By the time the groups roll around at most shows, the pain of losing has lost its sting. I usually settle into a chair ringside, or pick up my camera and finish out the day shooting pictures. Photographing dogs in the ring is mind numbing. Much like taking senior photos for some high school yearbook. Each dog stacked by its handler in exactly the same pose, baited in the same way, no matter what the breed. I look for the dog doing something different. A handler working with his dog in a tender way, or some sign that it is more than just a job to the human on the other end of the lead. What ringside is noticing more and more is the lack of interest in actually working with the dogs displayed by many well know people in the sport. Often the dogs and handlers look like they’re waiting for a bus. They look like they are anticipating a long wait and a predictable outcome. Dogs in the group should show more than just good conformation, they should want to be there. The group ring is the place to show off. To be seen by those hearty people who stay long after the losers of the day have trickled out and are on their way home with the kids to soccer games, or birthday parties, BBQs at the in-laws or to worship at their electronic alters and celebrate the state religion: football.
A lot of what I have learned about handling a dog has come from lessons taught by handlers in the group ring. The better people seem to always have something going on with their dog. They find endless things to amuse their four-legged partner far beyond bait and a squeaky toy. If you get a chance to see the same handler group to group, handling different kinds of dogs, you will see who has the most skill. Showing dogs is like dancing. Someone leads and someone follows. Each group is like a different dance. Different rhythm, different partner, different steps but all choreographed to flow and move with grace and power. Correctly executed, the dances look beautiful and so easy from ringside. To the casual observer it all looks the same. It takes keen observation to note the subtleties in a dance team that make the difference in a first place finish or no placement at all. So it is in dog handling. Little things in the presentation of a dog used to make the difference between a pick in the group or a polite dismissal from the judge. I enjoy watching someone really skilled work his dog. The term “team” is bandied about too much in reference to dog and handler. Not many people achieve true team-work status with their dog. This includes professional handlers, but when you see dog and handler moving as one round and round the ring it is thrilling and something to be respected.
Every breeder has sent dogs out into the world far from their home. We have sent dogs to many states more than a day’s drive from us and are always excited to hear someone’s observations about the dog as seen from ringside. We have excitedly hurried to watch some group specifically to report back to our breeder friend in New York how their dog looked in the ring in Topeka. We eagerly lean on the edge of our seats to watch the interplay between dog and handler and are frustrated because we can’t see a thing. Are we too far back? Did the dog fail to win the breed and not appear in the group? Not at all. We can’t see the dog because his handler has brought him to the coffee klatch in the corner of the ring.
This seems to be a relatively new occurence in the group ring, made popular by well-known professional handlers and given tacit approval by judges too scared or uncaring to say anything. It appears just too boring to actually work a dog in the ring. Too tedious to while away the time between the dog’s individual judging and the eventual placement pick by training the dog or perfecting the teamwork. Better to stand in the corner of the ring and catch up on the gossip missed during the day. Since all the participants seem to know who is going to place, it must be just a formality to be in there at all. Apparently, these people don’t care if their exhibits turn their cow-hocked rears to the judge or scratch and lick themselves in full view of the gallery. Who could be out there, or in there for that matter, to want to see the dogs. The klatching handlers seem to have forgotten something called ring etiquette. Crowding together in the corner is rude to the judge and certainly to the people watching. Dogs aren’t presented in their best light and get nothing out of the experience. It is frustrating to have driven an hour to see a certain stud dog you are contemplating using in a few months standing obscured by other dog’s butts calmly eating forgotten bait off the floor.
As someone who uses handlers to show promising dogs, we are appalled at this behavior. We are proud every time one of our dogs make it to the group and expect to see him looking his best throughout his time in the spotlight. I want to see the grooming, his topline, attitude and how he compares to the best of the other breeds around him. We want to see if we are getting our money’s worth from our handler and I will admit it: I want our dog to be so “on” in the group ring that he intimidates our competition for the next day. Judges sitting in the judges’ box are also studying the exhibits in the group ring. This is a good way for them to learn about breeds they may be considering applying to judge. If a handler bothers to do his job and make his charge stand out, it becomes the template the observing judges may use to judge others of the same breed.
At most shows I do an outstanding job of holding dogs ringside. I am careful to turn the best part of my dog in the judge’s direction outside the ring. I am also adept at standing around slough-footed with my dog straining at the end of his lead and talking with a friend or two. But when I cross the ring gate I am all business. Why should I expect any less from someone I have paid to show my dog? It used to be you could make yourself a better handler and groomer and it would pay off. You could beat the pros at the game if you worked hard and worked your dog. I have a long way to go before a judge would consider that I might be a professional handler, but I am proud of what I can do. However, judges no longer seem to care.
We have all seen those stories on TV about city slackers. You know, city employees, usually public works people, who are caught napping, shopping or eating during work hours. These pieces usually appear in the media after a clogged storm drain or power outage has crippled the city for longer than most think necessary. Politicians have lost their jobs over their inability to remove snow on time or keep roads maintained. It is no different with the huddling handlers. While some handlers and us amateurs are out there doing our best to coax a good performance from our dogs, the big name faces are pouring another cup and finishing off the cross word. They amble out in time for the judge to point to them and move on to the dog in the next group ring where the lackluster performance will be repeated. Why is this allowed to go on?
The ring is the judge’s domain. She should control what transpires and maintain some semblance of order. Only a newcomer would think the judge can’t see what’s going on in the ring. The clustering of dogs and people in one corner of the ring is dangerous. A large number of dogs crowded together can threaten others that approach the makeshift pack. Further, it is distracting to the other exhibitors who are there trying to show their dogs and often must move forward or backward to allow the handlers too busy with their conversations back in line for the last look by the judge. If the judge would make it clear this behavior is unacceptable, and people paying the handling fees would speak up, it would stop. Maybe it is just symptomatic of what dog shows have become: Nothing special. Just another day in a hot, noisy venue, collecting a paycheck from clients too distant to know how poorly their dogs actually look to those ringside. All this goes a long way to making the sport look crooked and no fun. Feeling foolish for working hard in the ring only to lose to somebody you didn’t even see was there makes you wonder why you paid the entry fee at all. It fosters discontent among exhibitors and causes loss of respect for judges who seem to play along and find nothing wrong with this obnoxious behavior.
On the eve of the Morris & Essex show, I am left to wonder if we will see handlers carry on this new tradition. Maybe those of us who will be exhibiting need to start one of our own: demanding better of ourselves, the judges and the handlers we share a ring with. Only then can things change.