Timing is Everything at a Dog Show

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Dedicated dog people will tell you that nothing makes their heart pump faster than those 10 or 20 minutes in the show ring battling it out for a ribbon. 


As a regular observer of show ring activity, I notice everything from a judge’s proficiency to the quality and behavior of canine athletes and the techniques of their exhibitor or handler. 

It is fair to say that sometimes judges make wrong choices. Other times dogs make mistakes, which may be facilitated by their handlers’ poor use of space and time in the ring. In most ath­letic contests, success depends on devising a strategic plan and then being flexible to alter the plan should it become necessary. 

Multiple elements contribute to an effective show ring presentation. 

Professional handlers have an advantage of being familiar with many judges’ ring procedures. They have a reasonable expectation of how judges handle their ring and what they are looking for in a breed as well as how they go about finding it. 

The owner-handler can develop this advantage by studying judges who may be coming up for them at a later show. They may observe a judge’s ring procedure and breed type and performance preferences. When does a judge look at the dogs and what is a judge looking for? Does a judge allow second chances? Some judges do not. 

Some judges peek back at previously examined dogs to decide which ones are the keepers. 

Knowing this, a skilled handler has the option of placing himself out of viewing range so that a dog may rest and not get caught in an unattractive stance, or he may elect to seize the opportunity to showcase a dog that is an “energy laster.” This is done by standing within the judge’s view from across the ring and placing the dog in a natural stance.  

This should be an option only if there is adequate ring space. A handler should keep a dog off the pattern of the gaiting dog. It is important to know whether your dog is up to the rigors of continuous showing without a few seconds of rest. If not, this tactic is counterproductive. Keep in mind that until a judge points his finger, there still is time to affect the choice.

Body language is exactly what it implies.

It is nonverbal communication that sends a powerful message to the receiver. A handler’s body carriage and demeanor are indicators of one’s level of confidence and ability. Deliberate moves, an open body frame, quiet hands and eye contact are signals of an able competitor. A slight hesitation before executing the requested pattern followed by brief eye contact and then a slight pause before returning to the judge communicates that the moment belongs to you and your dog.  

A common mistake is constant fidgeting in the structural area where the dog is not so good. This may involve setting and resetting the legs, tail, head, etc. A judge told me once that he never wasted time looking for the weak spot on a dog because a handler’s nervous hands pointed out the fault to all. Every dog has structural flaws. Leading the trained eye directly to each of them doesn’t earn ribbons.  

A judge can only see one angle at a time. 

If he’s walking down the line looking at heads, expressions and fronts, you shouldn’t worry about the rear. Make whatever he’s assessing at the moment perfect. If your dog’s topline is not his fortune, depending on the breed, cock the left rear leg forward a bit and the right leg back slightly. The dog will drop the croup on the off-show side and level it. A square breed that carries too much back length should be stacked ever so slightly at an angle on the line — the optical illusion gives the impression of a square frame.

It is essential to recognize your window of opportunity with a judge.

The only one-on-one time a handler has is when a dog is individually examined and gaited. Make it count. The impression one makes in this moment is often the one that carries a dog to the end of the class. Moves such as the correct speed for the dog on the down and back and the triangle pattern need to be determined and practiced. A super stop/stance pose using the dog’s most advantageous angle should be choreographed in advance.   

Time management is important.

Consider how much time to allow for table or ground stacking and for coat brushing. When the judge is walking down the line, how much time before the dog breaks the stack? All dogs are different in this respect. You should know your dog’s time and patience limitations.   

A common mistake is misjudging the time and having a dog ready too early. By the time the judge gets to that dog, the attentive expression and the perfectly placed front feet are history. What the judge sees is a bored dog with his ears pinned back and front legs and feet facing opposite directions. This is an example of a blown opportunity and poor time management.  

Professional handlers may not know a dog well enough to be familiar with his or her time tolerance, but they are experienced to compensate with a fast-acting fix. Owner-handlers have the distinct advantage of being familiar with the length of a dog’s focus and attention span. For both professionals and owner-handlers, working on a show ring strategy and presentation to minimize mistakes, playing up a dog’s positive features and hiding his weak points will help provide a distinct advantage.  

By American Kennel Club rules, judges have two and a half minutes per dog in the ring to figure out the best one. A handler definitely has the edge, providing you know your dog’s strengths and weaknesses and take time to practice for perfection. 

A professional all-breed handler for 32 years, Sue Vroom and her late husband, Corky Vroom, won hundreds of Bests in Show during their career. Vroom, of Denton, Texas, works as an Executive Field Representative for the American Kennel Club. For information, contact Vroom at 940-497-4500 or by e-mail at suevroom@centurytel.net.

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