“I Can’t, I Won’t…” Dressing for Success in the Dog Show Ring

Dressing for Success in the Dog Show Ring


I Can’t, I Won’t…” Dressing for Success in the Dog Show Ring


Being an owner handler, I’ve always rooted for the little guy. One of my greatest pleasures is when an owner handler tells me they’ve finished their first champion thanks to my book, Show Me!, which I wrote so newcomers could get ahead. So I suspected I would surprise many of my friends with my column of a couple of months ago, the one where I basically told owner handlers to stop whining and start winning. Or at least, start doing a better job of trying.

Some readers agreed with it. I noticed these were mostly the owner-handlers who were, well, winning. Some readers said they were going to do better (yay!). But many readers took issue and were downright offended. “Just what we need to give judges an excuse to put up more handlers!” some complained. That was never the intention—I don’t think—or had I really turned to the dark side?

So I listened to their criticisms and tried to see it both ways. They had some good points, and those will be the subject of a future column. But meanwhile, one particular thing struck me. Here’s an example:

Though it was a minor part of the column, my lament that that too many owner handlers looked dressed to go grocery shopping caused the most ire. “But I can’t afford expensive outfits,” said several. Me neither! I explained it wasn’t about the price tag, it was about dressing professionally—which can actually be done on the cheap! To which the response was, “But I can’t afford $800 jackets and $150 shoes, “But I can’t wear skirts because of my weight,” “But I can’t wear anything but orthopedic shoes,” “But I get really hot in a jacket,”  and so on…”

I clarified again: Professional doesn’t mean expensive, professional looks can be achieved in slacks and orthopedic (not track) shoes, and in most cases, if the judge can wear long sleeves all day, you can tough it out for five minutes in the ring. “Is this how you would dress if you were going to court in front of a judge?” I asked them to ask themselves. And the reply was, “But I can’t afford expensive outfits/I can’t (fill in the blank)…” And that’s when it hit me: I had entered the world of “I can’t because…

Anyone who has given training advice to dog owners knows the “I can’t because” reply. “I can’t because my breed is different/he hates men/he was abused/I tried that/I’m a Virgo…Sure, many “I can’ts” are legit. You can’t run fast, you don’t look good in a skirt, you aren’t experienced enough to handle as well as you’d like. But every time you say “I can’t because” ask yourself: Is that you can’t because you really can’t or you can’t because you don’t want to? If you don’t want to, that’s fine. But own up to it and accept the consequences.

The other main criticism was that my article advocated just what was wrong with dog shows today: that it was all about showmanship and not about the dog. “The handler is supposed to be invisible,” they said. I agreed—but the handler should make sure the dog is not invisible, I countered. “The judge should find the dog regardless,” they said. True. But “should” doesn’t always translate into “will.” Not in two minutes.

Try this exercise. Go to a show well before the first breed is judged. Now station yourself outside one ring. You can bring a drink, but no snacks. You can bring a chair, but here’s the rule: No sitting unless the judge is sitting.  No talking to friends unless it’s between classes. Wear clothing you would wear to judge. Station yourself so you can see down & backs, posed line ups and go-arounds. Add a few deep knee bends or such when the judge examines each dog. Bring a notebook for you to record your placements, which will have to be done by the time the judge points. You need to do this in writing to force yourself to make irrevocable decisions in the allotted time.

You are not allowed to leave your post unless the judge does (OK, you do get a break to show your own dog…) Plan on being there for at least four or five hours, maybe longer, and on making decisions between at least a hundred dogs, usually more. And realize there will be multiple decisions often affecting the same dog—not just classes, but Winners and Reserve and BOB and BOS and BOW and Selects—so while you may see 100 dogs that can translate into 150 decisions.  Now do it the next day as well.

You’ll probably breeze through your favorite breeds, making choices without regard to presentation or faces. But eventually some breeds are going to be tough, and you’re going to be tired, and you would really like for the clear choice to be made obvious to you rather than having to play a game of Where’s Waldo to find the best dog. You may start to subconsciously rely on clues from the handler: There’s the guy who always has big winners in this breed; there’s a dog who has clearly been groomed expertly;  there’s a dog that shows like he belongs in the group ring; there’s a handler who looks like she’s dressed for success.

Let’s make it more interesting. Add some friends and have them do the same exercise. Compare your choices after each class. Now let’s say you will be graded on your performance, and that grade will be determined by how well your scores go along with the majority or how well you defend your choices.

Remember, judges, come to each breed with differing levels of preparation and confidence.  “But,” you say,” a judge should only judge those breeds they are utterly confident in!”  But the reality of hiring judges is that unless a judge can judge several groups, only large or local shows can afford to hire them. Otherwise, the club pays the same transportation and hotel for a judge to judge one group of 70 dogs as they would for one to judge four groups of 70 dogs on a weekend.  Multi-breed AKC judges are the most prepared in the world, but even after attending seminars and specialties there are bound to be breeds that are not amongst a judge’s best. I’ve been showing my one breed for 40 years—there’s no way I expect a multi-group judge to know it as well as I do.

Some judges manage to excel at many breeds nonetheless. Others just hope not to make a complete wreck of things. Your job is to help them find the best dog (which, of course, is yours)—not make them wade through all the entries to discover your buried treasure. Because after judging 150 dogs, they’re not going to dig very deep—especially if they lack confidence in your breed.

I used an example from my past, one of a plain colored “coyote grizzle,” lightly  feathered, non-animated saluki who refused to bait and had a “get lost” attitude to all. She was invisible in the specials ring.  Until one day I decided to quit fighting her attitude and instead emphasize it. I let her stand by herself at the very end of the lead while she glared at the judge. We won the group that day. Four groups later she won a Best In Show. She went from invisible to eye-catching simply because I did have the sense to let her show herself—although it could be argued it was a bit of grandstanding.

I thought it was a good story to illustrate that showmanship does count, but it’s not about the handler making a scene. I just stood there. Yet some still responded that the story illustrated “what was wrong with dog shows.” The judge should have found her no matter how she was shown.

I countered that my job was make sure the judge noticed her so the judge could then do his job of evaluating her. And quite honestly, as unknown owner handlers, we do not have the advantage of a known face, so we really do have to try just a tad harder to make sure our dog stands out. I think a few “got it” but for others, it morphed into how they refused to dye dogs and fix tails and such. Somehow they started to equate showmanship with cheating, and “what was wrong with dog shows today.” And it hit me again: I had left the world of “I can’t because…” and entered the world of “I won’t because…”

I know this world well, because I am a world class “I won’t because…”  champion. There are times it is a good thing—like when it comes to “I won’t because it’s cheating/it’s bad for my dog/it’s bad for my reputation…”  Just now there are some shows I dearly want to go to but my schedule won’t allow for the drive, and I don’t fly my dogs. “Just take him as a service dog,” several friends have suggested. No. That’s one of my “I wont’s” I will stick to even though it will cost us wins.

But there are times when “I won’ts” are less defensible.  Example: I started competing in agility about ten years ago.  In agility, your dog must touch the yellow “contact zones” on the down side of the A-frame and dog walk. My dog believes the yellow paint has acid in it, so almost always leaps over it, accounting for most of his non-qualifying runs. “Have you tried the such & such method?” helpful trainers would innocently ask. And then regret it as I launched into my anti-contact zone rant:

I won’t because the contacts are stupid and dangerous and unfair; they were designed so little dogs wouldn’t hurt themselves leaping off while still too high up, but they are actually lower than the height large dogs jump, it’s equivalent to having an 8 inch or even lower contact zone for the little dogs, and for a big long-legged sighthound to hit the contact zone at a run causes him to end up plowing his nose into the ground, and the two-on-two-off method has got be hard on their back, and sucks all the fun out of those obstacles, and I WON’T train it because the AKC needs to do something about it.

Only the agility rule makers have no intention of doing something about it. So last year I had a revelation. I can continue to say “I won’t train contacts because…” or I can decide to accept the rules and train my dog. Either is a fair choice; but not training for the rules that exist and then continuing to compete and whine based on principles is just stupid. (But if there are any AKC agility officials reading this, did I mention contact zones are unfair and unsafe and…oh well…)

What does this have to do with the show ring? If you say, “I won’t dress professionally, train my dog to sparkle, or learn how to make my dog stand out in the ring because I don’t think showmanship/appearance/presentation should play a role in dog shows,” that’s your legitimate choice. But don’t whine when somebody who has done so beats you. Because nobody is going to change the dog showing world because you disagree with the way it is.

When you say “I can’t” or “I won’t” ask yourself if you’re making excuses. Again, there are legitimate reasons we can’t or won’t do certain things.  But sometimes we can use them as excuses, and in those cases, maybe you can or should. Because it may be easier and more rewarding to change your mindset than it is to change the dog show world.


From the Showsight Magazine Archives – taken from the monthly column “Thoughts I Had Driving Home From The Dog Show”, Showsight Dog Show Magazine, June 2014 Issue. Click to subscribe.

  • Caroline Coile is an author of 34 books, including the top-selling Barron's Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has also authored thousands of magazine and web articles about dogs. Caroline specializes in canine science, health, breeds and competitions. She is a winner of 20 national dog-writing awards.

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