Charles Dickens’ next-to-last novel, Great Expectations, was published in 1861. In the novel, a young man named Pip struggles to advance beyond his modest beginnings. Social advancement and wealth are his driving aspirations.
According to Wikipedia, “Though it was published over two centuries ago, its themes about life are still relevant to youth today. The themes in combination with the strongly developed characters, powerful descriptions, and suspenseful plot make the novel an excellent read. The moral theme of Great Expectations is quite simple: affection, loyalty, and conscience are more important than social advancement, wealth, and class.”
So, what has this to do with our “dog community?” I often wonder if some of the anger, debilitating disappointment and judge-bashing is fueled by the unreasonable expectations of owners, exhibitors and handlers. Is there anyone among us who does not love their dog? As the icon Pat Trotter said, “Not every pet is a show dog, but every show dog is a pet.” And mine is more than a “pet.” So, how many of us look at our dogs with the eye of a judge – who has no personal connection with your dog? Just as important, how many look at the competition that way?
I must admit that on the rare occasions that my dog is to be shown, my half-awake dreams that night before are of every move made to show my dog – and every step he takes. Of course, my dog always wins in my dreams. I think this is understandable, but if it is taken to excess, it is the formula for severe disappointment and angst.
Yes, there are some dogs who win on a very consistent basis – sometimes because they are true quality and much better than others in their breed, and sometimes for other reasons. But these dogs – and their handlers – look at wins differently. If these “top dogs” do not win or place in the group, it is often considered a loss by the handler. Sometimes, just a group placement is considered a failure. How sad and certainly not the true meaning of our shows!
So, what should your expectations be when your dog is shown? Maybe we should take a lesson from those who compete in agility and obedience. Winning is wonderful, but what is really appreciated the most is when your dog performs well and the two of you work smoothly together. Performance and presentation are within you and your dog. Being awarded ribbons is outside of the two of you and is in the hands of someone else. It has taken me many decades of showing dogs to begin to understand this – and I am still working at it. But wouldn’t all of this be more enjoyable if our reactions were based on how well my dog and I worked together? A win would be the cherry on top! Maybe this would be a “coming of age.” Consider this statement by Estella in Great Expectations: “I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”
Wouldn’t the stress level be reduced if our attention and concern were focused inwardly and on our relationship with our dog, rather than outwardly on the results as determined by the judge? Should your feeling of success be determined by someone else? Should your feeling of worth and happiness be decided by someone else? If your dog does not win the desired ribbon, do you love him less? Allowing outside sources determine your self-worth is physically, mentally and emotionally debilitating. Just show your dog to the best of your – and his – abilities, and know what you are doing is the right thing.
For many, this can be their coming of age. Moving past the drive for ribbons alone – without consideration of whether your dog deserves the win that day – could be considered maturity. A great friend of mine often says, “The judges will tell me if my dog is ready to win.”
Consider this quote from Great Expectations: “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong. There was a long hard time when I kept far from me the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth.”
So, what should our expectations be for ourselves when we show our dogs? First, we need to make sure that our dog is in good shape, clean and in condition – and has had some degree of training. By no means do I need a dog to act like a robot when I am judging, but a little bit of decorum is helpful for a judge to see your dog at his best.
Second, we should have a rough idea of how to show our dog. Again, perfection is not necessary, but the basics are desired and make it easier for the judge. For those breeds that require trimming, at least rudimentary adherence to what makes your dog look his best is certainly helpful. No … sculpting is not required and does not help.
A judge friend of mine adds the following caveats: “Know the show site. (Does your dog show better outside or inside? Does he perform OK on mats?) Know the judge. (Preferences – does his history indicate he prefers one color over another, does he measure, is he a “movement judge”?) Know your dog. (Is the other dog truly better than yours? What are your dog’s strengths and weaknesses?) Knowing these things may lower your level of frustration.
How about expectations for the judge to whom we show? I will not pretend that all judges are equal, and, hence, all wins are not equal. But there are some basics you should expect. The judge should display a good degree of understanding of your breed standard. He should also be easy on the dog and handler. (I cannot understand any judge who is nasty or annoyed to be there.)
Finally, there is the question of integrity. You should simply want the judge to point to the dog that he feels best fits the standard as he understands it.
We see a lot of negative comments on social platforms – often questioning whether the judge even knows the standard. In fact, I believe a lot of these comments are sour grapes, and are not expressed by someone who has considered the entry objectively. Most judges know the standards. The problems may arise in the interpretation of those standards and, to be completely honest, in the integrity of the person standing in the middle of the ring. I believe most judges are honest and want to do the right thing, but like anything, a few bad apples give all of us a bad name – and that is not fair to anyone. Make up your own mind about a judge – don’t just listen to the loud squeaky wheels. They are often the ones that complain about anyone that does not put their dog up.
In many parts of the country – i.e., not the East Coast – we drive long distances to get to shows, and we don’t have a lot of choices of shows/judges. So, put your money where you want it – support the judges you think are knowledgeable and do the right thing. And, if you remember that the showing of your dog is supposed to be fun – and building a relationship between you and your dog – the outside influences (the judge’s decision) will not be the most important thing. Look for the good things, and don’t concentrate on the negatives. Consider the saying, “If people stopped looking for things that offended them and started looking for things that inspire them, what a wonderful world this would be.”
I am reminded of this anonymous note that I saw on FB: “Let’s not measure a breeder’s success by the amount of winning their dogs do in the show ring, but by the number of dogs that stay with the family that purchased them as a pup and that die in the arms of that same family 14 years later. In that case, we have three winners: the breeder, the family and, most importantly, the dog.”
It is past time for us to simplify things. Control those things that you can control, and pay attention to what’s important now. Instead of having the goal to win as many pieces of ribbon that we can, let’s try to accomplish what a friend of mine uses as his email signature: “I wish I were as good as my dogs think I am.”
What do you think?