What’s the Rush?
Maybe it is just my perception, but it seems to me that there are many puppies and young dogs being shown in more breeds than ever before, and I wonder what the rush is to get them into a show. Are we showing our dogs at too early an age?
I must admit that when I thought of writing this article, I had a preconceived idea of what responses I would receive, but, in fact, the responses were not what I expected. I sent a survey to people who are influential and knowledgeable in their breed, asking them at what age they start showing their dogs, when they expect them to be competitive, and when they retire their dogs.
A friend of mine seemed to share my thoughts when she wrote, “So much emphasis is being put on puppies to finish their championships as fast as a Thoroughbred coming out of a starting gate, and then they are instant ‘specials.’ Finishing a dog young due to a fabulous weekend of success is wonderful. But what happened to the art of letting a dog mature to maybe finish with some equally fabulous wins, but more spread out? A dog that finishes its championship at two and a half or three years of age maybe is more ready to continue to be a special. Or you see the opposite – a young dog finishes its championship at eight months old and it is never to be seen again because it did not mature well.”
Obviously, the breed makes a difference, and that was confirmed in the responses to my survey.
An international Terrier expert compares two breeds for us. “Airedales are, generally speaking, slow-maturing dogs. [It is] difficult to ‘seriously’ show them before two years old. On the other hand, it's not unusual to have 8-year-old dogs in top show condition (body and mind). My experience with Miniature Schnauzers is exactly the opposite. They are usually ‘ready’ at nine months old (always depending the bloodline). I've had males that were ‘overdone’ at four years old.”
She continued: “In my opinion, it's not about "age" but about ‘readiness.’ Of course, young pups SHOULD attend shows, once fully vaccinated, in order to improve their socialization. No need to actually enter them.” (Yes, I know the rule about age or unentered dogs at shows.)
A professional handler (and breeder) says, “I like to start all my dogs at six months to get them in the ring and used to the experience. Some of the dogs are very successful, and some are not ready, so they will get put away until they grow up. Most of my breeds I expect to be competitive at around three and a half to five years old. I like to get puppies pretty young and get them trained, and then come back when they are older and more competitive.”
A very successful Irish Setter breeder acknowledges that many people simply enjoy showing their puppy. She says, “We show our Irish Setters as puppies and always have. I think it positively imprints them about having a good time, one on one, with us. Fortunately, there are a lot of Irish Setter specialties and supported entries in our area. I think it's a great idea to imprint them to various things at a show and make sure they have fun doing it.” When asked at what age she expects her dogs to be competitive she said, “In the classes, at any age if they are the best one there! As a special, our bloodline matures slowly. Males look best at five, six and seven. Females, four or five.” She will usually retire her dogs at seven, although they may certainly be shown as veterans at specialties.
When asked when a dog should be shown by a professional handler, she said, “I find that showing a puppy, even a few times, is invaluable. An Irish Setter never forgets a good time and who they had it with! Building a good rapport is an excellent foundation for a show dog.”
Another top Irish Setter breeder adds, “I would think the age to start is when the dog looks the part — ribs have sprung, the head has matured, it’s muscled up and a healthy coat is all part of that package. With a bitch, one needs to consider breeding her, so that could be a determinant. … Most dogs should be specialed for two to three years. As a final thought, the conformation of the animal and its comparison to the standard is what should be the first consideration. With Sporting dogs, they do take longer to ‘body up,’ and most Toy dogs can finish as puppies.”
Obviously, that depends on the specific Toy breed. A breeder-judge of Toy breeds says, “In Cavaliers, our dogs don't mature until two to three years, but many exhibitors show their dogs young, and their dogs never see a ring when they should. Our newest puppy took four-point major at six months and two days, but we put him away and he is only beginning to look good now at 18 months. We will put Cavalier puppies out to see how they do, but the smart breeders wait for a year or more. The great Cavaliers are three-four years old when they are very competitive.”
He also correctly points out, “Remember, there are no matches, and it's difficult to find handling classes to socialize young dogs. Many times, I feel forced to enter dogs just to keep them ring ready.” As far as retirement goes, “… we repurpose dogs through rally, obedience and therapy, so do they retire? At my age, I really want to stay home with my dogs or have fun with them in other venues.” In answer to the question of when to use a professional handler, “That's a complicated question to answer. It depends on the breed, the individual dog and the handler. First, not all handlers are created equal. We have been blessed by the relationship we have with our handler and her husband. It was based not on wins, but on the caring reputation they had for the dogs in their charge. Our dogs have loved her perhaps more than me, and years after being shown they still know and love her. Next is the dog: We have to determine when the dog is mature enough to win. Then, the dog needs to spend time with the handler for training like any athlete.”
A Hound breeder-judge talks about Afghan Hounds: “… they all need some ring time when young, usually at a specialty with sweeps. It depends on the individual when determining at what age the dog is competitive or should be retired.”
A respected Hound breeder talks about her Salukis, “The age that they begin to show is determined by their level of maturity, both physically and mentally. But you don't want to wait too long and have that window of opportunity close for getting them out and socialized. Salukis need to be socialized from a very young age, and if you have a puppy or young dog that finishes, he or she should not sit at home waiting to mature. That young dog, if you are going to continue to show him or her, needs to be out and about. A good dog is competitive at any age if their bodies and minds are conditioned and they look great. Salukis actually do not peak until five, six or seven years old. I see dogs that are shown past their prime, regardless of their age. Just because they attain their championship, does not mean that they are worthy of being a special.” Amen!
What about breeds that “must” finish early because so many of them lose their teeth at an early age or go oversize? My international friend says, “Why does FCI insist on titling a dog only after 15 months old? Why not show young dogs and win whatever points they deserve, but getting that FINAL certificate ONLY after 15 or 18 months old? Wouldn't this make sense? No oversize champs!”
One of my favorite Sporting dog breeder-judges agrees with this opinion. Echoing the fact that there are very limited opportunities at match shows, she says, “I usually show my puppies in 6-9 or 9-12 a couple of times to just expose and acclimate them to the show scene. … Depending on their development I show my [breed] 18 months and up. I expect them to be truly competitive after four years old. Since mine is a slow-maturing breed, I am concerned when youngsters appear to be fully developed by two…. will this dog potentially be overdone or plain done by six? For a functional hunting breed this can be an issue. I actually like the system where a dog may not achieve its show championship until it has reached an age beyond puppy status. Each dog develops at a different age and peaks at a different age … the dog’s overall condition, energy and showmanship decide when they retire.”
What is your opinion of the Puppy Bred-by-Exhibitor class? One handler-breeder has the same opinion I do: “I almost feel it's an unnecessary class. A great Bred-by will be recognized whether it's a puppy or an adult.”
Other opinions are, “I think that it is great and offers the breeder the opportunity to compete and complete a championship and still earn their AKC BBE Medallion.”
I agree with the Hound breeder who says, “I think the Bred-by puppy class is a good idea, although I believe a good dog regardless of the age can compete with more mature dogs; quality is quality.”
Personally, before this class was initiated, I have judged many puppies being shown in the Bred-by class, and if the dog seemed young, I would ask the steward for the date of birth, and then factor this into my decision.
So, my opinion has changed. I had forgotten that there are essentially no match shows to get youngsters used to rings, other dogs, people and the judging procedure. Some of this can be done elsewhere for socialization, but it is almost impossible to get the feeling of a real show until we are there. As with most things, it is an individual thing – based on the dog and person involved.
What do you think?