Dog Handling Dilemma
I consider myself moderately accomplished: Bachelor of Science in Microbiology, MBA from a top ranked business school, entrepreneur, a former top sales professional for 15 years, mother, wife, and, of course, Big Dog Mom. So accomplished that I find dog shows and dog handling completely and utterly frustrating. Let me explain.
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Dog Handling 101
For those not familiar with the sport of conformation and the dog show ring, let me give you a quick generalization of what a typical dog handler does in the ring with their dog.
After entering the ring, the judge will have the dog handler go around the ring and then stop at a designated spot to hand “stack” or “set up” the dog. The judge will come over and examine the dog from head to tail and then ask the dog handler to do some sort of pattern – down and back, a triangle, or something else I’m convinced is designed to throw newbie owner handlers like myself off. After the down and back, the judge will have the dog handler take the dog all the way around the ring and back to the beginning.
There is some variability with this, but in my experience, this is the most common scenario.
From start to finish, you can plan on being in the ring a whopping average of two minutes. Or if you are the only puppy in the 6-9 month puppy class, a total of 31 seconds (see video below).
Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well, I can assure you dog handling is anything BUT simple.
Here Are The Top 5 Reasons Dog Handling Is Best Left To The Professionals
1. Dog Shows Are Competitive.
My first experience in the dog show world was with Linus. While he and I were working through other issues, I did make a few observations about the people who eat, sleep and breathe dog shows. If you have ever seen the movie (and one of my all-time favorites) Best In Show, then you know the kind of people I am talking about. They have lots of beautifully bred dogs, they travel great distances between shows in an RV, and they speak in a foreign language called Conformationeze. A language which uses words like, bitch, major, finish, and special, none of which mean what you think they mean (à la Princess Bride).
These people love their dogs. They spend vast amounts of money on their dogs. They go to extraordinary lengths to ensure their dogs are well fed, trained and cared for. And as such, they are competitive in the ring.
They want their dogs to win. Who wouldn’t? Think about it. You spend hard-earned time and money to enter your dog(s) and get to the show and in less than two minutes a judge can give you a very subjective thumbs up or thumbs down. When you get a thumbs down to a competitor you feel is not as nice as your dog, well, that doesn’t feel good. And speaking from lots of experience, it is very annoying to say the least.
Competition Gets In The Way
Here is my point with respect to competitiveness. In and of itself, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being competitive. I am competitive. My husband, children, and every colleague I have ever had would say I am competitive.
However, I have noticed that some people let their dog’s success or failure in the ring on any given day affect their relationships and friendships with one another. They let it determine how they treat one another off and online – leave it to social media to show people’s true colors. And, most importantly, they let it inhibit how supportive and helpful they are to folks new to the breed or new to the conformation ring.
Outside the ring, however, is a perfect opportunity for relationship building and encouragement for everyone.
Why Does This Matter In Dog Handling?
So, how does this competitiveness become a challenge for someone like myself, venturing tepidly into the world of dog handling? Let me explain it this way.
When I ran my first half-marathon, there were people lining the streets in Madison, Wisconsin for 13.1 miles cheering me on. Complete strangers yelling “you got this, girl!” “You’re almost there!” “You can do it!”
I am not suggesting people chant “Big Dog Mom, Big Dog Mom, Big Dog Mom…” while Junior and I are in the ring. Mostly because the words would get garbled and all people would hear is “Big Mom, Big Mom, Big Mom…” and that would NOT be helpful.
Outside the ring, however, is a perfect opportunity for relationship building and encouragement for everyone. It seems these days we prefer to “like” and put on our emoji stamp of approval rather than taking a minute or two to shake hands and give a pat on the back.
2. Big Dogs are BIG.
For those unfamiliar with dog shows, the proper attire for a show dog is a super thin, short leash attached to an even thinner choke collar.
Perhaps the inventor of these products was poor and only had so much material to go around. Or perhaps the entire dog show scene was started by Shih Tzu owners as a cruel joke on their bigger dog owning friends.
As salt in the wound of every big dog handler, not only are you asked to control your 200 lb dog with a teeny tiny leash and collar, but you have to dress up while you are doing it. You must look presentable for the judge after all.
Imagine if you will, me, Big Dog Mom (not Big Mom), and 8 month old Junior during his first show in Filer, Idaho. In my black Calvin Klein dress and new black shoes, I had to traverse a muddy fairgrounds parking lot in wind, rain and cold while attempting to control an enormous, overly outgoing 8 month old puppy. My priorities teetered between trying not to fall face first in the mud and attempting to tame my wild beast using only the ridiculously teeny tiny leash and collar. Good grief!
Evil Shih Tzu people.
3. Dog Shows Can Be Political.
As someone who is relatively new to the dog show world and still very much outside of it, I will be brief, yet blunt, with this one.
There is a perception among many in the dog fancy that judges only put up (award) professional handlers. Some believe that judges pay more attention to the person rather than the merits of the dog at the end of the leash.
I do not know whether this is true or not. I can tell you I have been in the ring a total of 5 times and have never won. Is it because I am not a professional dog handler? Perhaps. Or is it because I am an awful dog handler?
Whatever the reason, I do believe judges should try to look beyond who the handler is (or isn’t) and strive to focus only on the dog and how closely he or she fits their breed standard. Because, after all, isn’t that the point? The day the blue ribbon becomes a participation trophy for the professionally handled is the day I hang up my ridiculously tiny collar and leash. In my opinion, the blue ribbon should reflect the merits of the dog it was awarded to NOT the dog handler presenting him that day.
The day the blue ribbon becomes a participation trophy for the professionally handled is the day I hang up my ridiculously tiny collar and leash.
4. Dog Show Rings Are Too Small For Big Dogs.
Sorry, but I have to go back to the nefarious Shih Tzu people.
There is no way a mastiff, Great Dane or German shepherd owner designed the dimensions of the show ring. No way at all.
Getting a dog as big as Junior to properly, and at just the right speed, gait around that tiny ring is almost impossible. If only we could just submit videos to AKC of our dogs gaiting in our yards or while playing in the park, Junior would be a show dog star.
In the ring, a dog handler must move with the dog at exactly the right pace to show off the best of that dog’s movement, or gait. While it looks easy, it is actually very complex. And I argue this complexity is only further complicated by trying to handle a huge dog in a mini-sized ring.
5. Stacking is MUCH harder than it looks!
For those of you not familiar with what “stacking” is, stacking is the term used to describe the way in which you set the dog up to be examined by the judge. For mastiffs, you want to set the front legs under the shoulders and the back legs so that you can draw a straight line from the foot up to the hock.
The challenge is when you are handling a big dog, or an enormous puppy in my case. Not only does the dog not really want to stand there or stand still, but setting the dog up so that the view on the other side (judge’s side) is the best it can be is REALLY hard. Stupidly hard, in my opinion.
In handling class, I get a whole battery of comments about my stacking skills: “his legs are too far apart,” “he’s butt high,” (yes, that’s a real thing), “he’s a little easty-westy in the front,” (yep, that one is real too), “pull his head up,” “his head should be down more,” “his feet are too far back,” “set his feet back more….” And just when I am ready to pat myself on the back for setting him up perfectly…. he moves. It’s exhausting.
To illustrate just how bad I am at stacking, a professional handler actually said to me “you know, he looks better when you don’t touch him.” Ouch.
Here is a video my 7 year old son took of Junior and I in the ring for the first time. You know, the cold, rainy, muddy day in Idaho I referenced earlier. Take it from me, the one who came in second out of two that day, forcing your dog into the splits is not a recommended method of stacking.
The Future Of Dog Handling For Big Dog Mom
So, here’s the deal. I will continue to show Junior. Not because I love IT, but because I love HIM.
As silly as I know I look out there, I get a great deal of joy watching him from the other end of the teeny tiny leash. I love seeing him wag his tail for the judge. His expression is both endearing and enthusiastic. And so as long as he is happy in the ring, I will show him.
Do I think he would have a better chance at winning if he had a professional dog handler? Absolutely! There is no doubt in my mind.
I don’t say that because a professional dog handler is well connected with the judging circuit. I say that because they have more practice doing it. Period. If Malcolm Gladwell’s Rule of 10,000 hours holds true, I only have 9,900 hours left before my dog handling skills are just as good as theirs.
I had better get stacking!