Showing For Newbies
Everybody has to start somewhere. As a long-time dog show attendee, I'd wanted to show my own dog for quite a while, and so one of the things I was looking for during the puppy search which resulted in my beloved Rakki was a dog I could show.
Now there are pluses and minuses to showing a rare breed. Competition can be hard to come by (sure, you win plenty of first place and best of breed ribbons, but they lose a bit of their shine when yours was the only dog present), many of the judges you run into are completely unfamiliar with your breed, which means you have a duty as a breed fancier to do your best to help educate them as best you can, AND it means group placements can be harder to come by than your individual dog's merit might suggest, since many judges simply won't place a breed they don't know well.
Dog showing, like most very involved hobbies, has its own jargon and customs, and to make it more complicated, these can change depending on which kennel club you show in.
In general, however, regardless of kennel club, there are some constants.
Some Show Terms and Concepts
Purebred dogs can be divided into groups of breeds which have something in common. This is normally purpose-related (herding, hunting, companion, police-type work, etc.), but in some clubs it can also be related to physical type. Dogs are usually shown in group order (although there are normally multiple rings of classes going on at one time), and they normally enter the ring for the group class in alphabetical order (by breed name), and the Best in Show ring in group number order. Since different clubs have both different groups and different group orders, this can get confusing if you show in more than one club (as I do). For example, just in North America, my breed (Swedish Vallhund), is in group 7 (Herding) in CKC shows, currently in the Miscellaneous Class in AKC shows pending full recognition in 2007 (the Miscellaneous Class is for dogs whose full recognition is pending, to allow judges to learn the breed before the breed enters its correct group, in this case group 7 (Herding), and starts earning championship points), group 6 (Herding Dog) in UKC shows, and group 4 (Spitz & Primitive) in ARBA shows. The Swedish Vallhund is in group 6 (Pastoral) in the UK.
So you need to pay attention to which ring you're supposed to be in, and when, and you will want to take note of which breeds are showing before yours, so that you can arrive in comfortable time beforehand. These things will normally be listed at the show's website (if there is one), in the show program, and is also available at the show secretary's desk (where you will normally go to check in and pick up your dog's number(s) when you arrive at the show).
Breed Classes Shows usually start off with classes for each breed, further broken down into classes based on age, sex and previous show history (details vary between kennel clubs). So you might have a class for female Swedish Vallhunds between 6-12 months of age, a separate class for males in that age range, and so on. Each time a dog wins a class, it moves on to the next level of competition (in most cases). The top level of competition at the breed level is "Best of Breed". The dog who wins Best of Breed (BOB) goes on to compete in the Group Class.
Group Classes The winner of Best of Breed for each breed in a given group goes on to compete in the Group Class (so you normally have one example of each breed in a given group in the group class). There is one group class for each group in the kennel club (Sporting, Hound, Working, etc.). The winner of Best in Group goes on to compete in the Best in Show class.
Best in Show The winners of the various Group classes go on to compete in Best in Show, the last class of the show, so the dogs in the Best in Show class are not only the best examples of their breed, they are also ostensibly the dog which most closely adheres to their breed standard from all the dogs in that group. The winner of Best in Show can have "BIS" placed in front of their name - this is not an official title in most clubs (official titles become a part of the dog's name), but does tell you that the dog in question has won a Best in Show.
I strongly recommend that you attend conformation handling classes, at least a few times, before you enter your first show. I'd been a lifetime dog show goer, and when I actually tried to do what I'd seen done thousands of times, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I actually needed to do. Managing a lead, bait (treats), my feet and my dog was a whole lot harder than I'd imagined, and attending a few classes not only gets you and your dog used to the flow of classes (and your dog used to being handled by strangers as a judge will handle him), it helps your body learn what it needs to do, so you can think less about the basics of managing everything you need to manage, and concentrate on showing your dog off to his or her best.
The flow of a class is usually as follows:
- arrive at ringside and wait for the ring steward (the judge's helper) or judge to ask you to enter the ring (always be polite and deferential to the judge and ring steward, they have a lot to do and a long day). Make sure you have your number attached to your left upper arm in such a way that the judge will be able to see it easily from the centre of the ring, do not carry anything unnecessary in with you, dog, lead and collar (attached to dog), bait (if allowed, be sure to check, since bait is not always allowed at some shows/some classes), yourself (presentably turned out and wearing non-slip, comfortable but presentable shoes) is all most people/dogs will need. If you are showing more than one dog, write the dogs' names on the back of their respective numbers so that you use the correct number for each dog. Normally people use elastic bands (I prefer two, one at the top and one at the bottom of the number card), but you can also use safety pins or whatever works. Dogs will normally be asked to enter the ring in a specific order, so wait until your dog's number is asked for.
- when invited to do so, enter the ring with your dog on your left side, gait (gaiting is explained later) your dog around the ring in a counter-clockwise direction (usually you go in and move to your right) until the judge asks you to stop (many judges will ask you when entering to proceed around the ring and then stop and "stack" your dog at a given point, some will want the dogs to move around the ring continually until they ask you to stop, listen to what the judge wants and follow their directions, you can lose yourself a class by ignoring the judge's requests)
- when asked to do so, stop and "stack" your dog. "Stacking" is placing your dog in a specific position which allows the judge to easily observe and evaluate the dog's conformation (there is a fantastic training guide for this by Sue Ailsby here). There are different required stacks for different breeds, so be sure that you know what is expected of your breed (attending lots of shows and looking at lots of stacked pictures of your breed is a must), make sure you have trained your dog to accept being hand stacked (where you place the dog's legs in the correct position) and/or free stacked (where you train the dog to place his feet/legs correctly by himself) long before you start showing. Different breeds also have different conventions in terms of where the handler is supposed to be, and what they are supposed to be doing while the dog is stacked. For some breeds, the handler crouches or kneels beside the dog (on the dog's right, closest to the outside of the ring, to avoid blocking the judge's view), and sometimes also holds the dog's tail away from its body, for other breeds, the handler stands in front of the dog. Know which is correct or the normal convention for your breed and practice it many times.
- when asked by the judge, bring your dog forward to an indicated spot (or a table if your breed is shown on a table), and stack the dog again. The judge will then observe your dog, then approach and "go over" the dog, usually starting with checking the dog's bite (some judges will ask you to show them the bite, others will want to do it themselves, be sure you have accustomed your dog to this, some judges do a very thorough examination, including opening the mouth, so make a habit of checking your dog's teeth and opening his/her mouth a few times a day, I like to pop a treat in the mouth at the end, so the dog comes to see having the bite checked as something that results in yummy things), then checking the head, running the hands over the body to feel the structure, coat and tail, and checking the testicles of male dogs (to ensure that the dog has two normal testicles). Make sure your dog is comfortable with being touched all over his/her body, have many people go over your dog in this way before you show (another reason conformation handling classes are a good idea). If you are showing a female in season, be sure to advise the judge of this.
- You will then be asked to do a "down and back", where you "gait" your dog away from the judge and then toward the judge to allow the judge to observe the dog's movement. "Gaiting" is normally a trotting pace, but again, learn what is expected of your breed, some breeds are expected to really move out briskly ahead of the handler, others are expected to move at a more leisurely pace beside the handler, know what you should do, and also learn what specific speed makes your dog look his or her best within the more general constraints of the average speed at which you're expected to gait the dog - judges will also sometimes tell you how they want the dog gaited (I've had judges tell me to go faster, and others tell me to slow down). There are different patterns judges can use for observing movement - most do the "down and back" (and will tell you how far they want you to go), but some will do a triangle (where you move the dog away, turn to the left for a ways, then proceed back to the judge on a diagonal), others an L (where you move away, travel to the left, do an about-face, travel back to where you turned, and turn back to return to the judge). Good conformation classes will have you run through a variety of gaiting patterns so that you become used to them. Remember to listen to the judge! Don't do a straight down and back if the judge wants a triangle! (There is a great gaiting training article by Sue Ailsby here).
- The judge will then usually ask you to proceed around the ring to the end of the line-up of dogs in your class - most judges are still observing the dog's movement at this point, so gait the dog properly here. You should assume that your dog is being judged every second s/he is in the ring, so behave accordingly. Do not crowd other dogs in the ring, maintain a reasonable space between yourselves. Once you reach the end of the line, stack your dog again. As the line moves forward as each dog is judged individually in turn, move ahead and restack your dog.
- Once every dog has been judged individually, the judge will sometimes pull certain dogs out of the line-up and have them move ahead of the line, this is often the order in which they plan to place the dogs, but this can still change, so don't assume anything. Some judges will excuse the dogs they do not plan to place at this point (if you are excused, leave quietly and politely), others will have all the dogs stay in the ring. Regardless, at this point, the judge will normally have the entire class (or the dogs they haven't excused) gait around the ring again all together while s/he makes her/his final decision regarding placements, and most judges will point to the first, second, third and fourth placed dogs during this final go-around the ring. The judge will then write down the numbers of the placed dogs in the official show record, if your dog was placed, remain in the ring and take the spot the judge assigns you (some shows have placement cards, others do not), if your dog was not placed, congratulate the handlers of the placed dogs and proceed out of the ring. Always be a good loser AND a good winner. Be kind to your fellow handlers, thank the judge and ring steward, be a good sportsperson and do not ever, under any circumstances, complain or behave in an unsportsmanlike manner if your dog doesn't win.
- I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to make the whole process of showing fun and happy for your dog. A frightened, unhappy dog does not show well, and there is no reason to make this process unpleasant. Happy, enthusiastic dogs are eye-catching, and it's often the case that a dog who really enjoys showing and has fun doing it will outplace a conformationally superior dog. You should always leave the ring with your dog thinking s/he has just won Westminster or Cruft's (not that your dog knows about this, but your attitude should be the same no matter what happens - the dog did wonderfully and you are incredibly pleased with him/her, even if it's not true), do not take out your disappointment at a loss on your fellow handlers, and especially not on your dog. Making your dog feel badly will simply mean that you are even less likely to win next time, since your dog will associate bad things with showing. If your dog doesn't show well, the problem is almost always that you didn't prepare the dog well enough .
What The Heck Is "Conformation" Anyway?
The term "conformation" literally means "the shape or proportionate dimensions". In short: how the dog is put together. The breed standard for each dog sets out the specifics of what the "ideal" specimen of the breed looks like (no dog ever truly meets every single aspect of the breed standard perfectly, every dog has strong and weak points, and indeed the breed standards are being interpreted by different people, from the breeder to the owner to the judge, so there are quite wide variations in individual dogs which still stay within the standard).
The FCI breed standard for my breed, the Swedish Vallhund, is visible here. It tells you what the overall appearance of the breed is: "Small, short on legs, sturdy and fearless. Appearance and expression denote a watchful, alert, energetic dog." It tells you what the dog's overall proportions should be: "Ratio of height at withers to length of body 2:3.", it tells you the specific ideal sizes: "Ideal size dogs: 33 cms (12,99"). Ideal size bitches: 31 cms (12.21"). Variation of 1 cm over or under ideal height is permitted." and it goes on to tell you what the eyes, ears, head, neck, body, feet, legs, tail, coat, colour, etc. should look like. It tells you about the parts of the body in relation to each other, for example, the shoulder: "Shoulders long, set an angle of 45° towards the horizontal plane." The upper arm: "Upper arm slightly shorter than shoulder blade and set at a right angle to shoulder blade. Close fitting to ribs, but still very mobile." etc. Judges must know the standard for each breed they judge, since they are comparing each dog against the standard, not against each other (except in terms of how well each dog meets the standard).
Standards also contain "faults" and many also contain "disqualifying faults". A "fault" is anything which the creators of the standard feel are serious enough departures from the breed standard to make them worthy of special attention. Faults are normally things which either affect the dog's ability to perform the breed's traditional work (teeth, temperament, coat, body proportions, etc.) or which cause the dog to look substantially unlike the way the breed should look (colour, coat type, etc.). Some of this may seem extremely petty and nit-picky, but there is no point in having breeds if we do not understand what makes a breed a breed unique from other breeds, and a standard is intended to lay out a map which tells you what a given breed should look and act like. It's easy to say that nobody could ever confuse a Pug and a Great Dane, but it's much more apparent how important standards are when you start considering breeds which are closer together in terms of appearance. Most faults are intended to be judged according to their seriousness in the individual dog, and included in the overall assessment accordingly. Some faults are considered serious enough to warrant the dog's being disqualified from competition (these are the "disqualifying faults").
Politics, "Kennel Blindness", "Kennel Bashing" and Other Fun Stuff
There are politics in the dog world, as there are pretty well everywhere. There are politics in the show ring as well.
"Kennel Bashing" is a term which means putting a breeder down by making unpleasant comments about her ethics, breeding stock and anything else you can think of. Some dog breeders like to state that one should never say anything even remotely negative about another breeder, or a dog they have produced, even if true. I see a clear distinction between true "bashing", and statements of fact. Now there are certainly fair and reasonable ways to discuss problems, and unfair and unreasonable ways to do the same. Fostering an environment of openness and honesty can be difficult when you have pride, emotional investments, and personality conflicts in play.
"Kennel Blindness" is a term which normally means a breeder who is unable to objectively evaluate their own dogs in terms of the breed standard and the dogs' quality with reference to it.
I've read in more than one place that truly developing your "eye" for a dog's conformation means that you should be able to find something positive about every dog you see, not just the negative points. This makes sense to me, it's sometimes much easier to see what you don't like, than what you do.
more to come...