Bring Your “A” Game to the Ring

Leo headAKC Gazette breed column, Leonbergers—A solid knowledge of exactly what strengths and weaknesses you and your dog bring to the show ring, as well as strategies for maximizing your assets, can play a huge part in sharpening your competitive edge.

The “dog show game” is unique among sports in that amateurs compete with professionals in an arena of subjectivity. Add in the fact that our dogs, unlike basketballs or hockey pucks, are living, breathing creatures who have good days and bad days—and, in the case of Leonbergers, the often uncanny and creative sense of humor that they’ve been known to deploy at very inopportune moments—and the show ring can become a maelstrom of emotions for exhibitors and spectators alike.

For owner-handlers, especially, stepping into a ring full of professional handlers can be a daunting experience. As an owner-handler myself, I know well the self-doubt that often pools in the pit of the stomach prior to ring time. Those nagging questions such as “Is my dog good enough?” “Have I groomed him well enough?” and “What if I trip over my own feet on the down and back?” are bound to echo in the minds of even seasoned owner-handlers.

It’s easy, especially after leaving the ring without a ribbon, to let those feelings of inadequacy morph into frustration and anger. Many times I’ve heard exhibitors, professional and novice alike, angrily mumble about “politics” as they head back to their setup.

While politics may be at play some of the time, it’s an undeniable truth that when novices compete together with professionals, it’s up to the novices to bring their “A” game. Showing dogs requires some honest assessment and self-reflection, as well as careful preparation and training, and it’s necessary for owner-handlers to be their own toughest critics.

Additionally, it’s often helpful to enlist the help of longtime fanciers who know your breed and have an experienced eye for structure and type as well as movement to give you honest, constructive feedback about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Knowing which elements of structure to emphasize and which ones should be downplayed can help you formulate a game plan for exhibiting your dog to his fullest potential.

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Photo: Courtesy Astrid Robitaille

However, even if you’re a seasoned fancier, it’s impossible to see yourself in the ring as the judge does. One of the best tools I’ve found to improve presentation is having a friend videotape you from outside the ring. Just as professional athletes “review tape” to up their game and identify areas to fine-tune in practice, owner-handlers can benefit greatly from taking a look at their own dog stacking and gaiting, as well as those of the professionals in the ring, and those who took home the ribbons.

As an owner-handler, I find it extremely helpful to review old tapes of myself in the ring with various dogs I’ve shown. I always catch something different upon which I can improve—and those glaring reminders of what not to do are always valuable as well!

I’ve picked up so many tips from watching tapes of professionals in the ring, too, from how best to present a beautiful head so that it will stop a judge in his tracks, to ways to downplay a straighter rear, to what wardrobe colors and patterns look downright awful against a Leonberger coat.

A good example is in watching movement. Sitting ringside to watch judging of my breed, I often see both owner-handlers and professionals not moving their Leonberger fast enough. Our standard calls for a free, easy, elastic gait, with good reach and drive. It’s essential to move the dogs fast enough so that these qualities are exhibited. In some other breeds, on the other hand, there are tendencies to move the dogs too fast. Until you see yourself and your dog in action and can really critique his movement for yourself, the optimal speed can be difficult to gauge. Having your breed mentor videotape you in the ring allows you to watch not only your dog’s movement and paw placement, but also that of your fellow exhibitors.

Evaluating yourself, your dog, and your competition is a great education and can go a long way toward preparing you and your dog to bring your best performance to the ring. It’s never easy to accept criticism, and sometimes we can be our own worst critics. However, having a solid knowledge of exactly what strengths and weaknesses you and your dog bring to the game, as well as strategies for maximizing your assets, can play a huge part in sharpening the owner-handler’s competitive edge. —Astrid Robitaille, [email protected]

Further information about Leonbergers can be found here and here and on the website of the breed’s national parent club, the Leonberger Club of America.

Read more AKC Gazette breed columns here, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Posted in AKC Gazette, AKC Gazette breed columns, Breeds, dog shows, junior handler, Leonberger, owner handler, Training

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