You can’t show dogs very long and not realize that no matter what dog and handler you have, you don’t always win. Even if you think you should. Sometimes not only don’t you win, but your rival wins a nice placement in the group. Your group placement. It kills you to see their slightly smug, smiling faces and watch the judge hand them the big rosette and a prize. You see tomorrow’s judge watching and really giving this dog a good look. Your hopes for the next day begin to fade. Why did you wait until the end of the day and sit ringside watching the group ring when you and your dog are not among the Best of Breed winners? Why should you?
There usually isn’t a big crowd left in a show building at the end of the breed judging. Shows seem viewed as a kind of job. Exhibitors arrive early at the show. Their dogs are groomed and shown. Sometime they take a break and wander over to see the vendors or get a snack, then pack up and head home. It is all repeated the next day. No other breeds are seen, no time is volunteered to an overworked show committee, no friendships forged and certainly nobody learns anything new. But besides this personal loss of opportunity is one more important: the loss to the breed in general. Every dog is a representative of its breed. Members of the public attending a dog show are usually overwhelmed with the doggy diversity they see. Often these visitors form their opinions of a given breed solely on the basis of a chance encounter at a show. While I have been bitten by a dog at a show and still have the scars, most show dogs are well socialized. Dog clubs have done a great job getting out the word to the public not to ask to touch the dogs before they show. Many times we’ve been followed into the grooming area by somebody we’ve met ringside eager to meet our dogs and find out more about them. We usually have no puppies to sell, but still the attention is flattering and a great chance to pass on information about the breed and make a good impression. If exhibitors leave the grounds immediately following breed judging this opportunity is lost. nobody, including the dog, gains anything from a day at the show. Sometimes after a particularly hard loss, the kind words of show visitors go a long way toward lightening the mood. The questions they ask about our two breeds just make us laugh.
But why pull up a seat at the group ring, especially if you don’t have a dog in the fight? The opportunity to watch quality dogs face off against each other is wonderful. We sat ringside at the Louisville shows in 2006 and saw a beautiful Wheaten in the group with a well-known Midwestern handler. The Wheaten has been a breed recognized by the AKC since 1972 and many are still struggling with good rears and good movement. There before us, stood a beautiful male. He moved well and was a standout in the group that day. Since we know some Wheaten people we looked in the catalog and discovered it was a dog owned and bred by a friend of ours from Colorado. This dog went on to win a Best in Show and some other nice wins. He made you notice the breed. It was wonderful to see our friend having success with the breed she has dedicated herself to for over 25 years. Sometimes you see dogs who are only familiar through the pages of dog magazines. One year a certain Japanese Chin was a huge winner from the toy dog group. We watched it in two separate toy groups and discovered it was a sidewinder. Not all that glitters is gold, as the saying goes.
Owner/handlers looking to improve handling skills can learn a lot from the handlers, both professional and amateur, in the groups. You see a variety of handling styles and trends. Some may work for your dog, others don’t. For comic relief nothing beats watching the antics of some people in the group ring. Handling is hard and not for the faint of heart. As much as showing your dog is supposed to be about the one on four feet, the two footed part of the team is often the most noticeable. We had a friend who showed her dog in heels and one who wore huge Doc Marten style shoes and shuffled at a fast rate around the ring. You learn that some of what you are doing is pretty good.
But really, why should you watch the groups even if your dog isn’t among the winners that day? Why should you sit ringside and cheer on the representative of your breed? The reason is rooted in basic self-interest. Every time a dog places in the group people notice. Some breeds are not as competitive at the group level as others. When some of these less competitive breeds do get a group placement it is special. At the Portland shows in January of this year, an Icelandic Sheepdog was awarded Best in Show. This is a brand new breed for the AKC and most people sitting ringside had never seen one. Still, the judge that pointed at that dog on that day was sending a message loud and clear. I hope there was a roar of applause from everyone connected with the thirteen dogs of this breed that were entered at these shows. I hope they were all sitting or standing ringside and hugged each other with happiness. Because where one of them had gone, the others could follow. Judges are human beings and try hard to do a good job. They talk among themselves the same as exhibitors do and most are, or have been, breeders. they are cautious and few have the courage to pick dogs in the group their peers haven’t picked. So when a breed that is usually overlooked in the group gets one, it will make it that much easier for the next one to be considered.
As the show season rolls on, some individual dogs seem to develop momentum. Most of the time they are common breeds, like Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Fox Terriers. The top dog all breeds last year was a Smooth Fox Terrier with over 100 Bests in Show, lifetime. I am not convinced this one dog was the best dog at every show he won, but over 100 times somebody thought he was. In the last few months of the show season this dog was virtually tied with a Pekingese. These two dogs’ handlers devised a strategy to best each other and in the end the Fox Terrier won out. It was exciting for the fancy to watch this competition even if most people watching didn’t own either breed. The thunderous applause surrounding these two dogs every time they were shown indicated broad approval for the judge’s decision. It made the decision to award them with a win very easy. What we all care about is our own breed in general and our own dogs in particular. The amount of winning the Fox Terrier and the Peke did last year cast a favorable light on each breed. There was the perception of a depth of quality in these breeds that will make it easy for other to follow them into group placements this year. When you sit ringside and applaud the performance of your breed in its group you tell the judge it’s OK to look at this dog. You send the message that people think the breed in general is worthy and should be considered a winner. While today it may be your competition, tomorrow it could be you.
Finally, judges and all of us have grown weary of the poor sportsmanship rampant at shows. The AKC has a code of sportsmanship that should be important to everybody who shows dogs. When rivals come together at the end of the day to support the breed in the group ring it demonstrates good sportsmanship and sends a powerful message. Creating the image in judges’ minds that a breed’s exhibitors pull together for the good of the dogs feeds directly into the perception that these are serious competitors, who expect to be placed.