Whole Dog Journal's Blog February 7, 2013

At a Dog Show

Posted at 04:56PM - Comments: (18)

I went to a very large benched dog show recently. I haven’t been to one for five or six years, so it was slightly overwhelming. So many dogs, so many people, so much stress! But it was interesting to observe the event in a neutral way; I didn’t know anyone there, and wasn’t attending with a specific task in mind. I took my camera, took some pictures (to use as stock photos for potential use in WDJ), and took my time with whatever I wanted.

It was also interesting to see how my own feelings about and observations of the dogs were very different than they were the last time I attended a show like this. I felt much more aware of canine body language and behavior – and perhaps more judgmental of how unaware of their dogs many of the handlers seemed. I felt really sorry for the “hairdo” breeds; the dogs who had to endure hours and hours of fussing with their coats. That has to be very depersonalizing! All day long, I saw so much more yanking dogs around than I have become accustomed to, and handlers physically pushing and pulling dogs into position, as if the dogs were completely inanimate objects, and that did not feel good.

But when, in the minority experience, I saw a handler who seemed genuinely emotionally and mentally connected and communicating with a dog, it really stood out -- a beautiful thing. Sometimes, it seemed to me that I was seeing an intense dog/person bond. There was one gorgeous young Weimaraner, for example, who seemed smitten with her handsome gentleman handler. But there was one woman who stood out to me again and again over the course of the day – handling several different dogs of different breeds! If I had to guess, I’d say she was not the owner of any of those dogs, just a very gifted canine communicator. All the dogs she handled looked keen yet comfortable. I loved watching her and the dogs she showed; she was the best thing I saw all day.

Another observation: After taking pictures of dogs in the conformation ring for a couple of hours straight, I saw something that I had never really noticed before. Almost every dog did the same thing after being handled by the judge, and before really getting into the required gait away from and back toward the judge: he or she shook all over, as if shaking off the experience of being examined by yet another stranger. I know that dogs often shake off like this when they are stressed by something, but I wouldn’t have thought that very experienced show dogs would be even mildly stressed by what must be a very commonplace experience for them. And yet, about 19 out of every 20 dogs did it (I actually counted).

The worst thing I saw all day: German Shepherd Dogs. While the long, smooth, floating trot they have been re-designed to perform is admittedly beautiful to watch, when that floating dog slows to a walk, and then comes to a halt and stands, the exaggerated hind-end conformation that produces that flying gait looks, to my eye, freakish and crippled – especially in contrast to the German Shepherd’s more athletic-looking cousins, the Belgian Malinois and Belgian Tervuren. I know I’m not the first to make this observation, but wow. Seeing a dog stand on his hocks rather than his feet; how can that be desirable?

Comments (18)

Just a note to Susan H about Border Collies, that I think the real working lines are being preserved. I was at the BC National Specialty in Wisconsin and there were many times more Agility, Obedience and Herding dogs from working & sport backgrounds particpating at the show then those from bred from the imported Conformation lines.

Trust me farmers and ranchers will still be breeding the working BC's and importing working lines from England. They need them, it is too rare for a pretty dog from imported conformation lines to have decent working ethic and the proper structure to work all day.

I get my dogs from a person who breeds working lines only, I would rather have brains then beauty although I have both in my BC's.

Posted by: ARLENE S | February 14, 2013 6:03 PM    Report this comment

Nancy I loved reading about your "new and improved" perspective on conformation showing. I ventured briefly into the sport twenty or so years ago and I too now have a much different viewpoint when I find myself ringside. I know it is wishful thinking, but I long for the day that dogs are valued for their entire contribution to the world, as is, without genetic stylings or nips and tucks (ears and tails). Nothing warms my heart like seeing a natural-eared Great Dane or a Giant Schnauzer with the ears and tail God gave him! The final straw for me (and the reason I broke ties with the AKC) came when Border Collies were literally hijacked into the breed ring by a small breed club and a lot of political machinations. The rest of us have watched in horror as our wonderful herding dogs have changed before our eyes into a square, fluffy, predominantly black and white, nevertheless, very pretty dog. Unfortunately, one of the unique qualities of the BC that allows him to creep up on sheep low to the ground is a higher rear/lower shoulder build. In just a few generations this trait has been virtually extinguished, along with, I'm sure, many of the other qualities that make them such special dogs. I could go on (an on), but will just end by congratulating you again on speaking out in favor of "real" dogs.

Posted by: Susan H | February 13, 2013 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Interesting article, and interesting comments. I've been in dogs 29 years. I am lucky enough to be in a versatile sproting breed that is able to do a number of things, well. Fortunately, the structure has stayed fairly healthy & I know enough (nowadays) to select for structure, when I intend to work the dog, as well as show the dog.

I grew up with a GSD & recall the former beauty most of the breed had, before the extreme structural changes that became popular. Until it become polically incorrect and/or enough people refuse to buy dogs that walk on their pasterns & have hunched toplines, the problems will continue. If I were to buy another GSD today, I'd go to Schutzhund lines, period. It is sad to see, because there are many sporting breeds that move with tremendous reach & drive that have neither exaggerated feature of the current GSD, so it can be done.

Unfortunately, there are many impersonal handlers who have to show dogs for owners and they do not get to know the dog well, if at all. Some are hired ring-side or just before that show. They can & do man-handle dogs. (It is almost like watching an asembly line in a factory.) They have to run from ring to ring handling as many as 6 or more dogs per day. But that is part of the difference beween just "handler" & a true professional. Onwers ought to do more home-work or have friends video-tape their dog being shown (IMO). But too many owners, may not know what to look for (in an unhappy dog) and may be satisfied by a handler that wins, regardless of anything else.

Yes, owner/handlers do have an advantage at conformation shows (in many cases) as famous former pro-handler, George Alston will say at his handling seminars. I think many folks are brain-washed to think othewise, or have been "dumped" too often despite having the better dog, by ring politics (judges who only put up professional handlers).

I think an article on how to be more confident & less stressed, for either conformation or ring sports would be excellent, for WDJ to cover. Being nervous does travel down the leash, and can & will affect performance in most cases. If you knew you could count on your dog 90-99% when entering a ring, I bet you'd enter with a light step & with viturally no worries. If you felt that good, I bet your confidence would re-inforce and bolster the dog, too. I went from sweating bullets to KNOWING (before we went in) my dog & myself would do well. I began to realize I could count on my dog. We began to have moments of what I call, "mind-meld" & taking placements & getting obedience titles (including CDX)in 3 straight legs, and this was with a breed NOT known to be good at obedience.
It has been life-changing, & WE now enjoy obedience.

Posted by: Betsy | February 13, 2013 11:47 AM    Report this comment

What a great article and comments to read after watching Westminster. i also noticed some (not all) of the dogs being yanked around. i have two beautiful black german shepherds who are of the German lines which are known more for their working abilities. they do not have the sloped back. it seems that the American line of Shepherds seem to be bred more for show than a working dog. that said, there are definately well bred Shepherds out there with the straight backs and 4 paws on the ground. unfortunately the German lines of shepherds are not the ones who are represented in these big name shows.

Posted by: Susan M | February 13, 2013 2:01 AM    Report this comment

My German Shepherd is a REAL German Shepherd -- a true working dog who stands proudly on all four paws with a beautiful straight back. She does agility and nosework and is also a therapy dog. She is extremely intelligent and has an awesome temperament. It is her breed that truly belongs in the show. They excel in so many areas, as guide dogs, police dogs, military dogs, in search and rescue and tracking. I, too, believe that extreme breeding has done harm and that many of the handlers are horrible.

Posted by: Laszlo G | February 12, 2013 5:42 PM    Report this comment

Many years ago, I showed my Doberman Pinscher a few times. She actually did win a couple of ribbons but I did not enjoy it and neither did she, so we stopped. When my ex-husband and I divorced, he kept the dog, and I had cats for many years (I worked long hours and it was not practical to have a dog). When I retires, I purchased two purebred dogs, a Papillon and a miniature Australian Shepherd -- and refused to have either one registered. I was not interested in showing them, just in the love and companionship they offered. And they have given me both many times over what I expected!

Posted by: margeam | February 12, 2013 5:20 PM    Report this comment

I am sorry you find plus size women unattractive, but I'm not sure what this has to do with the current topic???

Posted by: lsabatini | February 12, 2013 4:18 PM    Report this comment

If not for the dedicated AKC breeders, my breed of choice (Lhasa Apso) would have all but disappeared into the mists of time between the invasion of the Chinese into Tibet in the early 50s, a forced flight to Nepal/India and at least two genetic bottle necks.

As an owner/handler of a coated breed, I find that my dogs all shake once the coat has been touched, under any circumstances. More of a "getting everything back in place" shake as opposed to being stressed. It's also been my experience (with the Apso) that you can't force a dog to show that doesn't like it. If my dogs are in the ring, it's because they want to be there.

Posted by: VICKIE K | February 12, 2013 4:13 PM    Report this comment

So sad what show breeders have done to the German Shepherd. The German Shepherd is supposed to be bred as a working dog - straight back, well muscled and there would be much less displasia. Thankfully there are some that are bred for work, and you can even find some of them in shelters, particularly in CA.

Posted by: 376NYC | February 12, 2013 3:18 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for your article. My one boy was handled by the breeder and he loves the show ring. When I got him, I had a professional handler show him who couldn't always make it to the ring but I will say all the "fill ins" he got to cover did a great job with my boy because I certainly wouldn't want someone not treating him well. I had my other boy, who hated the show ring probably because of me being a novice, professionally handled a few times and again, had a wonderful experience. I would think that at Westminister, all of the dogs are very used to the show ring and I must say, in my breed, Keeshonden, the owners and/or handlers are great with the dogs. Of course, they are the breed that jumps on the handler and expected to have a bit of silliness about them! I also know a professional handler in my breed and would leave my dogs with her and her husband in a heartbeat knowing how she cares for each and every dog she handles. Grateful, I have had positive experiences. And, I do think benched shows are much more stressful on dogs and handlers. I don't think it is fair to lump all show people into breeding for looks only because I know many who do not.

Posted by: Julie N | February 12, 2013 2:32 PM    Report this comment

Interesting observations! I too have seen the same things as a participant at shows and do my best to be sensative to this very thing. I recently observed a group of "Ring Jockeys" yanking some dogs around in the manner in which you described and the dogs refused them as handlers. Refused to walk a single step with them! I laughed right out loud. Nothing absolutely nothing can replace MY personal relationship with my dog in a show ring and this is where the owner/handler has an advantage over professional ring jockey handlers.

Posted by: Margaret K | February 12, 2013 2:18 PM    Report this comment

Watching Westminster, my husband and I were taken, first, by the tight leads and physical man-handling of the dogs and, second, by the size and shape of the female handlers. 90% of them are plus-size women. I know we should be looking at the dogs but these women seem to be all cut from the same mold. Not attractive.

Posted by: Janet B | February 12, 2013 2:14 PM    Report this comment

The last comment here is somewhat disturbing. The AKC does do a lot to help dog ownership and education.There are always some bad apples around but you don't throw the good out with the bad either. I am a Breeder/Owner handler and love the show ring and I have seen how some professional handlers treat the dogs and personally would never allow my dogs to go off traveling the show circuit with one. You will find more of these practices at the bigger shows than compared to the local smaller shows.Unfortunately,$$$$$ can play a much bigger part in the shows like Westminster and other bench shows. As Breeders we must be good Stuarts of the breeds we love and raise, and breed for health and correct conformation, temperaments. And not let the show ring dictate to us what is desirable or not...because, we all know that the ring can be political and not always does the best bred dog wins. So we must stand firm to what we know IS correct.

Posted by: Dennise D | February 12, 2013 1:38 PM    Report this comment

I show my boy in conformation, and he LOVES to show. He's a big fan of having an audience, getting treats, and getting petted, and that's what showing is to him. He does do the shaking off thing before gaiting after the exam, but if it's due to stress, it's positive stress, because he likes it when the judge goes over him. He's a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and shares the typical love of humanity his breed is known for. Actually, the stress is probably because he has to stand still instead of plastering himself to the judge and licking her face.

Even a super friendly dog like mine does sometimes get overwhelmed by people. When we do "meet the breed" booths or similar type PR events, I can tell when he's had enough meeting people because he disengages and stops trying to solicit attention from anyone near him. Then I take him away to rest. It takes a lot longer and more people than he encounters in a show ring, though.

Posted by: Flyinsbt | February 12, 2013 12:38 PM    Report this comment

Great article! If the dogs aren't having fun, I don't get the point. I think it's great to be engaged and actively doing things with our dogs, but keep it fun for the dogs. I have two amazing beautiful German Shepherds we do agility and Rally and Therapy dog visits every week but we just do it for fun, they love it. Ribbons and titles mean nothing to them. They make me laugh and smile every day. I think with the pressure and stress of so many of these competitions the fun gets lost.

Posted by: Amy S | February 12, 2013 11:26 AM    Report this comment

I am one of the breeder/handlers that loves show dogs and dog shows. The majority of breeds are owner/handled which means we do not hire someone to show our dogs. We do it for fun, companionship with our dogs and all the friends we make that also love dogs. Many breeds are not just "beauties", they also compete in breed related sports (hunting, field trials, etc) or in other venues such as agility, obedience, rally etc.

No matter what hobby you participate in - there are always many levels to be found - the key is to find balance.
Love your dog - Anne Schmidt/ Stardust Longhaired Dachshunds.

Posted by: ANNE S | February 12, 2013 11:23 AM    Report this comment

Great article Nancy, I was watching the Westminster last night and made a comment to my wife in regards to the trouble Pugs can have with their sinuses and breathing due to breeding for flatness in the snout. Within 5 minutes of my comment, my wife commented on the handlers "muscling" the dogs around the ring. I'm sure at that level of competition their are a lot of nerves firing for both dog and handler but you're absolutely right; the great handler/dog combinations are definitely the minority thus really seem to stand out.

Posted by: Bob | February 12, 2013 10:29 AM    Report this comment

How, indeed. It's one of the big reasons I'm so reluctant to register for AKC events (sports, not conformation): I feel that "show" breeding does a disservice to the dogs, and I'm very very reluctant to support an organization whose #1 priority is to tell the world that these show dogs, bred strictly for appearances -- appearances that sometimes cripple and hurt them! -- are the best of their kind in the world.

I love German Shepherds. I would love to have a purebred someday. But I am afraid this breed has been ruined by backyard breeders on one side (temperament) and conformation breeders on the other (physical structure).

Posted by: Jennifer A | February 8, 2013 12:18 PM    Report this comment

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