What sets Peter Machen apart among judges at the Florida Classic Clusters Dog Show is his demeanor. He's always wearing a smile, participants say, taking a moment to speak nicely to them, obviously having fun and sharing that joy with those under his scrutiny. "The other judges are so stern looking," noted a woman, poised with her Welsh corgi to come under his judgment on Sunday.
Perhaps his good humor comes from his heritage. A native of Great Britain, he and his wife have lived in Canada since 1973 while spending winters in Brooksville for the last three years.
Or maybe it's because he has trotted in the shoes of the hundreds of dog owners competing through Sunday in the Florida Classic Clusters Dog Show, the state's largest American Kennel Club show, at Florida Classic Park, along State Road 50 east of Interstate 75.
More than 18,000 canines will be judged during the Florida Classic, a greater number than last year, said spokeswoman Diane Chiucchi.
One of the requirements to be a judge is having shown dogs for 10 years. Machen, 62, and his wife, Vivienne, 63, have bred and shown Afghan hounds since 1974.
The Machens have shown their Afghans in 18 states and eight Canadian provinces. They have competed at the prestigious, invitation-only North American Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.
They've garnered 18 American championships and "finished" — meaning earned sufficient show ring points to assign "Ch" as a prefix to a dog's pedigree name — for some 50 to 60 Afghan hounds.
"You lose count," Machen said.
Four of the couple's hounds accompanied them to Brooksville this year. Two weeks ago, they competed at Destination Daytona, a well-regarded canine event at Ormond Beach.
Over 11 years of training, studying, serving ancillary roles in the show ring, being observed for his show ring procedure and passing written examinations, Machen earned qualifications in 2001 to judge all recognized breeds.
Machen is in his second stint officiating at the Florida Classic.
Last year, he was called in as a substitute when another judge fell ill. Machen's work in the ring was so well respected and his personality so liked, he was invited to return this year as a first-line judge.
Machen has evaluated terriers, sporting dogs, working and herding dogs, hounds, non-sporting breeds including toys.
"It's interesting," he says of maneuvering among different breeds. "You look at your standards before you go to (judge) shows." Each breed has its own requirements, such as ear set, height, length and more. "You look for fundamental characteristics," he added, "size, movement."
Machen commands the handler to walk or trot his or her canine away from him, then back to him to ascertain the dog's structural function and gait. No bowed legs or short-steppers need apply.
Then Machen examines the dog's teeth, runs his hands over the body, head to tail, to feel out skeletal and muscular essentials.
"I try to be thorough," he said. "I try to be true to the breed and I try to be courteous to my exhibitors, although some may not agree with me," he added, with a chuckle.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.