The Love Connection | Unspoken Magic Between Top Handlers and Their Dogs

The Love Connection

There is an unspoken energy, a type of vibration or magic, that is palpable amongst the top handlers and their dogs. Consider the bond as a deep, personal commitment to a dog’s emotional and physical well-being—a “Love Connection.” This approach is sometimes experienced as a palpable energy or “magical moment.”

One of the building blocks that both establishes and strengthens the connection with your dog is respect. Mutual respect between the successful dog and handler is essential. And a practical way to accomplish this is by creating structure and, specifically, routines that lead to the ring.

The Love Connection

Regardless of how dogs are raised, they are almost always responsive to one thing. I call that one thing “The Love Connection.” Have you ever noticed how the best exhibitors have a love connection going on with their dogs? These handlers are completely immersed in the dog world and are really in love with dogs. Whether you’re a professional or an owner handler, you have to be in love with dogs to be an elite competitor, week in and week out. There are no casual affairs here.

As I watch exhibitors, I notice the connection—or the lack thereof—that they have with the dog on the end of the lead. Sometimes exhibitors love their dogs, but forget to connect with them while they’re in the ring. In these cases, the bond is not tangible and seems like an afterthought.

I recently observed a class of three dogs. The judge went down the line a second time, before pointing to the exhibitors. The first handler baited the dog. The second handler just stood there. The third handler strategically baited the dog with flair. On the last go round, the first and third handlers were working their dogs before they even started gaiting. They got their dogs’ attention and gave a quick brushing before starting to gait. This action gave the dogs the cue that something was about to happen. It gave them anticipation! In contrast, the second dog’s handler continued to just stand there. Guess which dog went third?

The Love Connection and Mutual Respect

When I say “love,” I don’t mean it’s only about cuddling, hearts, and doggie kisses. Love is not just gooey. On a deeper level, it’s respectful. One of the component parts of your Love Connection with your dog is respect. Mutual respect between the successful dog and handler is essential. You must make the dog feel safe through your ability to support them in their experiences. I have always felt that the number one most important thing that a quality handler does is to support the dog’s experience in the ring and to be responsible for making it a positive one.

A lot of dog show exhibitors find themselves with an older puppy or dog that isn’t ring savvy or doesn’t show himself off in the ring. Yes, it is certainly true that a lot can happen to a puppy that can make or break their potential show career. However, from a judge’s perspective, I see many quality dogs that could benefit from a reset or enhancement of their competition attitude and work ethic. Regardless of how a dog is raised, exclusively in the owner’s home or, alternatively, in a kennel situation, either way, it takes time and patience to get a dog to show consistently in
the ring.

The question is, how can we get our dogs to present better for us and for the judge in the ring? If you’re not excited and in love with your dog, how can you expect the judge to be? Each dog is an individual, and connections develop in their own unique ways. I encourage you to nurture those bonds. Work your love connection with your dog.

When you want your dog to do something differently, begin by mapping out in your mind what you want your dog TO DO. Work on the positive, rather than imagining what you DO NOT want him to do. Does that sound like it would be too easy? Well, it’s a skill and mindset that takes practice. With time, it becomes easier to do and it works as a powerful tool. Visualizing or imagining the positive picture, rather than the negative one, creates a much more joyful presentation to the judge.

I know that it seems like some quality handlers pick up a dog ringside to just run into the ring with it, and somehow the dog shows like a million bucks. But, if you watch closely, you will see that the handler takes a split second to make a connection with that dog. The dog instantly understands what the handler wants through sensory perception and body analysis. There is a transfer of understanding between the human and the canine—the handler and the show dog.

The Love Connection and Routine

Dogs not only thrive on and love LOVE—they also love ROUTINE. One practical way to accomplish this is by creating structure in your dog’s total life. Yes, life! Not just on the day of the show, but every day. Consider his experiences. What does your dog look forward to? What can you do to reward him? What are you doing at home that your dog looks forward to? Have you stopped working with him because you think he’s already trained, and you don’t want to bore him? Maybe you’re working with a younger dog and letting him sit aside. Here’s my favorite question: What if you took ten minutes to teach your dog tricks? Have you practiced stacking exercises? How about the trending activity that dog people have adopted from the equestrian world—cavaletti to strengthen his muscles, challenge his brain, and build your bond, all at once?

Next, plan a routine that you can use when you get to a show. And when I say routine, I mean every element broken down into its component parts. Here’s one possible example of a pre-competition routine: Bathe your dog, dry her, put her in the crate, brush her at the site, place the lead on her, show her a favorite squeaky toy, sing her prep jingle, and then—step into the ring. These are the steps and sequence that lead up to the ring. Take note that if you leave out a step (maybe you feel that you don’t need the crate that day or you’ve forgotten the toy), your dog may miss that specific element. It’s like a hiccup that may cause her to get confused or not reach an optimal level of anticipation for her stellar performance. Notice your dog’s experience.

By creating a routine for your dog, he knows what’s coming next. When he knows the steps and what’s next, the anticipation builds until there’s no question about how to get your dog to show well. Break down your routine into small pieces and map it out. Then, at every show, make sure to follow your plan. Observe how your dog starts responding more and more keenly to you and to getting to
the ring.

It’s at this point that I want to share the other side of the coin. How do you respond to the unexpected, the unforeseen, and the surprises? For example, what if the judge makes a turn and unexpectedly comes down the line and looks at your dog? It’s not a problem when you’re ready. You respond by quickly baiting your dog with a little flair, and he instantly perks up and struts his stuff. However, if you just stand there with no anticipation of what is coming next, whether expected or unexpected, how will you ever get your dog to show like a rock star?

Your Dog’s Positive Experience

I am always curious about my dog and which factors or influences will contribute to expanding his experience—while also holding him together emotionally. This can start slowly, by ensuring that every element of the show experience is a positive one. What I mean is, go through your routine, step-by-step; start by getting the dog out of your car in a calm and safe spot. Walk a few feet…

What if your focus is providing more variety for your dog; perhaps they have been in a limited environment? Your job is to broaden him through a variety of experiences, exposures, and different behaviors. Perhaps this may include spending more nights with you or possibly more nights away from you. Ask yourself, “At this time, what is most needed? Do they need more or less?” Ultimately, with all options open to you, ask the question, “What would LOVE do?”

These are real questions to ponder. They are questions that you will have to answer if you’re going to connect with your dog, which is essential to be successful in the ring. A deep love of the canine species, built on respect and routine, enables you as the handler to connect with your dog—to communicate with your dog. Love, respect, and routine serve as the building blocks of the unspoken magic between top handlers and their dogs.

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  • Ms. Lee Whittier has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs for over three decades. Her involvement began as an owner, exhibitor and, subsequently, a breeder of Rottweilers. She has owned Akitas, Bullmastiffs, and a Sussex Spaniel. She currently owns, breeds, and exhibits Tibetan Terriers. Ms. Whittier began judging in 2000, and then took a hiatus for several years to work for the American Kennel Club as an Executive Filed Representative in the Pacific Northwest. She returned to judging in 2011, and currently judges the Working, Terrier, Toy, and Non-Sporting Groups, eleven Hound Breeds, six Sporting Breeds, Bouvier des Flandres, and Best in Show. Ms. Whittier has judged dog shows around the world, from the United States to Asia, at shows large and small; all of great importance to each and every exhibitor. Some of the larger shows are Westminster Kennel Club, Kennel Club of Philadelphia, Del Valle, Great Western Terrier Association, Northern California Terrier Association, Hatboro, Malibu Kennel Club, and the Kennel Club of Palm Springs. Ms. Lee Whittier is a standing member of Dog Fanciers of Oregon, the American Rottweiler Club, and the Tibetan Terrier Club of America. She is Show Chair for Vancouver Kennel Club and the Terrier Association of Oregon’s January show with Rose City Classic. As an active member in numerous clubs, she has worked in the capacity of Show Chair, President, Vice-President, Secretary, Board Member, and Constitution & By-Laws Revision Committee Member. In addition to judging, Ms. Whittier developed the Dog Show Mentor program, exclusively for owner handlers. This is an online program where owner handlers of all stages and levels learn to develop an individual, strategic approach to showing dogs. She also travels to speak to owner handlers all over the world. She currently lives in Vancouver, Washington, with her husband, Wayne, and their three Tibetan Terriers. Her other interests include gardening and hiking with the dogs.

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