The decline of match shows has lessened opportunities for puppies to practice before their show-ring debuts.
Fri, 10/27/2023 - 8:18am

Match Shows and More

Puppies and young show dogs need a place to practice

A recent post on Facebook, theoretically from “breeders and owners,” asked AKC to allow professional handlers to show dogs in the 4–6 Month Beginner Puppy classes so that the dogs could be trained properly by those who would wind up showing the dog during their career. There are also some breed clubs that do not allow professionals to show in sweepstakes.

As I see more and more dogs that are not ready for noisy — and probably scary — show venues, I am convinced we have lost a great deal by losing the match shows that were so prevalent years ago, and we are force-feeding young dogs — who are not ready — to compete at all-breed shows. This is unfortunate, because it is so important for these dogs to have good early experiences. Match shows — and I would include 4-6 Month participation — could be very important for many reasons.

My first time in a show ring was in 1963, when I showed my first Irish Setter at a match show. I was excited and delighted to win a first-place ribbon, and apparently that hooked me for life. I went on to become an assistant handler, then a professional handler, and finally a judge. I have since judged in many countries, at many national specialties, and this community has become a family for me for more than 60 years. 

I am sure that a great many of our breeders, judges and handlers had similar starts to their careers. I believe match shows were important to the growth and stability of the AKC, and apparently some people — and clubs — have chosen to offer “point shows” — even with entries of 350 or less instead. I have no idea how these clubs can survive. Furthermore, it requires as much work and stress on club members as do bigger shows. It may take some time to get the idea re-established in your area, but why not consider a couple of match shows, which would be less stressful, and, if properly marketed, could be fun and maybe even more profitable for the club?

Match shows and 4–6 Month competitions are great basic training grounds for “wannabe” judges and handlers as well as for the dogs. Even more important, they provide a stress-free environment to introduce your young dog to shows. There are very few places where dogs can be taught to be comfortable on mats, and clubs that have mats will benefit these dogs at matches.

Obedience competition should certainly be included in your matches. Not only will this increase your entries, but obedience competitors love matches, as they allow the handlers to “train and reward” in the ring, as well as helping the dogs to learn to ignore “outside influences” and noises.

Think matches can’t work? Then why are there other show-giving organizations that are well-attended by many, including professional handlers who use these venues as training grounds? The fact that these shows require judges to give critiques — or just comments — also provide training grounds for “wannabe judges.” Except for the critique aspect, sweepstakes are also good training grounds for judges, and why not allow handlers to compete there? Aren’t judges supposed to be judging the dogs and not the other end of the lead? Remember — innocent until proven guilty?

Consider these words from a young “professional handler” who has grown up in our community:

“How about those people who now claim that they don’t take money for ‘handling,’ but just for ‘grooming’ and then still play in 4-6? How is that ethical? This scenario just happened at our national specialty. I had to run around to find people to show my puppies because I wanted them out there for practice, experience, and simply because I was proud of them. But … I could not even show one of them myself. Yet, a professional [now characterizing themselves as] ‘groomer’ shows TWO of their own puppies in 4-6 and it’s fine.

“I miss match shows. I came into the dog show world when they still existed. Most of the time they were held after the dog show was over, or even on the evening before the first day of the all-breed began. It was great fun to get to the show site, set up your stuff in the building, and then get the evening before to practice with your dogs at the match show. I also got to show in Junior Showmanship at the match for even MORE practice. Major-pointed dogs were able to be shown at the match, but for exhibition only, while the others in the ring could compete for the ribbon and progression of the event. It was wonderful! My mom and I got so much more practice with our dogs, and I was able to play with my breeder-mentor’s beautiful young puppy that I was desperate for her to let me show ‘for real.’

“Our first show dog that we acquired won Best in Match in 1997. My mom still had that rosette proudly displayed in her office, as that was the first BIG ribbon we had ever won. She was so proud — we were brand new to showing dogs, and here we were, right out of the gate with a dog who won a ribbon almost as big as her 6-year-old daughter. We were hooked …. Forever.” 

Isn’t this what we want?

A recent Facebook post certainly seemed to speak to another idea. “I often wish there was a venue where I could show in an ‘advanced’ atmosphere. Judges would have had to prove their expertise before being allowed to judge, Frankly, it’s discouraging to me that most shows now are practice shows for new judges. They need practice, I get that, but why not designate ‘learner shows’ or something — even not allowing a judge to award majors (regardless of how many are entered) until expertise is established. Dumping someone ‘famous’ doesn’t make you a hero.

“Awarding an undeserving novice doesn’t, either. Judge the dogs. It’s why you were hired.”

Sounds like something I had suggested many years ago that is actually utilized in other countries. Why not have “minor shows and major [championship] shows”? Some of those shows that have entries of under 400 or 500 could be great training grounds for newer judges. There could be a way to have judges who do not judge often officiate at these shows. Perhaps AKC could help assign them — and no majors would be awarded. Smaller clubs now are forced to hire multi-group or all-rounders to cover all the groups, and this does not help their finances. Maybe newer judges — even though they don’t have all the breeds — can be allowed to judge groups (but placements would not count toward the almighty rankings) — since majors are not awarded anyway. Wouldn’t this be good training? Just a thought. AKC has a great many committees — maybe one should seriously look into this idea.

Since in some geographical areas there essentially are no match shows, breeders and exhibitors have been forced to show young dogs at regular shows as a training exercise. For some, this works well, but for others, the poor dog is frightened, and often has to be — or should be — excused. How is this a good experience for that young dog? And let’s not forget, there is a considerable difference in cost to show at a match compared to an all-breed show.

If you must, it is extremely important that a few things are considered when showing a young, inexperienced dog. Pick your judges carefully — one who has gentle hands and a calm, understanding attitude with youngsters. Watch judges at shows so you know which ones would be good for a youngster. Pick your show site just as carefully. An indoor venue may have poor acoustics, and is often noisy and unsettling even for the most experienced dogs. Don’t stress out about a great performance or winning — just let the youngster be a youngster, and if she is having fun, let her be a puppy. And if the youngster is nervous — or even excused — just relax, and try not to let your stress pass to your dog. It is much more important for the young dog to have a good experience than to get a ribbon. Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way.

“Competitors” are more relaxed at a match show, and this more hassle-free environment is more inviting to newcomers. By marketing the match properly in your area, perhaps spectators would be interested, and so an additional market for puppies and new members becomes available.


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Many things have changed since I became a member of our dog community. But one thing that has not changed is the feeling of fraternity and community. I can personally attest — and I am proud of — the camaraderie among Irish Setter exhibitors, and I am sure the same thing exists in other breeds — but not all. I think the relationship between owner-handlers and professionals was better and was more respectful than I think it is — in general — now. The National Owner-Handled Series has indeed improved entries, and we undoubtedly get to see dogs at shows that may otherwise have been left at home on the couch — and that is a good thing — but when I see/hear the acrimony between the two groups expressed by a few, it really bothers me. I truly believe we are a special community, and it shows when one of us needs help, but the social media muscle-flexing and accusations are a danger that our community must avoid. Unfortunately, as I saw in another Facebook post, We Live in a Time Where Intelligent People Are Being Silenced So That Stupid People Won’t Be Offended.


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