Which Came First…the Ribbon or the Dog Show?

Pictured Above – The focus of attention in this photo with judge Maxwell Riddle and handler George Alston is crystal clear. (Notice the modest Group First rosette.) Photo courtesy The Book of the English Springer Spaniel by Anna Katherine Nicholas.

From the August 2018 Issue of ShowSight – Click To Subscribe.

Awarding ribbons for class placements is a big part of what makes a dog show a dog show. In fact, ribbons, rosettes and printed sashes are so sought after by many of today’s exhibitors that some clubs have begun to offer spectacularly oversized creations that dwarf even the giant breeds that earn them. Their outlandish proportions and the attention to which they are paid might have some fanciers wondering, “Which came first, the ribbon or the dog show?”

The first dog shows held in the United States were organized by gentlemen hunters who gathered their gun dogs together for evaluation by other gentlemen hunters. Individual classes were established and dogs were sorted by a panel of judges whose collective opinions were recorded for posterity. When this system for assessing the merits of individual dogs grew into a sport, placements were commemorated with simple silk ribbons. But as kennel clubs flourished in large cities and became society affairs, entries were often encouraged by offering silver cups and bowls to the winners. Eventually, challenge trophies became the norm. But as the sport continued to grow to include middle-class 

Americans, it was the blue ribbon that came to symbolize quality and respectability. Although the written critique faded into obscurity at North American dog shows, kennel clubs took to offering bigger and more elaborate rosettes for class winners and Group Placements. Now it seems a 12" rosette with a five-foot train is de rigueur for Best in Show!

Emblazoned with both the show-giving club’s name and the date of the event, a ribbon or rosette represents a moment in time when a dog was acknowledged for its breed-specific quality. Every satin keepsake marks a milestone in a dog’s journey toward its championship and throughout its specials career. To most exhibitors, a ribbon also represents an investment of time, training and talent—not to mention cold, hard cash and a dash of good luck. And as this investment in show ring success has increased, so too has the size of the symbols that represent that investment. Is it any wonder some rosettes have gotten as big as a Rottweiler’s noggin?

Rosettes and ribbons are treasured mementos, no matter their size. A ribbon is really a souvenir and, like all souvenirs, it’s intended to be displayed. Shadow boxes, coffee table display cases and curio cabinets are just some of the more obvious presentation techniques, but a few resourceful exhibitors have even woven their satin souvenirs into fabric for pillowcases, crate covers and even clothing. Of course, the most time-honored way to display a cherished ribbon or rosette is to have it carefully matted and framed with the official win photo. Nothing distinguishes a single rosette (even a simple one) better than a montage that includes a photo with the judge holding the treasure that’s on display. After all, it’s important to honor the judge who awarded the win in the first place.

Like a rosette, the win photo has always been a part of showing dogs. But time and technology have changed its significance. Early images of winning show dogs were frequently shot at the dog’s level, requiring both handler and judge to kneel. Gentlemen in those old photos are frequently immortalized on a single bended knee and female adjudicators are sometimes frozen in a distinctive squat with knees bent discreetly together and turned toward the dog. Judges in these old photos are generally pictured holding a single ribbon or rosette, and any trophies are placed unceremoniously on the ground. Older photos were usually shot in the ring where spectators were often captured in the background. Later images show the dogs elevated on a platform, allowing everyone to stand. This arrangement also permitted trophies to be held by a presenter, usually a club member or the occasional celebrity. In time, show photos became more formal, requiring a colorful backdrop large enough to embrace an army of officers and co-owners. This entourage required the photographer to widen his or her frame, resulting in photos where both the winning dog and the rosette seem like supporting players.

Today, smart phones and social media have taken the win photo out of the hands of true professionals—show photographers and magazine editors—and into the hands of just about everyone else. The result is that every win can now be captured and promoted without benefit of a photographer’s experienced eye or an editor’s attention to detail. Unlike the official show win photo, these “win posts” can be striking in their attention to anything but the winning dog’s breed type. “So, this just happened…,” reads a typical post with an image of a grooming table serving double duty as a display counter for all and sundry ribbons, rosettes, trophies and trinkets. This sort of post will sometimes include an informal photo of the winning dog, but it is the symbol of the win—the rosette—that often appears front and center. These posts have become the provenance of professional handler and amateur exhibitor alike, with one distinction: The pros usually include the name of the judge. This courtesy seems the least that should be done in the digital age to honor the legacy of a sport built by purebred dog breeders and the judges whose opinions reward their efforts.

A ribbon is certainly an important piece of any dog’s show record, but it’s really just spun satin without the dog show. 



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