strict."

One day, the regular judge fell ill. The person organizing the match approached Nickles. "He said, 'Dorothy, I need you to judge this match.' I laughed and said, 'Yeah, sure, I don't know anything about judging.'" The match was scheduled to start soon. Everyone was waiting. "He just said, 'Look, you'd better get on out there and do it.' Well, I judged it. People came up later and said I had done a pretty good job."

Becoming a Judge

That first judging experience left Nickles with a new sense of excitement. "A couple of weeks later, they asked me if I'd come out and do a little match in a town near Fort Worth." Nickles wanted to do her part to spread the word about obedience, so she agreed. She made a good impression. "After that, I started getting calls to judge matches all over Texas, where people were trying to build up obedience as a sport."

Nickles continued judging smaller events into the early 1950s. In 1953, by which time obedience has gained greater visibility, she got an opportunity to go to the next level. "They called me to come to Tulsa, Oklahoma. That was my first time judging a real obedience trial."

Nickles assumed the Tulsa show would be like the others she had judged. This attitude changed the moment she entered the ring. "My heart jumped right into my throat, looking at all those people up in the grandstand. Then this lady came into the ring with the biggest darn Chow I've ever laid eyes on. A little voice in my head said, 'This dog's gonna bite me.'"

Nickles says her heart was racing with nervousness, but she found the confidence that would become a hallmark of her long judging career. "I just walked right up and said, 'Stand your dog.' Then I let him sniff my hand. The dog didn't show any signs of aggression, it's just that I had no idea I'd have to be judging dogs like that."

Soon after this, Nickles bought a Standard Poodle, the breed she would remain with for the rest of her career. "I met a man with a Standard Poodle. I asked him if I could borrow the dog for a while to see what it was like to train. That's how I ended up with my first Poodle!"

By now, Nickles had become a regular judge at obedience trials in the Texas-Oklahoma area. But she wanted to see more. "Every time I was at an obedience trial, I'd go around and look at the conformation ring. I just started thinking maybe I could do some of that."

Entering a New World

Nickles wanted to show her Standard Poodle in conformation, but she was honest with herself. Looking at that dog, she knew something was not right. "I'd been grooming him myself. I took him to a groomer who said, 'Dorothy, your dog isn't bad, but your grooming is horrible.'" She asked the groomer to fix her dog up for the ring. "The next time I went out, I got a blue ribbon." Her voice still rises with excitement about that first win, from over 50 years ago.

Nickles got the show bug, and began searching the country for Standard Poodles. "I just made my mind up. I found some of the prettiest Standard Poodles and learned how to groom them myself. I showed them and put championships on every one in conformation and obedience."

While showing, and judging obedience, Nickles also took her Standard Poodles to Illinois to work with agencies that train guide dogs for the blind. "While I was up there, I met a man with a Golden Retriever doing tracking. I asked him what tracking was all about. He invited me over to his place, and I spent three weeks there learning about tracking. When I came back, I just had to get my dogs into tracking."

Her Standard Poodles performed well in tracking. These experiences gave her the idea to establish a training school in the mid-1950s called Texas Tri-City Obedience School. She owned and managed the school for 19 years, all while teaching, showing, and judging.

Nickles then began thinking of how she could do for tracking what she had done for obedience, and she organized the very first tracking trial in Texas. With an early infusion of energy from Nickles, tracking grew quickly in Texas and elsewhere in the country. Nickles is still revered in the sport. "I often get called to certify the high-scoring dogs. I'm always glad to get that honor."

By now, Nickles had gained the attention of the AKC, and was invited to judge her first conformation match. Within a couple of years, Nickles was receiving requests to judge shows throughout the Southeast, then the Midwest, and finally from all corners of the country. Even Nickles admits it is difficult to retrace the rapid steps that made her into a national judge.

The Classroom and the Ring

Like her English classroom, Nickles sees ring work as more than just a place to pass judgment. It is an endless opportunity to teach.

Sometimes, the durability of Nickles' own lessons surprises her. "At my 90th birthday party in Missouri, a lady said to me, 'When I first started showing under you, I hated you.' I laughed and said, 'Join the crowd, honey, there are probably a lot of people here who feel the same way!'"

Nickles asked what had changed the woman's mind. "She reminded me that many years ago in obedience I had given her dog all 0s. But after the show, I invited her to speak with me. She said, 'You pointed that school finger and told me there's nothing wrong with my dog, but I had to learn a few things.' I gave her a couple of books to study and stayed in touch with her. A month later, she had one of the highest-scoring dogs at a show. She told me, 'I want you to know you helped me become one of the happiest people."

Sometimes, her lessons can appear harsh, mismatched for a show ring. One of her strictest rules is that no one enters late. She recalls a day when she bent her tardiness rule. "This man begged me to let him into the ring. I said all right. When I came over to look at his dog, he said, 'I'm so glad you let me in. I just need this five-point major to finish my dog.'" That drew out the teacher in Nickles, and she saw an opportunity for a bigger lesson. "I stood back and said to him, 'Oh, isn't that nice?' Then I walked up and down the line and said to each person in the ring, 'Sir, do you need this five-point major? Miss, do you need this five-point major?' Then I came back to the young man and said, 'You see, everyone in here needs this five-point major.'"

By the mid-1960s, Nickles was receiving judging invitations in Norway, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, and beyond. She has a special affinity for Mexico. There, too, she brings along her Texas teacher attitude. "I was in Mexico City when other people were afraid to go there. But you know what? It wasn't as bad as people say, so I kept going back. I started taking my dogs down there and ran classes in conformation, obedience, and tracking. I've been down there so much people think I'm a Mexican citizen!"

Nickles often brought her teaching skills into the ring, but she also brought dogs into her classroom to demonstrate obedience. "We made it into an event, and charged people 10 cents to get in. We used the money to get things the kids needed."

Under the GI Bill, Nickles taught returning World War II veterans at a local college. Most of those veterans have had full careers, and are now retired. Many of them dutifully follow Nickles' appearances on television. "The men will often call and say, 'I just saw you judging. You look the same now as you looked back then.' Of course that's not true. When I taught them, my hair was black as coal, and now it's white as snow."

For Nickles, the show world is not just about what she can teach others. She considers herself a lifelong learner, or as she jokes, "A long-life learner." She says she would not be a judge if learning were not part of the experience. "Every show is memorable to me – I see something I haven't seen before, or somebody tells me something I don't know. I still want to learn more."

The Changing Show World

Looking back, Nickles does not fall into a "good old days" nostalgia. Mostly, she says the changes have been positive for people and dogs. "Back when I first started showing, they just put up a rope to make a show ring. Now it's more comfortable. Clubs do a much better job organizing shows today."

She likes how easy it has become for people to get access to shows. "You can transport your dogs to lot of shows without hurting them. Back in the '50s, you'd go to one show, then drive 500 miles to another one. Now, you can go to three or four shows in a small area. When you have to travel, technology has made things a lot better."

Nickles is encouraged by how people care for their dogs today. "The medical situation is far improved. The dogs are healthier. People always loved their dogs, but when I started you'd still hear about someone who took a sick dog out and shot him. You never hear that kind of thing any more. With all the books and magazines, and dogs appearing on TV, people have become far more conscientious."

Still, Nickles says her generation has lessons to share. "People don't observe as much today as they should. Just last week, a woman came up and asked me about a dog in the ring. I said I won't criticize that dog, but if she waits until the dog comes out I'd be happy to look at her dog and that dog together and point out how they compare. She said, 'Oh, sorry, I don't have time to wait.' I asked, 'How are you ever going to learn what's good about your dog and what's not good if you don't have patience?' Back a while ago, people spent more time observing. People expect things to happen a little too fast now."

Nickles says she cannot think of a time when she doubted what she was doing. "Of course, there were times when things went wrong for me. But I never let it get to me. If I did, I'd have a pretty sour puss by now, wouldn't I?"

A Unique Society

Nickles says we can expect to continue seeing her in rings throughout the country, where she will keep bringing her teacher's attitude. For Nickles, being in the show ring is fused with the very idea of living. "I think I'm the oldest judge in the country." She considers this for a moment, then adds, "I know I'm the oldest judge in the country!"

Asked about the social structure of today's show world, Nickles describes a mixed picture. "People are more critical of each other today than they were. That's not good. People are there to win. But I'll tell you one thing. If one of us needs help, there's no one better than dog people."

Behind the teaching and judging is something deeper: "All my kinfolk are gone now. I have no one left except for dog people and my dogs. To this day, I never judge without love for every dog that steps into my ring. I've seen great dogs, and not-so-great dogs, but I never forget that inside every one of them is a beautiful soul."