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When Identifying the Issues Isn’t Enough

Lee Whittier, author of the article, Redefining Dog Show Attire: Embracing Comfort, Individuality & Tradition


When Identifying the Issues Isn’t Enough

While most people recognize the importance of identifying issues, it’s alarming how often the dog show world needs to catch up on this fundamental strategy. As a guide to dog show owner handlers, at Dog Show Mentor we refine ring presentations by paralleling this understanding, i.e., identifying the issue first and then creating a course of action to achieve a goal or solution. With my background as a seasoned coach and conflict resolution expert, I know the importance of pinpointing issues.

The moment we shift our focus from the dog to the handler, it becomes akin to a Junior Showmanship contest for adults.

This publication has showcased various authors, including myself, identifying areas in the dog show world that need improvement. Many authors have shared insights on topics ranging from the judge’s demeanor to understanding and interpreting Breed Standards. We emphasize training nuances and discuss whether owner handlers are judged fairly compared to professional handlers. Opinions about dogs abound, including correct structure, dentition, and breed type. We talk about the psychology behind the judging process and the psychology of the owner handler: what do they have in common with, and what differs from, the professional handler? What makes an owner handler a quality handler in this vein?

Yet, one topic deserves primary clarification: The National Owner-Handled Series (NOHS). This competition is about judging the dogs based on their Standard, not the handler. So it’s “National Owner-HANDLED Series”—not “National Owner HANDLER Series.” I can’t emphasize this enough. The moment we shift our focus from the dog to the handler, it becomes akin to a Junior Showmanship contest for adults.

I am not the first judge or author to point this out. However, my reason for bringing this discussion to light has to do with identifying the issue before attempting to solve it.

Even before we dive into discussing the dogs, it’s essential to clarify this distinction, particularly to owner handlers. If you’re struggling with the term “owner-handled,” you’re possibly missing the essence of what NOHS is about.

We are still teaching owner handlers the correct terminology of the competition in which they participate, thus identifying the critical issue of precisely what the competition is intended to be about. As a proponent of leveling the playing field for quality handlers, I’m going to start by saying that if you can’t comprehend the difference between “owner-handled” and “owner handler,” then you can’t begin to understand how to compete seriously in NOHS.

I often hear complaints from owner handlers that the professional handlers win the lion’s share of ribbons. And yet, that frames the competition into two divided groups of PEOPLE rather than looking at the DOGS. One of the biggest issues is the sheer number of exhibitors who separate and divide the two parties, much like Democrats and Republicans. Owner handlers and professional handlers. All the parties want the same thing. They want the judges to look at the dog, and yet, they identify the wins and losses in terms of one party or the other.

Why Some Judges Don’t Understand NOHS

It’s no wonder so many of the judges need help understanding the right outcome for the NOHS. It’s not that they cannot see the quality dogs in the entry or in the Group; it’s that the owner handler is exuding confidence that they are the best handler, not that their dog is the best representative of their breed compared to other dogs in a Group of otherwise average dogs.

Sadly, I will admit that I hear the most commentary from the owner handlers themselves.

I’ve witnessed owner handlers unsuccessfully mimic moves that come naturally to professionals, often resulting in a perplexed rather than a poised dog. Shouldn’t we prioritize the dogs over who’s handling them?

You want the judge to judge the dogs, not the handler, but you are judging the judge’s choices by who is on the other end of the lead?” Who’s looking up the lead now?

Handler. Handler. Handler.

Recently, I was sitting outside a specialty ring on a vacation weekend, and during the cut, I heard behind me: “Handler, handler, handler, owner handler, handler.” The person behind me, who remains unknown to me, was identifying the dogs that made the cut by who the handlers were. My insightful question would have been, had I been able to articulate it at the time, “You want the judge to judge the dogs, not the handler, but you are judging the judge’s choices by who is on the other end of the lead?” Who’s looking up the lead now?

I hear this type of judgment time and again from exhibitors. It would be an embarrassment to me if exhibitors of all kinds thought I only put up owners or only professionals. I put up the dog I think is the best in the ring. Sometimes, it’s professional handlers, and sometimes it’s owners. A lot of the time, I can’t tell the difference. Except in the case of an obvious novice, it should never be obvious.

Many judges, unfortunately, get entangled in this confusion. It’s not about failing to recognize quality dogs. It’s about owner handlers projecting themselves as top-tier rather than showcasing their dogs as the breed’s prime specimens.

Such judgmental undertones are unfortunately commonplace. It’s crucial for me to emphasize that most judges attempt to judge the dog, not the handler. Sometimes professionals shine, sometimes it’s the owners, but the dog remains the focal point. That’s what I call a quality handler. When an owner-handled dog is presented at a professional standard, it’s genuinely commendable.

While I’ve touched on these concerns before, the increasing discontent from all quarters is unsettling. The loudest critiques often come from those guilty of the same biases—judging the handler instead of the dog’s merit.

In conclusion, in the interest of identifying the issue, it works both ways. The judge needs to judge the dogs, and the quality handler needs to get out of the way so they can do their job. Owner handlers: Don’t look up the lead to complain about the “people” the judge is awarding, look down to see the dogs they are rewarding. Remember, it’s all about the dogs. Let’s not get caught in a “pot calling the kettle black” situation.