You Be The Judge
Recently at a dog show someone made an observation, “You take this dog show stuff real serious!” more or less directed personally at me. Shortly thereafter someone else said, “Boy, you all are so lucky, winning so much!”
While maybe the first statement made was really implying that I might be taking it TOO SERIOUS, none-the-less the statement made me reflect a bit about the whole process of showing and handling dogs especially after the second person’s clueless exclamation about winning by the process of luck!.
Let me first go back to answer the first statement, YES, I do take this entire process VERY SERIOUS! Simply put, if you were the client that hired me to show your “special's dog” and were paying me $75 to handle your dog in the breed ring and then were going to pay me an added $45 when I win with your dog and go into the Groups with the expectation that your dog wins a Group Placement and you will then pay an added bonus for that Group Placement ($25 for a Group 4, $50 for a Group 3, $75 for a Group 2 and $100 for a Group 1), not to mention, but hopefully winning a BEST IN SHOW, which will fetch an elated handler an added $500 or more, then you too would want me to be dead serious, capitalized “DEAD SERIOUS” about this dog show stuff!!
The above handling fees are only the surface money, for most dogs that are being specialed have what’s called a campaign war chest, money used for advertising and promoting, traveling expenses, high-end groomers and a list of other incidentals that easily run into the 100,000’s of dollars per year for some of the top ranked dogs.
If you were the owner of this dog, you would expect me to be dead serious, very dead serious!!
Well then, we now have 2 people that are taking this VERY SERIOUS, the client and I.
For some folk, going to the dog shows with their dogs is like going to a picnic in the park. They show up at ringside with dog in tow, they bring the dog’s crates and easy chairs to sit comfortably at ringside and set up for the up and coming event. The ring steward calls their number and they casually waltz into the ring with Fido ready for a Frisbee contest. Most of these people have not conditioned their dog, especially in the Labrador ring where overweight, out of conditioned dogs abound. Many are totally clueless about the level of handling competition that they are up against. So, the picnic in the park, Frisbee tossing contest-like demeanor prevails.
The problem here is that this is not a Frisbee contest and it is not a picnic in the park. There is serious business transpiring all round, a lot of money, energy, hopes and a longer list of human emotions and expectations than are found in some psychology books. Fido and his “picnic in the park” owner are indeed a vital part of the goings-on for they do indeed account for something, but the lark-like attitude is in a minority for there is a decided majority that take a very serious approach to dog shows and that make a living out of all this “dog stuff”.
Serious business in the ring and serious business outside the ring, for no sooner has the current show dog season ended for me, that I am planning ahead for the New Year’s itinerary. Which venues will we be attending, what judges will be there and what dogs will make the trip, are among my concerns. The show dates and sites and the judges are a fixed variables. I have very little control over these prior mentioned items. However, the dogs that will make the trip to these shows are in my control and they become an all-consuming agenda.
A list is made of each dog that is part of our management system. Priorities are given according to the competitiveness of each dog and in which classes they will be entered. Each dog will be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses and a game plan for improvement is drawn up for each dog.
Competitive Conditioning is paramount in the preparation phase way before entries are sent for the New Year’s shows. Some dogs will need to lose weight, while others need to bulk up, all need physical exercise to increase endurance and stamina, which will add muscle and tighten up lose ends. Most will benefit from roadwork, so my electric scooter comes into play. Most dogs will start with a quarter mile at show gait, usually 4 to 5 miles per hour for the first 5 days. Gradually the speed will increase to 6 or 7 miles per hour and the distance covered will rise to half a mile and after 2 or 3 weeks, we will be gaiting for a mile each day.
Although there are many exhibitors that show up in the ring with poorly conditioned dogs, fat-out-of –shape dogs and stroll around the ring in seemingly slow motion and are happy to receive a ribbon for their efforts, the points won by these “picnic in the park” types is few and far in between. Oh, they do luck out once in a while and pick up some points along the way and this is a good thing, for this keeps them coming back over and over again. Yes, they celebrate just as the serious handler celebrates and they brag that they beat so and so and this is all good for it keeps the embers glowing for them to stay with the dog show stuff adding numbers to the individual breed’s ring!
Performance Training is also part of the “improvement program”. During this phase of the training program, we concentrate on those routines that are used in the show ring. Stacking is essential for gaining control of the exhibit, as it provides an area for which the handler has as much control of the exhibit as possible. We work about 10 to 15 minute sessions with hands-on stacking with each dog in the program. We use the “Stacker” (a patent-pending apparatus that I invented) , the Happy Feet apparatus, inclined steps, training blocks, grooming tables and any other surface that the technique of hand stacking can be applied on.
The dogs are taught to hold their legs in certain positions without moving for short periods of time. Positive re-enforcement and rewards are used for good work. We will increase the length of time that the dog is required to hold a pose and will also build up the amount of inclination for the dog to lurch forward to “stick” their stacks.
There has been a recent trend in “free stacking”, especially in the Labrador ring. Free stacking is a hands-off approach to showing the dog and looks impressive when the dog has been taught the routine and can perform it in the ring with great consistency. The handler must be well versed in the technique and be ready for the eventualities that may arise from the lack of control that they have over the dog with this style. This technique works well once the dog has been taught the hands-on approach first. Not all dogs can be trusted with the free style, however those in our management program that can be trusted will also be versed in free style.
Far too many exhibitors are using the free stacking technique as their only routine in the ring with their dogs. Some will argue that this is the natural way to show a dog and that well-known handlers are fairing well with this style. When it comes down to winning, the dog that has been prepared the best will have the greater chance of garnering those elusive winner’s points, so we go the extra mile and teach each dog as many techniques as will suit that individual dog. Those “know-it-alls” that insist on just one technique will consistently end up on the short end of receiving the “correct-colored ribbons”! Receiving a Reserve Winners Dog ribbon instead of a Winners Dog ribbon is totally unacceptable if the handler did not go the extra mile for the dog by adhering to limitations in the ring as a handler. Great opportunities do not come along all the time for a dog, so that when one does, the handler must be ready for those eventualities.
A well-planned conditioning and training program has to be augmented with an equally thought out plan for nutrition. With a greater demand on the dog’s system for energy, a higher level of protein and essential fatty acids has to be in place to aid the dog as it burns off calories during the training. Special attention has to be focused on coat, as most this is a high priority in most breeds.
Which brings me back to the second statement from the opening paragraph of this article. “Boy you all are so lucky, winning all the time!”
This observation is very likely to come from beginners, novices and hobbyists at any endeavor, sport or competition. Their level of expertise or lack of knowledge prevents them from seeing the depth of skill and understanding that is required to consistently be on top and what it takes to be a winner. To be able to ply one’s craft and succeed at a higher frequency than those with fewer capabilities is the reward of mastering that particular endeavor. Making it look “easy” and seemingly “lucky” are illusions perceived by those not tuned in to the inner workings of any endeavor. There is nothing easy or lucky about being a consistent winner, in reality it takes know-how and mastery to achieve this heightened level of success.
The dog show venue is one of just a few endeavors that allow all different levels of competency to gather together and go head to head, competing for the same prize. At any given show, in any ring or breed, you may find the most seasoned professional dog handler exhibiting the most outstanding specimen of the breed standing side by side with a total neophyte with a pet-shop dog at the end of their leash!
There are no prior qualifications, either for the person’s dog handling skills or for conformation quality of the dog, NONE other than a registry number, such as an AKC Dog Registration Number and of course the dog show entry fee.
Of course it must be understood that the likely outcome from the two different scenarios from above will certainly have totally different levels of success at winning the desired prize, or so we hope that the judge of the 2 exhibits doesn’t use a “toss of the coin” to determine the winner, thus eliminating the “lucky” from the equation.
Lucky……………………..You be the judge!
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