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Owner Handlers and the Importance of Sportsmanship

Sportsmanship is so important to the AKC that the policy is included in our entry premiums and show schedules. The penalties for violating this policy are a bit steep, at least in dog show terms, since they include suspension and fines. Most of us in the dog show community don’t know how to handle the heavy withdrawal symptoms that a suspension would entail so can’t imagine what they would do if accused of bad behavior.

In general, I find us a merry bunch that works very hard to get along and has the full understanding that getting into a fist fight with a fellow exhibitor is severely frowned upon, but let’s face it: there is sportsmanship, and then there is sportsmanship. So while we may conduct ourselves along the letter of the AKC policy, we don’t always stick to the intent of the policy. So if you find yourself looking over your shoulder for fear your mother may have just overheard your freshly made snarky comment, it may be time to re-think your approach. For full disclosure, that is my litmus test and to my shame I have failed it from time to time. One of my mantras is that it is the struggle that defines my humanity. So let’s struggle together by reviewing a few examples.

For Goodness Sake, Just Say Congratulations

My mother used to call them ‘back-handed compliments.’ You know, those chewy nougat centers enrobed in a sour coating that leave you thinking that there may be a compliment buried down in there somewhere but you’re not so sure you want to say ‘thank you’ all said and done. Some of my personal favorites? There are so many.

Let’s see:

•‘Congratulations on your Breed win! You do know that you didn’t have his rear stacked correctly, right?’ Oh, or this one,

•‘Oh you won today? Well, you probably noticed that I didn’t bother to enter under this judge. He doesn’t know what he is doing.’

•‘Congratulations on your group placement yesterday! That judge likes our breed and always gives them something in the group.’

I could go on (so can many, I’m sure). Look, if you don’t like the dog that beat you, so be it. If you don’t like your competitor, okay. But saying congratulations and then adding a mean or detracting statement on the back end is not really sportsmanlike behavior. If it is just killing you, you can just say one word, and keep on moving. That word is ‘Congratulations.’ Period. The end. Get over it…

Try Not to Dog Pile at the Dog Show

Imagine that you are at the show under the tent with an entry and this is maybe the puppy’s second or third show. Suddenly you start to hear the unmistakable sounds of a dog about to retch and sure enough, it is your puppy. As we all know, stopping the natural progression of this biological function is pretty impossible. So you now have a sick dog and a mess to clean up and as a responsible person, you start to frantically search for paper towels. Just as you are taking care of this embarrassing dilemma, another exhibitor comes up and starts yelling at you for having the audacity to own a dog that vomits.

Sound familiar? I have witnessed this behavior more than once. Let’s embrace for practicality’s sake that our fellow exhibitors did not make their entry sick for the sole purpose of making sure that someone else will lose (newsflash! The sick puppy isn’t going to win either so what’s the point!). They are dogs, and dogs do things — strange things on occasion like eating garbage. And not everyone has the puppy cam on their dogs at all times and know everything that the dog has done 24 hours a day and should have known that their dog was not going to feel well at the dog show. Yes, yes, I know there will be someone with a story of how So-and-so brought their dog that was recovering from kennel cough to the indoor show, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the things that just happen. So the next time you see your fellow exhibitor’s terror stricken face while their dog has started an unfortunate biological function at an inopportune time, try handing them a roll of paper towels instead of criticism.

Make Wine, Not Sour Grapes (aka Make Wine, Not Whine)

So this is pretty closely related to the idea of just congratulating someone when they win, but I still decided to tackle it as another topic. These are the people who try to steal your win, or diminish it in some way. We are a pretty competitive bunch, and speaking for myself, I try to keep that in mind every time something like this goes on and I can hear my teeth grating in an attempt to stop the sharper side of my tongue from having it’s day (yes, those who know me, I actually do hold back!). So these come in a few sour flavors:

• There was something wrong with my dog (the one who should have beat your dog on any other given day)

• There is something wrong with the judge (loaded topic)

• Something strange happened that shouldn’t have happened and there is obviously a conspiracy (probably a puppy vomiting ringside)

The Something Wrong Tactic is actually a difficult one; one that I know I have been guilty of. Sometimes we are doing something as innocent as performing the post mortem on our defeat. Where did we go wrong? What could we have done better? My dog felt off today, maybe he was sick? Or maybe, the other dog was just better, or more the judge’s type. Face it, you lost. You will have another chance, maybe even the next day. Let the winner have their day and try to not to make it about you and your dog.

The Judge Is Wrong can be a particularly painful one. The comments I have heard have ranged from mild, such as the time my class bitch won Breed from the classes over top 10 specials and was told that the judge ‘always puts a bitch from Bred By;’ to the extreme when someone actually watched a judge all the following day to find fault in their judging and then reported it to me 2 weeks later. The idea here is that your entry was not good or deserving; that you only won because the judge is terrible. I won’t even touch on the times someone says the judge liked the way you looked. It doesn’t matter. When it gets right down to it, ridicule of the judge to that day’s winner is uncalled for. Just don’t.

I’d like to think that not many people believe there is a conspiracy going on but there are many forms of the Something Strange Happened line. It’s pretty darned close to the Something Wrong, but instead of something being wrong with the dog, there is something else going on. So, we have the noise in the next ring, a distracting outfit, an MIA handler, or another dog growling – the list goes on. But no matter what may have gone on, someone else won and once again, we should let them have their day. Unless you are looking for tips on how to get your dog to adjust to the many strange conditions at the dog show, you should just keep all of it to yourself. You can yell until you are hoarse about the injustice inflicted upon you while in the car on the way home.

It’s Not Just Lip Service

We can’t ignore that our passion for breeding and showing has a strong ego component. And there are definitely those that will work to be insulted when there is no slight to be found. So navigating the minefield of competition is not always an easy task. What I find most unsettling about some of the lack of sportsmanship is that we do this to each other – those of us handling our own dogs and not using a professional handler. We need to support each other as more and more money is poured into the ring. While we are busy sniping at each other, we run the risk of losing all relevance in the dog show world. We may become the noisy necessity that is there to add numbers to the real competitors.

So being sportsmanlike is not just a way to avoid a bench hearing. It is a way to show a united front of adults that isn’t just complaining because we didn’t win. Maybe by treating each other with respect, we can move on to other things – like changing our sport for the better. I’m pretty sure our mothers would approve.

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  • Jan Cohen May 2, 2014 at 6:04 AM

    Nicely done!

  • kitty May 4, 2014 at 1:20 AM

    hi that is nicely sad but in europe where i show it very often its not the handlers but the judges whom are doing the wrong thing i live in iesrael and before i enter a show in europe i will ask my friend what the judge is judging if they give me the name of adog or handler i wont even go i find that most of the handlers are nice and helpfull if one needs help but i would think it also depends on the breed

  • Iva Kimmelman
    Iva Kimmelman May 4, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    Great article. I find it laughable that the AKC bothers to include a code of conduct or promote good sportsmanship, while looking the other way over blatant violations of their own rules. The refuse to enforce them. Seen in our rings is makeup, surgically altered dogs and other forms of rule violating fakery. For those of us who don’t cheat it can be disheartening to have to deal with this double standard. If a person is famous and wins, they seem immune to playing by the same rules as the rest of us. The most sportmanslike thing an exhibitor can do is show a dog in a natural, unaltered state. Or the AKC should ban these rules and let all of us have a free for all. At least that way, they would tell us if their dogs are dyed, have fixed ears or tails. They would have no reason not to.

  • Sharyn Hutchens May 4, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    Excellent article we should all take to heart! The one that simply incenses me is “I can’t believe that piece of garbage beat us!” (Or trash or crap or worse) NO dog is garbage. Every one of them at a show is loved by someone. Yes, they all have faults, but they are warm, loving creatures who NEVER deserve to be called trash. I don’t usually say anything to people who are nasty comments, but that is one I’ll confront every time.

  • Beverly Simms May 5, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    My daughter, who has only been to a handful of dog shows and has no interest in showing, says dog show aquantinces are “Frienamies” Friends/Enemies. She does a perfect imitation of an exhibitor congratulating the winner then walking over to a friend & telling them all kinds of bad things about the dog/person that won. Rhonda, you are so right, we all need to be more supportive of each other, we need to say congratulations and mean it! Our dog will have another chance a different day under a different judge.

  • Sharyn Hutchens May 10, 2014 at 6:08 AM

    The mantra that helps me is, ‘It’s just a dog show.’ It’s not the Mideast peace talks, it’s not a midnight-in-the-emergency-room (or emergency vet) trauma, it’s not a police visit at 2:00 am when your kid is not home. The judge is not a doctor giving you the worst kind of news or a newscaster announcing that World War III has begun. It’s just a dog show. It’s not worth losing friends or your dignity over. I remember once practically pulling my ten-year-old daughter off a show horse as she left the ring in a snit. I don’t remember my entire mom-on-a-rampage lecture, but it included the closing lines, “We’re not doing this because we have to or because we are making money at it. If we stop having fun, it is time to quit. And when you behave like a spoiled brat, guess what? Neither of us is having fun!” I like to think she took that with her through junior showmanship later and still knows how to be a gracious loser and a humble winner at thirty something. I sometimes have to deliver that same lecture to myself, but then I mumble under my breath, “It’s just a dog show.”

  • Katie Nelson May 16, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    Nicely written article. I had to laugh I’ve heard all those examples in some form or another. We all just have to remember its one person’s opinion, the judge and not every time can you win.

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