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In a dog show world dominated by professional handlers, showing dogs is not for the faint of heart or the owner-handler. This is a case for reform.

If there was an award for the dog with the most second (or last) places, Junior would rank among the most successful in the Mastiff breed.

Junior and I have lost to aggressive and fearful Mastiffs, limping and injured Mastiffs, and Mastiffs that look more like Great Danes than those in the Dane ring. 

We have been defeated by Mastiffs that refused to stand still for the judge, Mastiffs that cowered with their tail tucked while being stacked, and Mastiffs that were openly hostile to other dogs in the ring.

More times than I can count we have departed the ring with our red or yellow ribbon only to hear people say, “You should have won that.”

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© 2019 Big Dog Mom, LLC

What is a Big Dog Mom to think?  Is this akin to “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look fat at all (wink, wink),”  or are all these kinds of people right that Junior should be doing better in the ring? 

He should be winning… at least some of the time.

Believe it or not, this post is not about Junior.   It is not to generate sympathy for the perpetual loser.  And it is not even about Mastiffs. 

This is about dog shows.  It is about judges and handlers.  Dog shows are supposed to be about the dogs, but are they?

‘Constantly Evolving Variables’ of the AKC Dog Show

Dog show veterans have told me:

“The purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock.  If a dog doesn’t win after being evaluated by multiple judges, it should not be bred.”

“Dog shows are a competition.  Professional handlers are part of the strategy of winning.”

“It’s not just about the dog.  The reality is a lot more goes into a judges decision; how the dog is presented, who is presenting him, if the judge likes the handler, prior experience with the handler on a different breed, judge’s experience with the breed, and many other ‘constantly evolving variables.’ It is not just about the dog and it never will be.”

Winning isn’t everything.  But it is something.  And when it consistently fails to happen due to these “constantly evolving variables” what is a person left to think about dog shows?  What is she left to think about her dog? 

And if the purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock, is a dog that never wins not breed-worthy?   What about dogs that DO win?  Is it necessarily true that dog show winners are worthy examples of their breed or more worthy of being bred?

These are not rhetorical questions, keep reading.

Dog Show Brags

If you are on Facebook, you have seen them.

“So and so wins Best of Breed”

“9 month old puppy takes Best of Opposite over specials”

“New AKC Champion with limited showing.”

Given all of the ‘constantly evolving variables,’ that go into the decision as to which dogs rise to the top and which don’t, what do these brags really mean?   Who deserves the congratulations, the dog or the handler? 

I had an AKC champion once.  Linus was an AKC Champion.  He was professionally handled.  He won numerous times over specials, took Best of Breed several times, and championed quickly with limited showing. 

Some might see these brags and think, wow, he must have been an impressive example for the Mastiff breed.  With his success in the ring, I was told more than once he was worthy of breeding.  To some, it was irrelevant that he needed to wear a basket muzzle like a permanent appendage outside the ring. 

He was a winner.  He was an AKC Champion. 

If the purpose of a dog show is to evaluate breeding stock, Linus passed that test. 

If the value of his wins is based on the quality of his handler, he passed that test too.

Extreme human aggression aside, Linus was an AKC Champion.

Bias in a Dog Show?

Dog Show A Case for Reform

I had the opportunity tonight to observe the Working Group judging at a large local dog show.   

After courtesy pat-downs and trots around the ring, the judge made her way around to make her first cut.  The only owner handler in the ring did not make the first cut.  After her initial cut, she went on to select her Group 1, 2, and 3 picks, forgetting the number 4. 

The judge proceeded back to the front of the line where two female professional handlers were chatting and the three of them giggled with one commenting “Which one is it going to be today? Hahaha!”

The dog that was originally selected for a Group 3 was replaced with one of those handlers with her Group 4 placement being the other handler.   Clearly having a relationship with the judge paid off for these two ladies. 

To be fair, my experience in observing the group ring is limited to this one experience.  How common this blatant bias is, I cannot say.  I have to believe there are judges out there who don’t succumb to such human pressure in the ring.  This particular judge was clearly not one of them.

So, while I am not anti-professional dog handler, I am anti-corruption in the dog show ring. 

I am not a sore loser.  I am saddened that a win in the dog show ring often has little to do with the dog receiving it. 

A Possible Solution?  AKC Owner Handler

According to the American Kennel Club, more than 80% of show dogs are handled by their owners.  “The AKC National Owner-Handled Series celebrates the dedication and enthusiasm of owner-handler exhibitors” allowing them to compete in a separate competition against one another.

While this is a nice gesture, we shouldn’t need a separate series within the AKC in order to level the playing field for owner-handlers if they make up 80% of the dogs being shown.   If judging in a dog show is in fact about the dogs and not about the ‘constantly evolving variables,’ having a separate series for owner handlers should not be necessary. 

Here’s my point.  Owner handlers are not like girls asking to join the Boy Scouts (oh, wait…).  They are simply asking for an equal opportunity for their dogs to be judged fairly.   

These dogs and their owners have made a tremendous investment and do not deserve to have that squandered by the systemic corruption that is the current state of the AKC dog show. 

Winning is Not Everything. 

No, winning is not everything.  I tell my kids this all the time.  It is the process that counts, not the outcome. 

You could say that the process of socialization at the dog show when Junior was a puppy was the most important thing, not his winning at 6 months old.  And I would agree with you.

Today, however, it seems to me that I am paying the AKC for my own tears because as an owner-handler in a ring of professional handlers, I cannot compete.  The deck is stacked against me and the odds of me winning are slim to none, regardless of the dog at the end of my leash. 

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Realistically, Junior may never become an AKC Champion. 

He may never be the “type” judges are looking for.   He will never float around the ring or present himself in a show-stopping way because that is not who he is.  He is a Mastiff.  A big, typey boy who is not perfect. 

While it is my opinion that what he offers the breed far outweighs his imperfections, I am confident that his biggest disadvantage is the person at the end of his leash. 


Putting the DOG Back in the DOG Show

Dog shows should be about dogs and dogs alone.  

Blaming the current state of bias and corruption on ‘constantly evolving variables’ is an easy excuse for those content with the status quo.

Put it this way, if dog shows are not about the dogs, perhaps we think of another name for these events. 

Just a thought.

If I have ruffled any feathers, it has been my pleasure. 

For more from our dog show journey:

Tired of Losing? 6 Tips For Surviving Dog Show Heartbreak

5 Reasons Why Dog Handling Is Best Left To The Professionals

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  1. I understand your frustration. I have German Shepherds, and they are predominantly handled by professionals. As an Owner Handler it’s hard to get a judge’s attention. Politics and familiarity sway some judges, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Some judges are all about movement, others always go for the big headed males. There are judges that don’t like sables or coated dogs. Others that don’t give German show lines a second look. I try to keep a list of preferred and DNS judges, but the pros know who likes what. They also know how to put a dog in the best light — maximizing strengths and minimizing flaws. Pros are in the ring 50+ weeks a year. The volume of their experience gives them an advantage over the average OH.

    I DO think that sometimes the wrong dogs go up. I think unethical owners campaign dogs that shouldn’t be bred. There are some beautiful GSDs out there with bad hips and worse temperaments. No, dog shows aren’t always fair. I’d like to think that most people are decent. My advice is to have yourself a good cry/scream/pity party and then reevaluate. If you’re having fun, keep going. If not, there are plenty of other things you can do with your dogs. That’s what I did. After 2 years and zero points, we switched to scent work and barn hunt. I’d like to get another puppy and try the conformation ring again. But for now, we’re having a blast.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I agree with you about the fact that handlers generally have much more experience than the average OH, and just based on the amount of practice they get, they should be better. That said, much of what I have witnessed in the ring has gone beyond a judge’s preference for movement or head. The wrong dogs go up all the time. I feel for you in GSD’s. I can only imagine how it must feel to watch what goes on in those rings. On the outside of your breed it has been sad to see some of what is going on with hips and temperament.

  2. When I watched your videos compared to mine(I showed it my Cat regional final this weekend), that was the first thing I thought of -the dog world had professional handlers. There’s no equivalent in cat. There is a lot that annoys me in my class (household pet) because the judges can base on things other than s written standard and I absolutely hear where you are coming from. The judges need to see the animal in front of them, not the handler breeder owner… the politics should go.

    1. In an upcoming post would you mind posting a stacked picture of Junior. As a mastiff handler, breeder, and owner myself I’m curious to see what he looks like. Thank you 🙂

      1. Hi Hannah – I have a few stacked photos of him on various posts, but nothing taken recently. I think because we aren’t showing anymore, I’ve not taken the time to take any good stacked photos of him. I am totally biased, but I think he’s spectacular. If I could clone him I would want 10 more just like him. 🙂 He is a very special boy who owns my heart like no other.

  3. I feel like I wrote this myself. I’m newer to showing and I see my dogs faults but it’s easily the same faces each time ….im doing this because as a family we enjoy it overall. I will continue to show win or lose …but I see every single thing you mentioned in your article.

    1. Thank you, Jane! Win or lose, we are doing it because we enjoy being out with Junior as well. I am saddened that not more people speak out about the bias in the ring. I’m not sure anything will change without that.

  4. Hi I feel you. I had mastiffs for 14 years. I bought a dog from Eve Olson Fisher. Ashley and this other dog kept going back and forth. At the time I showed them we had the big winning kennel on the west coast and big winning dogs.
    I had to go to this vet for one of my bulldogs on the wall was this mastiff I kept missing to. I told the vet I know that dog he said yeah I fixed his front feet they were floppy, which I knew, but he was out of showing for about 3 months and finished fast then I finished.
    But this happens, I don’t fix my dogs it is what it is.
    I worked for a handler for 11 plus years I’ve seen it all.

    1. Thank you so much, Pam! I can’t imagine that people “fix” dogs just to win in the ring. That’s crazy! I’m with you, no ribbon is that important that I would physically alter my dog in order to win. Yes, they are who they are.

  5. Your article is very true! It is almost impossible to win with owner handler. I have watched over the last 3 years three owner handlers with great dogs struggle to get points. We have a dog that has been shown for almost 2 years and only got one point three weeks ago because we finally hired a handler. Handlers are by AKC rules not allowed to talk to judges so what gives? This weekend was two handlers and the winning dog was scared stiff. The other handler was clearly seen schmoozing up to the judge. Another problem…this judge didn’t know the breed at all. This is in open class. The winning “handler” couldn’t get the bitch to perform in the ring and she kept sitting instead of stacking. The handler was jerking her around. I felt bad for her and yet her handler won. And I say handler won and he couldn’t even handle her. The AKC needs to “police” these rings better!

    1. Thank you, Nancy! Yes, I have seen quite similar things in the ring, sadly. Believe me, I have considered that I might be a terrible handler (although most tell me I am not). I have considered that it’s my dog (though most say it’s not). Perhaps both of these are true to some extent, but I do not believe they are entirely the reason for his record of Reserves. I will also agree that the lack of standards as it relates to temperament in the ring is very sad to me. If a dog goes after a judge, it should be excused. Shyness or fear should not be awarded. It’s this type of stuff that gets ignored all of the time.

  6. It goes far beyond the experience you observed outside the group ring that day. I have story after story regarding the corruption within the dog show realm. Dinners, favors, fraternizing, etc. Its not about the dog any more, or their quality, it’s about the money. It is so sad that the dog show world has succumbed to this level. I can guarantee you, 5t hat if you put your Big Dog with a handler, he would be finished in no time. As for owner-handler: if it’s about the dogs then why doesn’t the dog get some points towards their championship, grand, etc? This should clearly show us that it truly isn’t about the dogs, but people have played into it just to get a ribbon? I agree, Bigdogmom: it is a sad state of affairs.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I agree with you completely. I purposefully didn’t mention the financial aspect given my limited knowledge and experience in that area, but I have no doubt that what you say is true. It is a very sad state of affairs!

    2. Speaking of financial gain Lets talk about the sexual favors exchanged, shall we? I recently learned that the “cute or handsome assistants” to the pros are the ones “performing” for the judges, behind the scenes, to get the handlers their wins. We all know that gay men are heavily involved in dog shows (disproportionate to the general population), as judges and handlers. There are even male judges who are no longer allowed to judge juniors because of their inappropriate behaviors. I am not naive, women have always used their assets to their advantage with men, but to use sexual favors for wins is beyond disgusting and unethical, yet it happens all the time. Where is the AKC? They turn a blind eye. Why? Follow the money. Sadly, no matter how good your dog is, if there is no money or prestige behind it, you can never win big. Once in a while the judges have to throw a bone in an owners direction just to keep us playing, because we are the grunts, breeders and our entry fees cover the expenses. It is sad, but entirely true.

  7. Thank you. Saw that this weekend where dogs unable to be examined were put up over specials just because of I surmise PH. Or the judges and handlers laughing in ring then at group that same handler gets a placement for one of their 20 plus dogs they were showing. Yeah I got OH BOB but it was like a consolation prize.

    1. Thank you, Michelle! Congratulations on your OH BOB! That had to have been very exciting. What is going on between judges and professional handlers is really inappropriate in my opinion, your story just being one of the many I have heard and witnessed with the exact same scenario sadly. Something really needs to be done.

  8. I am not a professional handler – I am a breeder-owner-handler of Bernese Mountain Dogs. I have not had the experiences you describe. In fact, I recently finished a 17-month old girl I bred in just a few shows — and I had a similar experience with her mother and her grandmother. I have had group placements on my dogs — including that puppy! Most judges are honest and fair, doing their best — rarely do I believe anything “political” is happening. Just a different perspective 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for offering your perspective, Mary-Ann! I am so happy you have had a different experience. That certainly gives me hope! Keep up the great job you are obviously doing with your beautiful dogs!

  9. Worse than Olympic figure
    skating. 1 judge, no transperancy, no scoring kept. So open to bias, favorites, and friends.
    Replace with 2 judges, 1 in ring. Make judges keep score for each dog, make them transparent and available, AKC track and post awards given by judge; i.e. Mr Smith (pro) received SD or higher 40 times under judge X over the last five years.
    Pros do normally improve the dogs presentation in ring, improve confidence, and more. But.

    1. Mark, you are absolutely right! The biggest problem is that there is no transparency in judging. I have suggested similar options to people who are more tenured in showing in AKC than me and their response is it will never happen. I’m not sure if it’s because of finances or time or simply an unwillingness to change, but I agree with you that having more than one judge and having them write down their “score” or report on each dog would change everything! They would have to answer for their placements. For me and my dog, I welcome feedback and if I consistently received low scores from multiple judges… that would actually tell me something. What I have now is a fabulous dog who has come up second more times than I can count to well-known pro-handlers.

  10. Pro handlers dominate in my breed, but I have beaten them many times over the years in the classes. At BOB and Group level, though, forget it. There’s one dog in our breed that gets dragged out to every show and the older he gets the worse he looks … freakish front, soft topline, and his attitude is one of flat and unhappy boredom – he’s had enough. But he wins because of who’s on the end of the lead, every time. It’s ugly… and discouraging.

    1. This kind of stuff makes me so sad. That poor boy just wants to go home and lay on the couch like every dog should have the ability to do in their elder years. 🙁 . As far as the breed versus group ring, I have no doubt that you are right. The story I told about the group ring illustrates at least one example of exactly that – some ability for an OH to win BOB, but very little hope in the group ring of being noticed at all. Yes, this is very discouraging. Not so much from a fairness perspective, but from the standpoint that it is not at all about the dogs.

  11. Afghan hounds used to be shown almost exclusively Owner Handled. Not anymore. I know ha doers that can practically win with a 3legged dog. I show my own so I know when I finish a dog’s Championship it is because it is a good dog, not because I put it on a well known handler it does get frustrating, and AKC is aware of all the complaints. That is one of the reasons they started a Owner/handler, though it gives you no points

    Great article

    1. Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing your experience. I wish I had the answer. I will say that, while 80% of the feedback on this post has been overwhelmingly positive, there is a vocal 20% who see it as an owner handler being a sore loser. It seems to me the attack on fellow pure bred dog lovers is part of the problem and part of the reason the system is the way it is. When you demonize the squeaky wheel, it stops squeaking.. or so they hope. I am going to try to continue to show my boy in OH and I’m not going to stop speaking out when I see this type of corruption. Unfortunately, I feel like the AKC is financially incentivized by the current system so forcing change alone will be impossible. But at least I will be able to sleep at night.

  12. This was great. I just worked a two day show, I manned the information table, and that was a topic of conversation everywhere. Why judges don’t put up owner handled dogs. Another thing that gets me, is that a lot of breeds, like my Springer Spaniel, needs a lot of grooming. These dogs get judged on the skill of the groomer, not on the standard that they are supposed to be being judged against. However, I have to say that I have a friend who does do very well as a Breeder, Owner and Handler. She finishes quite a few of her chihuahuas.
    I loved your line, about it being your pleasure if you have ruffled any feathers.

    1. Thank you so much, Joy! I couldn’t agree more. I can’t even imagine what you have to go through with a coated breed! You make a good point about your Chi friend. I do know some people who are quite successful as owner-handlers, but even with these folks, my guess is they end up in twice as many shows for the same number of ribbons. Being owner-handled in the AKC takes immense dedication and commitment. I will get back out there one day because even though I do believe the cards are stacked against us owner handlers, I love dog shows and cherish the experience with my dog. I’m sure that sounds twisted to most people.

  13. Do you think staging a nation-wide walk out may get the AKC’s attention? 30 days all owner handlers DO NOT enter any AKC shows. I’m at the end of my rope. Something needs to get their attention and shake them by the scruff. The only way to do that is the almighty dollar. I am not amused by their feeble attempt to placate and distract owner handlers with such things as the NOHS series that only succeeds at making us a mockery. I’ve heard multiple judges and pro handlers poking fun or saying how stupid we all look. I am done. Who’s with me? I am very serious.

  14. Thanks for sharing your experience! It is some comfort to me because I’ve been feeling the same way and I am new to the show ring, with my first show dog. I’m learning along the way and we had a few major wins fairly early on, which made me hopeful, I guess. My girl has perfect conformation for her breed but she’s perhaps not a very showy personality (neither am I, which may be affecting us). Now that she’s a bit older, we have done something like 10+ shows with nothing to show for it, but a RWB or 2. I realize that 10 shows is probably not a lot but it’s darn defeating for a newbie, when I’ve been trying so hard working with her and taking her to classes, etc. I’ve been watching as handlers and long-time breeders are winning, even with dogs that are kind of a mess all over the place, not stacking well (crooked topline, high in the rear, too long for the standard, etc) and others with really awful grooming… but they all chatted a good long while with the judge. Or they had a big-name breeder behind the dog. I have quite a list of DNS judges from our short stint of showing and I am not sure I will continue once my girl is finished. Some of them are really very nasty. We sure need some new blood in the judging panel.

  15. We show Rotties. At a recent AKC show, the judge was talking to a dog owner while our dog was being shown. The judge didn’t even look at our dog and he didn’t even look at any of the other dogs. One of the handlers stopped still and asked the judge if he planned to pay any attention to the dog that she was showing. The judge was furious. The dog owned by the person that the judge was talking to the whole time won.

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