Has the art of handling been forgotten? by Averil Cawthera-Purdy
AS YOU can imagine I have many conversations around the shows about junior handling, most of which don’t ever get to feature in YHIS, but some do. The original conversation which prompted this happened last summer when Geoff Corish was shaking his head over some junior handling judging he had seen. At Crufts he saw me and said, "I am going to send you that email, it’s not getting better it’s getting worse! Please can you write something about the direction some of the judging and training for junior handling is going – it is wrong!”
The following arrived shortly afterwards: Over to Geoff: "You will remember our conversation when I said I had watched someone judging the juniors and how incensed I was at the stupid ring patterns the juniors were being asked to do. Figure of eights, T’s and L’s, what on earth is all this about?
"We have a lot of good juniors around at this time with a lot of ability, but this is being ignored in favour of these stupid patterns. I know if I had to do these I wouldn’t know where to start. To my way of thinking at the moment juniors are being encouraged to concentrate more on the correct patterns and less on their handling ability. It should not be about catching them out.
"I spoke to a young girl recently and she said that she had not made the final group at a show because her line wasn’t dead straight! I am sorry but this is getting silly now and judges should be able to recognise a junior’s ability to show that dog, whatever breed it may be.
"Eukanuba recently had a training day, with the juniors being the main focus. Michael and I were able to help several of these young people and I was most impressed at how good many of them were. Hopefully, we have one junior who will be with us this year and someone who wants to further his experience. The shows have already started and my dearest wish is for handling judges to be good handlers themselves and so able to select the best juniors on their HANDLING ABILITY alone and not straight lines!”
I have known Geoff since I was a junior myself and have always had the greatest of respect and admiration for him, both for what he has achieved in dogs and also, in my opinion his truly great ability to handle a dog – he is the best! Geoff has also been very supportive of the junior cause over decades and so for him to write this means there is something going wrong and we need to sit up and take notice.
There has always been two ’camps’ or ‘schools of thought’ in terms of handling for as long as I can remember but generally they have muddled along together and the result has been some extremely good handlers making their way through to the breed and group rings – Marita Rodgers, Gavin and Sara Robertson, Helen Howard, Serena Parker, Felicity Freer, Lucy Dixon the list could go on and on... (These are just the first names to spring into my head. Sorry to the ones I’ve left out!)
You’re all out there making a difference and doing well with your dogs. You all came through the junior classes, some doing better than others, but all learning a great deal about how to get the best out of a dog and laying a good foundation to build on as you have grown within our hobby.
So, what are these two schools of thought? On the one hand you have those who believe in the, for want of a better term, ‘science’ of handling. This is where straight lines, correct corners and setting your dog up in exactly the right spot, rule the day. At its best it produces handlers who are extremely precise and accurate, at its worst you have robotic handling with no flexibility where both dog and handler end up looking as if they are clockwork toys.
On the other hand you have those who believe in the ‘art’ of handling, they are looking for rapport with the dog, smooth natural lines and the ability to adapt handling style to suit dog, breed and situation. Again at its best you have a quality partnership between dog and handler resulting in stylish smooth performances, at its worst you have sloppy handling with no real understanding of how to best use a ring.
I’ve always held the view that the best handlers need both and that in perfecting both they achieve that "How do they get the dog to look so good and make it look so easy?” comment from the ringside.
Handlers just starting need to learn those mechanics of where to go, how to hold the lead and how to walk in a straight line but once this is mastered it should not then become a competition in ‘straightness’, which is what Geoff has seen, but should move further into the more elusive and higher level artistry of the handler in making the dog appear as good a possible, always presenting a harmonious picture of dog and handler working together.
So why is Geoff so concerned? He can see a growing danger that the emphasis in terms of both judging and training is becoming too much of the mechanics of handling and the art of handling is being totally forgotten about. He is right and he is also right in worrying that it is to the detriment of our current and possibly future generations of young handlers.