5 Reasons Why Dog Handling Is Best Left To The Professionals
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.
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.
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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 that 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 lastly, they let it inhibit how supportive and helpful they are to folks new to the breed or new to the conformation ring.
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.
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.
Outside the ring is a perfect opportunity for relationship building and encouragement for everyone. A personal touch goes a long way!
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 the 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 fit 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.When the blue ribbon becomes a participation trophy for the professionally handled is the day I hang up my ridiculously tiny collar and leash. A blue-ribbon should reflect the merits of the dog NOT the handler.
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-Shih Tzu-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.
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 me 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!
For more on our dog show journey, go to:
This sounds very much like when I competed in the ring with my horses. Whether competing with dogs or horses you must know what you are doing, what is being expected of you (and your dog/horse) and even in the horse world – there was politics. *sigh*
Thank you, Kelly! Yes, I’m not surprised there are politics in the horse world as well. I suppose the best thing we can do is recognize the politics are there, but not let them get to us.
I have not tried conformation but you’re right, some of those rings are tiny! I’ve tried stacking Mr. N for fun and I’m never quite sure if I’m doing it right. Mr. N would be terrible for a handler. He has firm opinions about listening to other people if I’m not there.
Mr. N is so cute and smart. I think he would take one look at that ring and say, “nope, that seems silly to me.”
I love any and all things dog (sports, training, behavior, nutrition, medicine, etc.), but for some odd reason, I don’t have any desire to do anything with conformation. (It was probably a subconscious thing that happened after I realized you have to dress up in the ring to handle dogs, lol). I do have some friends who are into it though, and I have heard similar horror stories of muddy/rainy shows and politics.
Haha! Thank you, Alix! I am with you, I love all dog sports. For me it is the partnership with my dogs, the thrill of a new challenge, and the pride in learning something new that I can share with others. Any sport that facilitates those things is something I am interested in. 🙂
Aww. I commend you for breaking the mold so to speak and showing your boy. He may not fit the traditional mold of smaller dogs, but he deserves to be seen and you get the practice. I commend you. I’ve only seen some dog shows on TV and I can tell the owners are really putting in work to look so “polished and proper” the whole time. That can’t be easy.
Aww, thank you, Kamira! You are right, it is not easy at all for reasons that still baffle me.
As a person who has had both big and little dogs, I really reading about your dog show experience. I have zero personal experience with dog shows, but I love Best of Show and this post!
Thank you so much, Lora! Yes, Best in Show is one of my all time favorite movies!
I am going to be honest I am one of those that do not watch any of these competitions as I just personally feel the dogs suffer in some ways. I think a dog should be a dog, handled correctly of course, trained proper of course but left to be a dog otherwise
I appreciate your input, Ruth. I can assure you Junior has a blast when he is out there and is being every bit of a dog as he is here at home. Quite honestly, at 185 lbs, I couldn’t force him against his will if I wanted to. 🙂
Very interesting. I’ve never been to a dog show, but I’ve watched them on TV. Cat shows are a little different, but the judges to expect certain breeds of cats to do certain things. The cats are judged totally on themselves and not a person presenting them.
Thank you! I wish dog shows were more like cat shows in that respect. It does sometimes feel like too much weight is placed on the person at the end of the leash in dog shows.
I guess if professional dog handling was easy we would all do it! It does sound like you have a good handle on what it takes, and Junior is so handsome. We are having a fun dog show this weekend in town and I’m so looking forward to it.
Oh, isnt’ that the truth! There’s a reason people pay a lot of money for a good handler. They make it look so easy. I appreciate your kind words about Junior and my handling skills. Thank you!
LOLOL! Oh, I know, I know…this is why I never wanted to compete in conformation. Obedience was where I showed, and I admire those able to other performance shows. These days, I’m mightily impressed by the “self stacking” dogs (they actually swing around and plant feet very deliberately in a gorgeous stack!). They also often compete in obedience. *s* It’s a fun but frustrating sport–and as you say, the joy is all at the end of the leash.
Thank you, Amy! I, too, am in awe of dogs and handlers that can achieve a “self-stack.” I actually determined that with Junior the only way he was ever going to show well with me is if I could train him to self-stack. Haha!
Hi there I enjoyed the article which brought me back to showing my own girl Trixi. The contortions I had to perform to get her stacked were truly laughable. I had help finishing her which would have been the only way to get it done. I also lost a mastiff to Wobblers.. more of a sudden deterioration. I hope Junior is ok and going strong. True heart break .. I really know how you feel. Best of luck.