When it comes to showing dogs, there are several approaches worth considering. Some exhibitors present their dogs with efficiency, progressing predictably from step one to step two and so on until each goal is met. Others take to showing dogs like it’s a chess match, anticipating the judges’
—and their opponents’—every move until success is achieved. A few exhibitors show their dogs as though life itself hangs in the balance, with an all-or-nothing approach that can turn any show ring into a war zone. Thankfully, this sort is few and far between (despite the bench hearings which may suggest otherwise). In fact, many exhibitors are more artist than adversary, showing dogs as a sculptor handles clay or an actor takes to the stage. Some even have the ability to show dogs with the strength and grace of a dancer, giving command performances that appear as effortless as they are unforgettable.
I can remember watching the Working Group at the 1984 AKC Centennial Dog Show where Mrs. Augustus Riggs IV awarded Group First to the Doberman Pinscher Ch. Brierpatch’s Christmas Dream, handled by Vicki Fillinger (now Vicki Seiler-Cushman). That celebrated win followed a performance unlike any I’d ever seen. It was the first time I’d watched a dog being shown as one-half of a dance duo. Watching that team take command of the ring was like watching a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow instead of the Philadelphia Civic Center. The handler’s poise was self-evident, but it was her partner’s footwork that mesmerized both the judge and the packed house that night.
Another memorable performance took place in Mrs. Lynette J. Saltzman’s Herding Group at the 1991 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Breeder/owner-handler Jere Marder delivered a masterful performance in perfect harmony with her Old English Sheepdog Ch. Lambluv Moptop Show Stopper. Never before had I witnessed an OES amble so casually alongside a partner with such steady composure. Seven years later, a repeat performance was given on that same celebrated carpet by another OES handled by Jere. In 1998, Ch. Lambluv’s Desert Dancer duplicated her predecessor’s adagio achievement under judge Dr. J. Donald Jones.
In 1993, another dynamic duo took to the floor at Madison Square Garden to deliver a sensational performance. English Springer Spaniel Ch. Salilyn’s Condor and handler Mark Threlfall provided a master class on how to deftly executive a “courtesy turn.” Until those two skillful showmen had their moment before Best in Show judge Ms. Barbara Heller, most exhibitors viewed that minor maneuver as anything but a significant part of their show routine. That night, however, the Springer circled his handler at the end of his lead as though he were orbiting the sun. The crowd in attendance appeared blinded by the brilliance. Amazingly, that bright light was passed down to Ch. Salilyn ‘N Erin’s Shameless who, in 2000, became the first Westminster BIS winner to repeat her sire’s victory, this time in partnership with Kelli Fitzgerald.
Of course, not every sensational dance session between dog and handler takes place at the world’s most famous dog shows. Sometimes the magic happens when it’s least expected. The first time it happened for me and one of my dogs was when we found ourselves giving an impromptu performance in a pole barn in Central Illinois. The show was a national specialty where I’d entered my senior in Veterans Sweepstakes. I was still a novice exhibitor then and my partner was anything but a dancer at the time—or so I thought.
On a particularly turbulent spring day, we’d entered the ring just as we’d done many times before. I could tell, however, that something was different between us. Our energy felt lighter and the air around us seemed somehow electrified. We were so connected in that moment that I responded by doing something I’d never done before. As my veteran was giving me her all, I asked her if she was happy to be in the ring again and if she wanted to win. Her enthusiastic response demonstrated her willingness to play “show dog” for another day, so I told her that if she was ready to go the distance, I was too.
We showed in that ring as never before, responding to one another’s every move as though we’d been practicing forever. And we had practiced, only on this day we were so connected that we gave a performance instead of an exhibition. We danced!
On the way to being awarded Best Veteran in Sweepstakes (and Best of Opposite Sex later that same day), my understanding of what it means to be a show dog was transformed. Until I’d experienced that electricity, that unshakable connectedness, I thought showing dogs was strictly about the Breed Standards. But showing dogs can be transformational too. When all the training has been exhausted, and stepping into the ring seems like just another exercise in futility, the impossible can happen.
All it takes is a small shift (an unexpected twinkle in the dog’s eye or a quiet exchange initiated by the exhibitor) to turn an otherwise lackluster down & back into a “moment” with a perfect pirouette or grand jeté. Even a table exam can spark a dance sensation. After all, who doesn’t remember the excitement of watching Mrs. Keke Kahn go over Miniature Pinscher GCh. Marlex Classic Red Glare with Armando Angelbello by her side in the 2014 Westminster Toy Group? Talk about footwork!
Becoming a dog and handler “dance partnership” doesn’t just happen. Every memorable performance is the result of hours of practice and years of experience—and not just a little bit of luck. When the rehearsals are over and the steward calls, it’s opening night. There’s nothing left to do but be foot loose and fancy free!
And if you’re not a dancer, just dance like nobody’s watching.