The Seven Secrets to Show Success: Understanding the Game

From the July 2018 Issue of ShowSight. Click to Subscribe.

So, you’ve decided to make the leap…

By the time you have decided to compete at a high level at the big dog shows, you’ve already abandoned logic and reason and have drunk the kool-aid of the lure of competition. Ok, maybe a little dramatic, but not much. All of us started at some point on a fairly basic level. We loved our dogs, had fun with them, played with them, perhaps watched a dog show on television and sensed there was a whole other world out there that had to do with dogs.

One of the many great positive elements of purebred dogs and the shows is that everyone can find their own level of involvement and enjoyment. There are thousands of owners of purebred dogs who never compete with their dogs and are very comfortable and happy to live with their wonderful creatures. We never call our dogs “dogs”; we refer to them as fur-people and talk to them in sentences because we believe that PWDs are that smart. We work as hard to communicate that belief with our pet owners as we do our show homes because we want to owners to have a fabulous experience, no matter what level they have decided to play.

For many owners, showing their own dogs and competing just enough to get a championship is more than enough. The dog world is a big tent with an activity suited to every desire and need. Whether it’s conformation, agility, water trials, obedience, tracking, field trials, carting; you name it, it’s all there for the new enthusiast.

Even when you have made the personal commitment necessary to succeed at a high level in dog shows, you know it’s not going to last forever. After a wild ride with Ladybug for three years, the existential questions loomed: “Now what!” Because we’ve had the chance to be involved in dog breeding and shows for over 30 years, we now have an opportunity to continue to be involved in other ways.

While we continue to breed dogs and compete, the AKC provides many opportunities for judging, ring stewarding, involvement with breed and all-breed clubs, writing, being mentors to our owners and others in the business and building a positive legacy from the success we have enjoyed. An important part of the commitment to participant in dog shows is an understanding that the sport cannot survive unless we recruit, retain and mentor new owners.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the greatest show on earth! In the center ring…”

The world of dog shows is a community much like the circus. Every week a collection of performers from the AKC, dogs, dog clubs, breeders, pet and show owners, judges, professional handlers, show superintendents, the media, and dog food and product producers perform. It is part of a $50 billion industry, but ultimately it is the circus. Every weekend, the performers break down the tents, put the animals into trucks and travel to the next show. Like the circus, this traveling show becomes tight-knit and protective of the world they produce week after week. For new owners, this carnival atmosphere can seem unfriendly and hard to penetrate. One of the problems of our sport is that new owners are not always welcomed as much as they should be, even though they are the lifeblood of the future of our sport.

When you attend a major dog show it really does have the atmosphere of a three-ring circus. At any time, dogs are in the conformation ring, running through agility courses, doing obedience, tracking or whatever, while handlers and assistants are feverishly running back and forth to the rings. The ringmaster (the superintendent) tries to keep everything happening simultaneously.

While there are many avenues of competition available, we opted for conformation and performance work. For us, if we were going to make the kind of plunge of time and money necessary to win and promote our breed, the conformation ring made the most sense in terms of time, money and exposure. Performance work gives our owners another venue to work with their dogs. Television networks, pet food manufacturers and pet products and services providers spend millions of dollars promoting and showing events like Westminster, focusing on conformation. When Ladybug won groups on national television it advanced the breed as well as our own kennel.

And we figured out a way to succeed in a different model. For many decades, being successful in a breed required that an owner be part of the “club” and receive the blessing of the old guard in order to do well. While we honor the many breeders and competitors of the last century who have built the world of dog shows for their efforts and the foundation they have built, things are changing.

What about those judges, anyway?

As with any sport, fans love to blame the umpires, referees and judges if things don’t go the way they like. Dog shows are no different. If anything, judges get a lot of heat from the fancy because judging in the ring looks so subjective to new competitors. Once you understand how long and arduous the process is to become an AKC judge, you begin to appreciate the skills and time and talent required.

As Cathy was going through the process and now has multiple breeds, we have both attended many judges’ education seminars and training. We’ve had the chance to get to know other judges and get a reality check about the world of an AKC judge. More than one judge has talked about the fact that it took years and tens of thousands of dollars to get to the point where they started getting regular assignments. New provisional judges get paid practically nothing if anything. Instead, a new judge flies across the country to get the honor of paying their own expenses and maybe get a free meal, and hopefully an entry big enough to be observed by the AKC rep.

The next time you see a person judging at any show, much less the big ones, appreciate that they spent years in the trenches getting there. There are over 3,000 AKC judges in the country but only a few hundred have been approved to judge a group or a best in show.

We developed a program to track judges who were assigned to PWDs and examined how 350 judges over several years looked at our breed in the ring. Did some judges prefer lion coat cuts over retriever? Was there a bias about curly or wavy, black, brown or white, big or small? Did judges show a preference for owner-handlers versus professional handlers? We tracked all of this because even the most rigorous breed standards allow for variations in judging and we were curious about whether favoritism existed.

As a statistician, Mike was looking for those standard deviations from the norm. The result? We found that the vast majority of judges are consistent, well-versed in the standards and diligent. We noticed that the rare judge who was of course attracted the AKC representative at a show to provide advice and input about the process and didn’t last long. After 400 shows with Ladybug alone, the Law of Big Numbers kicked in. Over time and with enough shows every dog will get a fair chance to win. The trick is to go to enough shows.

The more you show the more you win! If you have a truly great dog your success will amplify over time. How? Judges are human and have great memories. The more Ladybug won, the more interest and buzz she created assisted by tons of advertising. Before she retired after Westminster, Ladybug became the dog to beat in the Working Group; that’s where you want to be.

Are you thick-skinned?

Over the years we have developed great friendships and relationships with the other performers in the circus. With our success came positive regard that was very gratifying. However…when you begin to win with your dog do not expect only love and adulation of your fellow breeders or the fancy. Human beings have a tendency to enjoy watching someone who has succeeded when they fail. Who did they think they are? The dog ring is no different than any other field of competition. Success breeds jealousy, envy and downright hostility. Because we don’t always win we have always tried to be gracious winners and losers. Watching a competitor stomp out of the ring is never fun to watch.

We’ve talked a lot about developing goals and a strategy to achieve those goals. As with anything else in life staying focused makes a huge difference. The distractions of those around you who resent your dog’s success can’t always be ignored but they can be used to remind you-you’re going in the right direction. Normally, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a definition of insanity. In dog competition, insane as it is, developing a consistent breeding and show program will produce success. Like the early Ford’s Aviator dogs come in many colors as long as it’s mostly black. It’s part of the brand.

Are you closed-mouth?

The flip side of having a thick skin is keeping your mouth shut. To say that dog shows breed gossip, innuendo and petty comments, as well as show dogs, is an understatement. We have learned to be even better listeners the more successful we have become. We’ve watched fellow breeders get sucked into some minor controversy only to find themselves quoted the next day by a co-conspirator.

Outside the ring, we’ve learned to avoid engagement in gossip about anyone. Besides, it’s amazing how much you learn just listening to someone run out of words and then divulging too much information. When people visit our kennel, we avoid comments about a fellow breeder even though we may know they may not be operating appropriately. We can only control how we operate as a responsible kennel. It’s the AKC and breed club’s responsibility to put unethical breeders out of business, even though they will continue to breed no matter what. Remember the AKC only registers about one percent of all of the dogs in this country. For the other ninety-nine percent, 
anything goes!

Welcome to the Big Top!

As a new or veteran dog enthusiast, understanding the world of dogs really is like a circus helps to put this world in perspective. Somebody wins, somebody loses, great champions are soon forgotten as new hot dogs knock them off their perch and we’re all off to the next show. The fact that some owners and kennels have consistent success is the thread that runs through the Big Top. Those owners/breeders have taken the time and resources to figure out the nuances of what appears to be chaos but is actually a highly orchestrated dance. Like any dance, it takes time to learn the steps and even more time to perform at the highest level. Enjoy 
the ride! 

The truth about dog shows!

• With some people, you just don’t have a chance…

• If you talk about dogs, you’re a know-it-all; if you don’t, you’re a snob…

• If you don’t stop to chat at a show, success has gone to your head; if you do, you’re a show-off…

• If your dogs are at all the shows, you’re not letting others have a chance; if your dogs aren’t at all the shows, you’re afraid of the competition…

• If your dog wins, you know the judges; if they don’t win, you know nothing about breeding…

• If you win and thank the judge, you’re playing politics; if you win and don’t thank the judge, you’re rude…

• If you lose and congratulate the winner, you’re a hypocrite; if you lose and don’t thank the winner you’re a poor sport…

• If you’ve been breeding for less than 20 years, you’re a novice; if you’ve been breeding for more than 20 years, you should step down and let the newcomers have  a chance…

• If you use your own stud, you’re kennel blind; if you go outside for stud services, you don’t think much of your own breeding…

• If you sell most of your puppies, they aren’t good enough to keep; if you keep them, you can’t find buyers…

• Anonymous

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