The relationship between construction and handling
Wherever you go in the world these days, at dog shows you will find handling to be of a fairly high standard. Of course there are novice owner-handlers to be found everywhere, those who are new to dog showing and still have lots to learn yet have still managed to master the basics. When novices have really excellent specimens on the end of the lead sometimes the judge has to work harder to find them but hopefully can help the handler to achieve the dog’s full potential. Sometimes this can be done as simply as advising where the legs should be placed to improve the overall balance and outline.
Whether a handler be a relative novice or an experienced professional, it is essential that they understand the breed they are showing. That means having a thorough knowledge of its breed Standard – not just the words but the subtleties – so that they know how the dog should ideally look physically and how its temperament should be conveyed, given that it has the correct character for the breed.
The top-class professionals spend time and effort understanding all the breeds they show and work out how best to ‘get inside’ the mind of any dog they take on. Breeds differ dramatically in their character; some are naturally bombproof and will take all situations in their stride whereas others are by definition more sensitive, needing careful handling on the part of both judge and handler. Some of the breeds that were bred for guarding can be rather sharp if not under total control and dogs of these breeds require a special kind of handler who leaves his or her charge in no doubt as to who is boss.
The handler who really knows his job will, before any show or grooming session, have assessed his dog with ruthless honesty and be aware of its virtues and its faults. These should influence the style of handling as, to a degree, handling and grooming can create optical illusions and not all judges are capable of seeing through them.
Pivotal to the approach of a handler is the dog’s basic construction, and a dog that is correctly constructed for its breed, perfectly balanced, free of exaggeration and sound moving is manna from heaven as with these basics the handler’s job is relatively straightforward. No matter what the breed happens to be, all dogs look better if shown free on a loose lead rather than artificially stacked and if a dog is superbly constructed, when it is free-shown there is no need to manually adjust the legs as the dog just puts them down right every time.
Breeds obviously differ in their construction and proportion but a large number of the more straightforward breeds require sufficient length of upper arm to place the forelegs well under the body, with moderate angulation behind, a level topline, well filled forechest and sufficient spring of rib. The word ‘moderate’ is one of the most-used across all the breed Standards, a fact that seems to escape many breeders and exhibitors who seem drawn to exaggeration – of neck, hindquarters, coat etc. Very few breeds require necks the length of a giraffe’s but when you watch some handlers stretching their dog’s neck almost to the point of strangulation when it is perfectly in accordance with the length required in the Standard it does make you wonder. Similarly, when a dog stands naturally and displays a perfectly level topline, why do some handlers insist on stretching the hindquarters to the extent that the rear pastern is at 45 degrees and the topline resembles a ski-slope?
The handler’s brief is to emphasise his dog’s good points and try to disguise the bad. Truly outstanding dogs are those whose main virtue is the overall picture they present and when judging this should be our main concern. Given that they have such a dog to show, the smart handler will work at drawing attention to the whole dog rather than trying to project its fabulous head or ultra-short back.
Constructional shortcomings in coated breeds can, to an extent, be disguised by skilful grooming so much so that – for example – when standing, to the ringside, a dog can appear to have perfectly angulated hindquarters yet the judge who has the advantage of a hands-on examination could well discover that this splendid bend of stifle is in fact nothing more than carefully positioned hair. The reality beneath could well be considerably different.
I vividly remember when I was cutting my teeth in Pekingese the late Nigel Aubrey-Jones taught me how to transform a head by careful grooming, creating the impression of great width and shallowness in a basically ordinary head. There are of course various ways of using grooming and trimming to enhance any coated dog.
As someone who frequently photographs dogs, there are two common mistakes I find that handlers make when setting their dogs up, and they might seem trivial yet they can transform the overall picture created. The first is, as already mentioned, the excessive stretching out of hindquarters; the second is simply the positioning of the head. Particularly when a dog is being free-shown and baited, so often the handler holds the bait in such a way that the dog automatically looks upwards, shortening its neck and sometimes making it appear a little stuffy. The difference can be remarkable if the handler stands off the dog by a distance and lowers the bait so the dog looks outwards and slightly down. In a breed that requires an arched neck, this can emphasise the crested neck and the flow of neck into shoulders. Simple but true.
Any handler needs to be aware of his dog’s constructional shortcomings if he is to make it look its best. A dog lacking in forechest and being rather narrow in front would need its front legs manually adjusted so that they are farther apart than they would be should if the dog stands naturally. Of course the narrowness would show up when the dog moves and then stands unaided, but for the first stack the picture should be optimised as much as possible by the handler. The first glance down the line is what creates that initial impression in the judge’s mind and something that catches his eye immediately will be remembered when he watches the dogs move around – he will want to see if that particular dog is as impressive on the move as it is standing.
Apart from the overstretching of hindquarters some handlers fail to realise that their dog’s forelegs should (in the vast majority of breeds) be well under the body for support. Dogs with short upper arms will stand with their forelegs rather forward almost to the point of being ‘tacked on’ to the body. On the stack handlers may be able to position the forelegs differently and more under the body but it will only prove momentary as if a dog is uncomfortable when placed in an artificial position it will soon move its legs into a more comfortable position – there is only so much a handler can do.
Toplines are vitally important to the overall picture of any dog. In a short-coated breed there is little that can be done to disguise a weak topline and poor tailset but in coated breeds again the skilful trimmer can create illusions. It is amazing what a little back-combing can do! Yet again it is up to the judge to see (and feel) beyond.
On the move there is little to hide from the educated eye when a dog has some constructional failings, however experienced handlers often attempt to disguise defects to a certain extent by moving dogs too fast or by choosing to move in a not-so-straight line when asked to execute the ‘up and down’. Again experienced judges see through such ploys and will ask the handler to move in a perfectly straight line at a more sensible speed.
Breeders may well be very focussed on ‘type’ when planning their breeding programme, very conscious of those essential breed characteristics that make their breed unique. However the smart breeders are those who never forget the basics, by which I mean the nuts-and-bolts construction of the dogs they are breeding from. Given that they keep the need for a correctly constructed dog to the forefront of their mind, when it comes to handling there will be no need for sharp practice.
On a sunny spring afternoon many friends gathered at All Saints’ Church in Higher Kinnerton to say our last goodbyes to the late George Morgan. As would be expected there was a distinct military feel to the service and subsequent cremation and the day had been planned by George’s widow Rita and son Neil with a precision and attention to detail of which George would have been truly proud. George will be very much missed around the dog shows.