IT HAS always mystified me why so many people seem to want to rush into the show ring with their beloved pets and let’s face it, that is how the majority of us get started, as few exhibitors enter this crazy world having deliberately set out to buy a show dog.
Often a proud owner is seen walking their pride and joy down the street, someone who knows something about dogs spots it and initiates a conversation and inevitably those fateful words "You really ought to show him” are uttered, and from then on in there’s no turning back.
The most important thing for any would-be exhibitor to understand before he even thinks of showing are his dog’s limitations. Most people, when they first get sight of the breed Standard for their chosen breed, usually in the breed book they have bought, will study every word, glance across at Rover, and be firmly convinced that they have been fortunate enough to acquire perfection. Most pet owners – and indeed seasoned exhibitors and judges – can, with a little imagination, fit any dog to the breed Standard.
It is wise to track down someone in your area who is known to have a broad base of experience in dogs and ask them for a candid opinion. In any part of the country you can find people who are vastly experienced in judging a large number of breeds. They may not be specialists in your chosen breed, but they will instantly be able to see any outstanding faults or virtues and explain them to you. I have quite deliberately not advised going to the local breed ‘experts’, because there is every chance that they will judge your puppy more on its pedigree and its breeder than its physical appearance. That might sound cynical, but it is a fact of life.
Having got a real "dog man” to confirm that you have a typical specimen that is worth showing, you now need to study how your breed should be groomed, presented and handled. This is best done at a show where the breed is separately scheduled and where you can take note of how the experienced exhibitors work with their dogs.
A Beagle is not handled the same way as a Pekingese and most breeds will have their own little quirks. Having grasped the basic idea, come home and practise with your own dog – ideally in front of a large mirror so that you can see what kind of a picture you are creating.
When you have some kind of idea, take yourself along to dog matches or companion dog shows, where you can enter on the day. This will help socialise your dog and build confidence in you both. Dog showing is not rocket science and can soon be mastered if both handler and dog have an aptitude, but it would be folly to enter for a Kennel Club licensed show with no experience and no idea of what will be expected of you. Remember, you will be showing up against some of the most hardened pros! Furthermore, at the dog matches and companion shows, you will find a very relaxed atmosphere and judges will soon cotton on to a novice handler, most being happy to offer help and advice in the ring.
Having practised at home, enlist the help of friends who can come along and act as ‘judge’ when you are setting up your dog. They need not know a thing about dogs, but your dog will get used to having strangers open his mouth and run their hands all over him. Dogs need to stand steady for examination, as the need to wrestle a dog to the ground is not likely to endear it – or its owner – to any judge.
When you get to your first major show, it is important to relax. This is not life or death. You are entering a competition, true, but the dog you take home at the end of the day is the same dog you brought that morning. If you are the sort of person who gets hurt easily and cannot take criticism, stay home and love your dog for what he is.
From the judge’s point of view, what is he looking for?
He is looking for a dog that comes close to the requirements of the relevant breed Standard. He wants those dogs to be sound in mind and body, he wants them to be well presented according to the traditions of the breed and he wants them to stand their ground so that they can be easily examined when it comes to the ‘hands on’.
He also wants them to be in optimum condition and this is where a careful regime of feeding and exercising is so important. Dogs can so easily lose out if they carry too much or too little condition and as your eye becomes more developed, you will soon realise when your dog looks ‘right’. As far as the handler is concerned, the judge is looking for someone who does exactly as they are asked and who shows their dog to advantage, without interfering with other exhibitors’ dogs. I still get amazed at the number of people who, having been asked clearly for ‘once up and down, and then once right around’, blithely break into the dreaded Great British Triangle!
Experienced judges can soon tell how experienced a handler is and the vast majority are sympathetic to obvious novices. One of the most frustrating aspects of judging is seeing a dog that you really rate being badly handled. Some judges I know will just ignore the dog when the handler is not co-operating, but if this is a dog you know you could use, you owe it to the dog to spend some time advising the handler how he can improve his chances.
When I began showing dogs in the ’60s, there tended to be a much more informal atmosphere at shows and more apparent ‘banter’ between judges and exhibitors. Sometimes this went a little far, and some of our now revered and sadly deceased all-rounders were rather naughty with newcomers.
To this day many of our top all-rounders are not above having a laugh and a joke with exhibitors, but as the Kennel Club becomes more demanding with its various codes, there is a sub-conscious lack of communication between judge and exhibitor beyond the very basics. This I think is a great shame as at the end of the day judging should be a pleasurable experience for the judge, the exhibitors and indeed the stewards.
Regardless of what class or breed I am judging, I ALWAYS ask the exhibitor the age of the dog. This is not primarily to establish its age, but to initiate some kind of verbal communication and something as simple can help put a newer exhibitor at ease.
I don’t know whether it’s my Welsh accent, but I often smile when the question "How old?” gets "Hello” as a reply.
Sometimes, when a new exhibitor is nervous, that initial enquiry will trigger off a whole barrage of information, as they babble away. It’s no big deal. However, when more seasoned exhibitors who should know better strike up a conversation, judges can be easily put off. We have all had at some time the well-meaning exhibitor who addresses all remarks to their dog – "Show for Mother like you did when you won the ticket last week” being a common ploy.
The art of successful showing is having your dog looking as the judge would want, when he wants. That means studying the judging and seeing what pattern the judge is adopting. Many judges will, when they are between dogs, cast a sideways glance at a dog they previously saw and were impressed by, just to see what it looks like when it is totally relaxed. I do not recommend keeping your dog perfectly poised at all times, but the best constructed animals will always look ‘right’.
Before I was in a position to have my own show dogs – my first pet Boxer was a monorchid so he was never shown and for years my parents fought against any additions to the household – I handled a wide variety of breeds for other people at local shows. That gave me a great insight into the different styles of handling employed by the different breeds. It also instilled into me the importance of ‘overall picture’, which is what all the great judges have as a priority.
Showing dogs can be enormous fun. This is the best hobby in the world if you genuinely like dogs and have an appreciation of excellence. You will meet a few rotten apples along the way, but you will also meet a huge number of genuine like-minded people who will always rally around their own.
Interestingly, it is very true that showing dogs teaches you far more about people than it ever will about dogs!
So, if you are the proud owner of your first pedigree dog and feel like taking an adventure that could one day take you around the world, why not dip your toe into the water? … we don’t bite!