My Advice to You
It's been more than 58 years since I was walking my first Irish Setter and was stopped by an elderly man who just started running his hands all over my Irish, Lady.
I looked at him as if he were crazy. Eventually, I learned that he was an AKC judge, and he was the one who introduced me to what would become a very significant part of my life. Without that extraordinary, life-changing meeting, my life would have been very different. I have that serendipitous time to thank for my dog-show family and friends both here and around the world that would never have been in my life any other way. I have judged in six countries, and had the additional honor of judging many national and regional specialties. And I have loved each and every time I got to be with our dogs.
Now, as we approach what is normally a joyful time preceding a new year filled with hope and dreams that are shared with friends and family, I realize it is instead a very stressful time for many of us. I know I am on the downward slope of my mountain, and every time I walk to the center of the ring, memories flash through my mind, and I can feel my eyes filling up.
So I thought as my gift to you I would share some of my experiences and advice. I want to pass on some of my knowledge to both the newcomer and experienced handler while I can. I hope you find something of value here – passed on in no particular order.
• It has become almost a requirement to "put down" judges. As in every era, there are some excellent judges and some not so much. Most absolutely judge dogs, and unfortunately there are others who might look elsewhere. But to paint all judges with the same brush is not only unfair, but it is self-defeating and a true barrier to new exhibitors. This applies to whisper campaigns as well as social-media posts.
• Remember, you love your dog, and rightly so. You know how wonderful she is at home. But a judge is supposed to be looking at her dispassionately, and is probably looking at features other than her loving temperament.
• How do you expect a dog to stand still for examination when you have been feeding her bait constantly, and then you quickly pull the bait away and try to show the bite? In the same vein, after feeding her all the time she has been in the ring, you pull your hand away and expect her to move in a straight line.
Many years ago I showed my young English Cocker bitch at the spaniel show to Anne Rogers Clark. I was guilty of the constant-bait syndrome, so when I moved her on the "down and back," Dee Dee was moving sideways, trying to get to the bait that she knew was in my pocket or my hand. I knew she had moved horribly (and she truly was a very good Cocker), so when I came back, I looked up at Mrs. Clark and said, "Would you like me to do that again?" Mrs. Clark glared at me and said, "I don't EVER want to see you do THAT again."
The moral is there is a significant difference between baiting and feeding – learn to do it correctly and you will be ahead of the game.
• The Pointer Sisters sang a song with the lyrics, "I want a man with a slow hand." We see too many handlers who are in a rush trying to set their dogs up, moving faster and faster when the dog moves a foot. Just the opposite is what you should be doing. When you are moving frantically, your nerves are transferred to the dog – and that is not a good thing. I think the best I saw at slow, CALMING movements was George Alston, who seemed to be almost petting the dog as he moved his hands over her to set her up. Slow, caring movement helps to keep the dog calm and steady.
• Here's a news flash: We ALL want to win, and we ALL love our dogs and think they should always win. But I see so many people who are more concerned with winning at all costs rather than breeding and showing good dogs. If winning is the ONLY goal, then we have lost the meaning of why we do this thing that we love – or at least we loved it until winning became the all-consuming goal.
• Showier and flashier is often a detriment to the breed – any breed.
• There are many extremely talented handlers and groomers – both professionals and owners – who can make almost any dog look excellent STANDING. Knowledgeable dog people know that movement is the verification of structure – and isn't that a significant part of what we are judging?
• Speaking of grooming, I know that most people groom the dog on a table and usually have a mirror so that they can see how the dog looks on both sides. This is only half the battle; what happens when the dog moves? The grooming might look very different. Also, to do this properly requires at least one other person to help – to either move your dog so you can see it, or to watch as you move the dog (this requires someone who is knowledgeable in your breed).
• Practice moving with your dog (with someone watching) so you can find the speed at which the dog looks her best. FASTER is not the answer.
• It is very easy – and almost always wrong – to judge from OUTSIDE the ring.
• If you took a poll I think most people would say, "I want a #1 dog." Do you really? Do you understand the pressure involved when, if you don't AT LEAST win the Group, the show is considered a failure? We have had #1 dogs, and it was fun – and expensive, and stressful – for a while. For me, all my dogs at home are #1 dogs, and it is more important that our dog who was #1 RANKED is a loved part of our family away from the ring. He does not become less important because he is not winning ribbons.
• If you win, check the "tear sheets" at the superintendent's table before you leave the show. If a mistake was made – like a wrong number being credited with the win – it is easier to correct it before leaving the show.
• The way to get back to understanding what our dog shows are about is to enjoy the journey, not just the destination. The journey should be enjoying that special relationship formed between you and your dog. They give us everything they have all the time. We need to do the same for them.
• Why do people say, "I won a five-point major?" Is there a five-point win that is not a major? And, by the way, your DOG won the major – not you. (I hope.)
• The way things change: When judging a dog that is obviously frightened, judges are used to hearing, "She was just jumped by another dog on the way to the ring," or "The judge last week was very hard on her." Today we hear, "It's a COVID puppy, and there have been no classes to work on her training."
• Newbies: DON'T LISTEN TO ALL THE NEGATIVE BS. Remember, the people spreading all this noise are still there. Don't let them define you or your dog. WE DECIDE WHO WE ARE AND WHO WE WANT TO BE. Accept your own responsibility. Study the judges and their choices OBJECTIVELY. Keep your own book on which judges you want to show to again. One of my very successful friends has said that it takes at least 25 or more shows for a handler and dog to work together. For many breeds it could be double that.
• Do you want your dog to look like she has good shoulders? Then why would you stand in front of her, holding the bait up high so she is looking up – which makes her look like she has a short neck and rough shoulders?
• Learn and practice how to show the bite. Too many people either cover the dog's nose (breathing) or almost stick a finger in the dog's eye.
• Watch the judge's procedure before it is your turn so you don't have to ask where he wants you to move your dog after he has been doing the same thing all day.
• Just curious: How are there so many big-winning dogs with bad bites? I understand that a bad bite is just one fault, but for many breeds it is a significant one. I can see a very good, typey dog with a bad bite being able to finish a championship or even occasionally a place in a group, but to be a very highly ranked, Best in Show dog ...?
So my final advice is to enjoy the journey, remember what dog shows are really about, and share the community with others (when the pandemic is over). Don't let others determine your passion – let your passion determine you.
What do you think?