When I first began going to dog shows in the early 1980s, I’d spend some of my weekends with friends who’d get together to build majors in our rare breed. Just about the only place to find a major in Irish Water Spaniels – then as now – was to go Winners at a specialty or supported entry. At these shows, everyone brought along their young dogs to battle it out in the classes, and just about everybody stayed to watch the day’s breed winner compete in the Group. Our togetherness made us feel sort of like “groupies” in those days.

By mid-afternoon most of us would gather ringside to watch the Groups, and we generally stayed together right through Best in Show. Somebody always made sure to stake a claim ringside with plenty of room for everyone to sit together. We weren’t the only spectators who “stayed for Groups,” so sometimes we had very little elbow room and had to be content with sitting two and three chairs deep. The togetherness only made things all the more cozy.

Some exhibitors would bring their dogs along for company, and, based on the weather, we’d have plenty of blankets, sunscreen and umbrellas to share. And depending on a show’s location, it wasn’t unheard of for a bottle of wine to appear along with a supply of paper cups.

As we watched the day’s breed winners compete, we played something we called, “The Group Game.” Everyone selected a dog in each Group that they thought was most likely to move on to Best in Show. Most of us selected the Irish Water Spaniel to win the Sporting Group, of course, but we’d also cheer on a friend’s Flat-coat or a favorite handler’s Shorthair, and finding an appealing exhibit in each of the Groups was a lot of fun for a bunch of dog lovers looking to spend a free afternoon together.

Sitting together at ringside provided the perfect place to relax and unwind following a busy morning of grooming and competing. Most of us had only one or two dogs to take care of, so it was easy to make time for one another in the afternoon. In those days, watching Groups was something we did just for fun.

Ringside is a perfect place to catch up with dear friends, make new acquaintances and learn about dogs. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Ringside is a perfect place to catch up with dear friends, make new acquaintances and learn about dogs. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Spending time with friends at a dog show is certainly a good time, but sitting ringside also provides opportunities to continue our education in all things doggie. What we had considered a relaxing social activity was, in fact, a vehicle that introduced us to quality animals of many different breeds.

During those years, we started to recognize the dogs that regularly made it out of their breeds and into the Groups. We learned the names of their handlers – some professionals and others owner-handlers – as well as the names of the judges who found these beautiful dogs week after week. What started as an impromptu game to pass the time was slowly developing our ability to recognize quality in a dog, subtlety in a handler and efficiency in a judge.

Sitting ringside in those “early days” provided us with an education that had no curriculum other than having the good sense to pay attention. As we were busy picking our favorites, we were unwittingly exposed to many of the world’s finest purebred dogs, and, before we even knew it, we were developing our “eye” for quality dogs and an appreciation for their presentation.

Many of our teachers were some of the great dogs of the day, including the Cocker Spaniel Ch. Kamp’s Kaptain Kool, the Greyhound Ch. Aroi Talk of the Blues and the Scottie Ch. Braeburn’s Close Encounter. Their handlers, Ted Young, Corky Vroom and George Ward, respectively, were masters who presented their dogs to best advantage and made us fall in love with purebred dogs over and over again.

The judges we watched in those days also demonstrated their knowledge and proficiency by showing us how to correctly evaluate the various breeds. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that for the price of an entry fee we were given the opportunity to sit in the company of master adjudicators such as Derek Rayne, Dr. Harry Smith and Ann and Tom Stevenson. If only we’d understood then what was happening right in front of our eyes!

Our common love of dogs and dog shows eventually led many of us to watch a lot of breed judging too. To pass the time as we waited for the Groups to begin, some of us would sit and watch the large entries in breeds such as Afghan Hounds, Dobermans and Poodles. These breeds usually had big entries that savvy spectators could watch the judges sort through in classes that numbered a dozen individuals or more.

I can remember watching as the class winners from one of the big entry breeds came back into the ring to compete for the points. I distinctly recall having an “aha” moment at the sight of so many individuals of similar type standing right there in front of me. I had finally begun to understand correct type in that particular breed.

Paying close attention to the judging at a conformation show is a great way for any student of dogs to further his or her education. So just imagine what having a breed mentor by your side can do to increase your understanding of purebred dogs?

Every breed has its share of dedicated and experienced individuals who have sacrificed much in order to preserve, protect and promote their chosen breed. Sitting ringside with one of these experts during the judging of any breed is a golden opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. Opportunities to learn are available at every show if we only pay attention and ask the right questions of the most knowledgeable people.

At the 2000 Morris and Essex Kennel Club show held in Madison, N.J., I had an opportunity to sit with an extraordinary dog man. Unfortunately I let my nerves get the best of me and squandered the chance to receive a lesson from the one and only Ric Chashoudian.

The M & E show that year was a revival of the legendary event held between 1927 and 1957 at Giralda, the estate of Mrs. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge. The show’s rebirth was highly anticipated by fanciers in the U.S. and abroad, and every serious dog person was on the grounds at Giralda Farms on Thursday, October 5 that year.

The show’s entry of 2,991 dogs meant that the breed rings offered plenty of opportunities to watch the best dogs of the day compete. Particularly strong were the entries of Terriers, since the show was held just days before Montgomery County.

At one of the Terrier rings, Lakelands, I think, I noticed Ric sitting by himself. Since I’d never met the man I thought it would be rude of me to introduce myself at that moment. So instead I considered just sitting next to him so that we might strike up a conversation about the dogs in the ring. I knew that I could learn something about the breed from him, of course, but I was too timid to even sit down. Frankly, I was intimidated and decided that I would likely seem to him as nothing more than an intrusion on his privacy. I’ll never know, unfortunately, if he would have appreciated my interest in his knowledge of the breed.

The dog sport – even today – is filled with experienced men and women who are passionate about the dogs they breed, handle and judge. Most, I think, are only too happy to share their knowledge with dedicated fanciers who are serious about developing their understanding of purebred dogs.

My advice to anyone who cares about dogs and dog shows is to introduce yourself to the judges, handlers and breeders you most admire, and let them know that you appreciate their contributions to the dog sport. It’s very likely that your support will be welcome, even if you come across as a “groupie.”