Let’s face it. A good show dog is a very different creature than a couch potato dog. While the two are not mutually exclusive, a dog who is unsocialized outside his home, out of condition, unused to being groomed routinely, unfamiliar with the noise and commotion of a dog show etc has a long upward trajectory.

Pepper started me on the road less traveled, working with “special needs” dogs. The proud moment when she was successfully able to be examined by a male judge. And even won a prize. I actually still have that photo album…

My very first GWP came to us as an older puppy with a pretty bad “childhood” behind her. Pepper’s first inclination was to bite any man who touched her. I was 15 and the proverbial dog whisperer in my mind. I started early on the problem-solving path. I took her everywhere. I asked every man I could find to feed her a cookie and pat her. She eventually was able to be shown, to men even, but her trust issues remained throughout her life. She wasn’t very pretty and never finished her championship. But she taught me a lot and started me on a long and winding road.

Backing Away from the Exam

This is a common circumstance encountered by many exhibitors. The cause of the problem varies, but generally is one or a combination of all three: handler, dog or judge’s approach.

First and foremost, a confident handler makes a confident dog. The opposite, unfortunately, also holds true. Even exhibitors who tell me they are relaxed in the ring can be seen noticeably tightening up on the collar when the judge approaches the dog.

Once upon a time, I had a client dog of a large, protective working breed referred to me because he was growling at the judges. Not in a serious way, but enough to cause a problem. The owner was afraid the dog would growl. The dog picked up on the owner’s fear and decided the approaching stranger was a threat. The growl was a warning. Fortunately, we were able to stop the process before it escalated. The dog came home with me and I immediately changed his “tough dog” name to “Tribble” after soft, furry Star Trek creatures. He bonded to me quickly and was able to trust that I had everything under control. Since I wasn’t worried in the ring, neither was he. He finished his championship in no time at all, without any vocalization.

Caveat: This falls under the category of “Do not try this at home!!” It is in NO way to encourage showing a dog that is legitimately aggressive. When in doubt, have the dog evaluated by a *trained* professional. Do not ever take a warning lightly, as a dog who is threatened may react seemingly without provocation.

We, as members of the sport, also need to think about the dogs we’re exhibiting. I am sometimes paid to fix behavior problems in my client dogs. I think of it as job security. Most of the time, I am able to solve the underlying issue. On rare occasions, I can’t. When a dog is shy, nervous, terrified, aggressive or any combination thereof and does not respond positively to a change in handling or environment, we need to remember that these dogs are being evaluated for potential inclusion in a breeding program. If they cannot adjust to minimally invasive hands-on contact by a competent and friendly stranger, it’s time to rethink whether they should be shown at all.

In a lawsuit-happy, pet-people world, we need to seriously contemplate this type of temperament, which can be a genetic component of one’s breeding program, and whether it should be carried forward. I don’t care how pretty a dog is. If it’s a freak and a spook and has to be held together with glue or drugs or cottonballs, it is a poor representative of the breed and doing a breeding program, and its breed as a whole, no good in the long term.

Judges, meanwhile, can make a tremendous difference with their approach. Any judge who is not comfortable with a specific breed, really should not accept assignments to judge it. I’ve had a number of otherwise completely stable dogs sent sideways by a hesitant, jerking, timid approach on the exam. On the flip side, I recently had a conversation with an experienced judge who insisted on making intense, direct eye contact with my Rhodesian Ridgeback class dog. This is quite often counter-productive, especially with an insecure dog who, again, feels threatened. He backed away from this judge twice. Once his first weekend shown, when he was excused, and again several months later. In the intervening dozen shows, he did not back off a single exam. This judge, the second time around, had the grace to ask if it was him or the dog. I explained the situation, the judge offered the dog another opportunity for exam without any eye contact or cooing and the dog stood perfectly. He went reserve to the major that day.

One of the most brilliant judging moments I’ve ever seen came in this sort of instance. The judge is one I have come to respect tremendously and consider one of the very best in the sport today. On this day, many years ago, I was showing a Great Pyrenees class bitch who I’d never met, was completely unsocialized and was coming out of her skin. This judge, God bless him, saw my struggle to hold on to the dog. Using a rare combination of dog sense and empathy, as he watched the dog ahead of me in line move down and back, he glanced out of the corner of his eye, reached to his left and scratched my dog’s chin, without ever making eye contact. His hand remained, unthreateningly, below her chin while she relaxed. After watching the other exhibit all the way around the ring, and without ever taking his left hand off my dog, he turned around and very nonchalantly examined her. She never flinched. She did not win that day, and should not have, but this judge earned my undying gratitude for giving her, and me, a positive experience in his ring.

There are methods to mitigate the problem of a dog backing away from the judge. From lots of happy experiences with strangers to practice, practice, practice to instilling a solid watch command, as we discussed a few weeks ago. The three most important things to remember with any dog, but especially an insecure one, are FIRM, FAIR and CONSISTENT. Corrections should be timed properly. (One quick, solid correction beats 12,000 nagging, whining, no-no bad dogs.) Only given when a dog fully understands that it is making a mistake. (If you haven’t actually *trained* the dog to stay, it is unfair to correct it for not doing something it doesn’t know how to do!) And made every time. (The worst thing possible for an insecure dog is to be told, for example, “yeah, good boy, jump on me, kiss me, mommy loves you…. wait, NO, bad dog, get off me you filthy beast.” If it’s OK, it’s OK every time. If it’s not OK, it’s not OK every time.)

Best of luck to everyone at the shows. Feel free to open a dialogue on this or other topics in the ongoing Handling FAQ series.

As always, this is JMHO.