Dog Show’s Top Judge Traces Skills To Childhood Deafness ‘I Got Along With Animals Better Than People’
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will be in town Monday: 2,500 dogs, all champions, for two days of competition at Madison Square Garden. By 11 p.m. on Tuesday it will be down to 7, and that’s when Dr. M. Josephine Deubler, forbidden to set foot in the Garden until the final judging, will be escorted onto the floor for the dog world’s greatest honor: making the Best in Show selection.
She is well equipped for it, having been a judge in dog shows for more than 35 years, as well as a veterinary professor.
Deubler, now 80, was also schooled by her early years of almost total deafness, when adults shouted at her and her fellow students ignored her. Shut out in the silence, she sought refuge in the conversation of animals.
“Animals were always my friends,” Deubler says after some hesitation, in her cluttered office across from the emergency room at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia, where barking often blocks out the sounds of human speech. “I got along with animals better than people.”
She pauses fretfully. “I may not be saying it right,” she says. “The animals could communicate with body language, tail wagging. I could hear the little noises they made; I could hear noises quite well. It was just when people spoke, I couldn’t hear what they were saying.”
There have always been curious goings-on at the Westminster dog show. Across the street from Madison Square Garden at the Hotel Pennsylvania, where many of the humans and contestants stay, dog-themed Muzak, like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” is piped into the lobby. At the show, vendors sell doggy bomber jackets. The Best in Show canine is feted every year with steak at Sardi’s.
Deubler is not the sort to buy a doggy jacket. And although other judges may be swayed by a pretty jowl, Deubler believes that her medical background allows her to judge a dog by “the basics.”
“Bones, teeth, anatomy,” she explains. “Anything that’s under the hair, that’s a basic.”
At the Westminster show, Deubler does not expect this to be a concern - the dogs are all champions.
“I don’t think I’m going to have to worry about any bad dogs,” she says. “I just have to find a good dog that’s having its best day. They’re going to have to sell themselves to me. Showmanship means a great deal. There is also something I can’t put into words. I don’t know if it’s empathy or what - the heart will tell me.”
Deubler grew up on a farm outside of Philadelphia, the daughter of a veterinarian. She attended the Academy of Notre Dame on Rittenhouse Square and rode in horse shows. She says she does not know which childhood disease caused her to lose most of her hearing, only that it happened when she was 1 or 2.
Now, Deubler hears fairly well with two tiny hearing aids; in the ‘30s they did not exist. Deubler was able to read lips. Academically she had no problems; socially, it was difficult. It was also difficult for Dr. Deubler to become the first woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in 1938. Deubler likes to say that perhaps her deafness helped her in this situation - she could not hear any of the unpleasant things the men said about her. On the other hand, this may be what Deubler was bred to say.
“Do whatever you’re told; don’t complain,” Deubler’s father told her when she went off to veterinary school. And she did.
Still, it is clear, she was kept an outsider.
“It was very difficult for them to communicate with me,” she says. “So after a while, they stopped trying. It was as if I didn’t exist. It wasn’t as if I was entirely alone, of course. I could still go home; there would be the dogs.”
But for four years it must have been very lonely.
There is a sudden burst of constrained rage.
“It’s very hard,” Deubler says. “People say they understand the problems of not hearing. Try walking around in a vacuum for a while.”
Deubler continued her studies, getting a doctoral degree. She never had the veterinary practice she had hoped for - hearing difficulties, she felt, made that impossible. Instead, she worked in the laboratory at the university and taught small classes.
Nor did she marry.
“I was engaged,” Deubler says, “but my fiance went to war and never came back.”
Her speech becomes quick and clipped: “Kamikaze. World War II. The war destroyed a couple of people.”
She reins in the feelings as one reins in a horse that is starting to act up. “We don’t talk about it,” she says.
Deubler kept busy with her work and with the animals. Her father gave her a Dandie Dinmont terrier after the war, and for a time Deubler showed it, but she preferred judging. In 1962, after a series of interviews, she became an American Kennel Club judge. Deubler has now judged hundreds of competitions. Making the Best in Show decision on Tuesday night will take her no more than 15 minutes.
“You don’t want to take any longer,” she says playfully. “It will make you look indecisive.”
Nor does she expect it to be difficult. An animal will speak.