Conformation Handling

(The following article was first printed in the Philadelphia KBTC newsletter in December, 2003. It is reprinted with the permission of the author, Gerry Yeager.)

Handling the Conformation Dog

What is good handling? When one watches a dog and handler working together as if they were in a “dance,” it is truly a wonderful sight. The dog is not overshadowed by the handler, but rather acts as if it is alone, center stage, in the spotlight. To achieve this is the ultimate for dog and handler.

How to reach that point is not that simple. There are many ways to approach the “how to,” but it’s best to keep it basic, especially for the novice handler.

First, one must have the DESIRE to show the dog and LIKE what they are doing. If you don’t really enjoy this sport, it will show in your performance. Understand that the dog senses a lot coming from the other end of the lead. They have a radar for your moods. Imagine a good actor that convinces the audience that he or she is that character they portray. They make it look easy. A good handler is like that actor; they tell the dog there is nothing to worry about. Through the cues they give that dog, he can just relax and do his stuff and have all the attention dogs love. The dog and handler make it fun to watch. Spectators will remark, “What’s so hard about this handling? It looks easy!” A good handler makes it look easy, graceful, fun. It’s an art.

Free stacking a dog is a goal to attain. The dog stands on its own without the handler holding the head or the tail or any part of the body. The handler stands in front of the dog holding its attention by whatever means and lets that dog take the spotlight. One can teach the dog by using cues such as toys, food , praise, commands like “Stand, Stay,” to get attention and move away, a step at a time, until you are in front of the dog and can make it move into a stance. It takes time and patience, but most dogs can learn it. Always when teaching a dog a new behavior, go back, if the dog doesn’t succeed. Start from the beginning and always end on a positive note . . . where the dog did it right.

Trying to relax is not that easy for a handler when you have to have your eyes on the judge, and the dog, watch where you are going, and watch the other exhibitors- all at the same time. That’s a lot to do for the short period of time you actually are in the ring. If it happens to be a large class, you have to know when to let the dog relax a bit and still keep an eye on the judge, who may still be looking at your dog out of the corner of his eye.

Practice moving in a straight line without weaving. When in the ring , focus on something straight ahead, like a post on the ring gate, or the judge on the way back towards them. But remember to know where your dog is at all times and stay out of its way. Practice moving in a circle. The dog will always go in a circle around the ring. These maneuvers will become second nature to you and your dog with time and repetition.

If you have a dog that is a natural show-off, it’s an easier step towards success. The most beautiful dog can seem mediocre, if its attitude doesn’t match its looks. Food, toys, and lots of verbal praise are used to get the dog up in attitude. A really good handler can get a “feel” for a new dog almost immediately and then can fine tune as they work together. A sense of rhythm is important in handling. Can you dance? Moving in the ring with a sense of grace and style is like dancing with your dog.

Don’t overuse cues. Too much squeaky toys, constant talking, baiting, etc., can not only be distracting to the judge and other exhibitors, but the dog might turn off to what is constantly there. Nothing is more annoying to some judges than trying to look at the mouth when the dog is busy chewing bait: Get out of the way when the judge is looking at the different parts of the body. When they are at the front, you be at the back, etc.

Posture is important. Don’t overshadow the dog by hovering over the topline. Stand up, or if on the ground, be behind the dog when the judge is looking. Always remember the dog is the center of attention, not the handler. When moving dogs, especially terriers, keep the proper pace. Some judges will remind you not to run with the dog but walk briskly. If you do move quickly or run, skim the ground and don’t kick up with your feet. It looks awkward and can bother the dog. The pace you keep and the stride of your movement should match the dog. For instance if your dog takes choppy steps when the breed standard calls for a smooth reach and drive, don’t emphasize the wrong movement by taking-short little steps with the dog. A good handler knows how to de-emphasize faults and accentuate the good points.

Always be prepared and keep showing even if you think the judge has made up their cut. Just because you are not in the first place in line doesn’t mean you can’t be first on the last go round. Keep up the attitude to “PICK ME” to the very last.

Of course, the way you dress is meant to make a nice picture with the dog in the ring. Simple, tasteful, elegant, and easy to move with the dog is the key to what to wear. Comfortable shoes that go with the rest of the outfit is really important especially for the long hours of standing at a show, often on very hard floors indoors. Nothing is worse than seeing someone in ill-fitting clothes, inappropriate styles for the occasion, which does nothing but detract from the whole picture. Long billowing skirts that blow in the dogs face as they move, or too tight short skirts and tops looks bad. Men have it a little easier choosing apparel. Shirt, tie, sport jacket, suit. The look should be tasteful, not tacky. Choose colors that compliment the dogs color. Don’t wear black with a black dog. Remember you are the backdrop to the portrait.
Last, but not least, be a good sport. Once you’ve won or lost be gracious and congratulate the winners. Ring etiquette is very important to most of us. Keep bad manners out of the ring. Bite your tongue before you put your foot in your mouth, only to later regret your actions. Don’t get a reputation as a poor sport. You can be a bad winner as well as a bad loser.
Take a moment before you go in the ring to settle you and your dog by whatever you do to calm your nerves. Even the top pros have that nervousness that all sports competitors feel. I think it’s good to feel some of this when it’s under control and doesn’t become a negative force. It makes you keep that “edge” that the dog feels too. It makes you go in with that excitement of what is possible for you and your dog to do. Above all, if you are a novice, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Go to a handling class, pick a mentor who will be willing to teach you and give you assistance to attain your goal. This is a learning experience for a newcomer to the sport of dogs and whether you are an owner handler or hope to go into it as a professional, you can always learn no matter how little or much you know.

Happy Handling!

Gerry Yeager
Gamgee Kerries

Last Updated: 03/05/2004, 3:06 pm