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Training Against Type

I was sitting with a fellow Terrier owner at a recent show, watching one of our Terrier breeds being judged when she said, “I am so tired of seeing Terriers shown like little Dobermans.” That got me to thinking. Are we training our show dogs against type? Despite the fact that many of our standards are specific in description of temperament, a Best in Show ring at a highly competitive show may have seven dogs that all show the same laser focus on their handlers, moving about the ring like automatons.

GCH CH Lomondview Clementina
AKC’s Number One Scottish Terrier

When I first started attending shows 40-something years ago, it was standard practice for Terriers to be sparred in the ring as a test of temperament. The judge would bring two or more of the dogs out to the center of the ring facing one another, looking for the expression and body language typical of the breed. I only occasionally see Terriers sparred today. When I do witness the event, I often see dogs totally focused on their handler, oblivious of everything else in the ring. Many of the Terrier standards specify a specific temperament. The Irish Terrier standard states, “It is of the utmost importance that the Irish Terrier show fire and animation.” The Scottish Terrier standard describes, “…a determined and thoughtful dog whose ‘heads up, tails up’ attitude should convey fire and control.”

GCH CH Scylla’s Small Kraft Re-Lit
AKC’s Number One Maltese
Photo by Infocusbymiguel

My impression is that Toy dogs probably show more true temperament in the show ring than do the dogs from other groups. Then that may simply be because I know more about Terriers and Toys than I do other breeds. The Maltese standard calls for the breed to be, “…the gentlest mannered of all little dogs,” while the Shih Tzu should be “…outgoing, happy, affectionate, friendly and trusting towards all.” I recently saw one BIS-winning Shih Tzu who found a happy compromise between the standard show presentation and true breed temperament, standing perfectly still and perfectly stacked, while wagging his tail furiously. Two Sporting breeds that have always caught my eye by virtue of their striking appearance and their distinctive temperaments are the Irish Setter, described as having “…a rollicking personality,” and the Irish Water Spaniel, possessed of “…an endearing sense of humor.”

GCH CH Dreamcatchers Major Victory At Loki
AKC’s Number One Tibetan Mastiff

While my friend was bemoaning Terriers acting like Dobermans, it is the Working Group where you find many of the breeds that have a natural affinity for the “Stop & Stare” method of presentation. I’ve always thought that a Doberman could stare down an intruder without ever putting its ears back, showing a tooth or making a sound. However, am I the only one who thinks that a dog should be staring at the judge and not the handler? Especially with a guard breed. Too often in a ring, the dog never looks at anyone or anything other than its handler. There is plenty of room for varying temperaments in this large group. The Boxer is “…fundamentally playful,” showing “…constrained animation.” The Tibetan Mastiff is so “…aloof with strangers and highly protective of his charges…” that judges are cautioned to “…beware of putting a premium on showiness.”

So what do you think? Should a dog look like his standard and act like his standard? And that’s today’s Back Story.

Written by

Billy Wheeler has been attending dog shows as a spectator and exhibitor for over 40 years. Billy is the man behind the popular Dog Show Poop. He is a retired management consultant who has advised multiple organizations affiliated with the AKC and the Cat Fanciers Association on business management, long range planning, customer service, and legislative matters. After 25 years of living in the big cities of New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, he now resides in his hometown of Memphis TN with his wife, Brenda, her Toy Poodle and his Cairn, Scottie, & IG. When he is not blogging, Billy can be found in the kitchen cooking, and listening to opera.
  • Kelley KS AST's June 22, 2012 at 7:11 AM

    Nice perspective and I agree. My Amstafs are more interested in what is in the ring next to them or what is In front of them. “Keenly alive to is his surroundings” : A dog staring at the handler or the bait that was thrown across the ring is not acting like the standard but most dogs in our ring do not look like our standard either.

  • Jen (@TheElkaAlmanac) June 22, 2012 at 7:18 AM

    I am not a dog show person, but whenever I watch show footage, I’m amused/irritated by the antics and gyrations that handlers will go through to keep a dog’s focus on them.

    I own a Doberman and I agree agree that it would make a lot of sense for the Doberman to be looking at the judge, not the handler;.

  • Alxe Noden June 22, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    I have seen too many Great Danes (not pups) shy from the judge and tremble in the ring–quite clearly not a correct temperament. But if these dogs have good conformation, should they be rewarded above the outgoing, bold dog that keeps an eye on the judge and its competitors?

  • Heather (@chaoslilfury) June 22, 2012 at 1:02 PM

    Being a novice to showing still, I know that my opinion may lack a bit of experience, but in the short number of years I have been showing I have noticed in my breed (Australian Cattle Dog) that dogs with proper temperament tend to get overlooked more often. Our standard states ‘naturally suspicious of strangers, yet amenable to handling’ yet its the dogs who ignore the judge, mostly or all together, who get the most attention. Many a time has a judge not wanted to properly go over a dog just because the dog was ‘watching them’. This has left us with the choice of training our dogs to only glance at, or completely ignore the judge, or risk a likely chance of being overlooked because the dog is aware and watchful. What is a cattle dog if not watchful?

  • Jeri Stephens June 22, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    Hear Hear! Well said.

  • daugust
    Deb June 22, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    That’s why I love labs–you’ll never see little automatons at a labrador specialty. The dogs, and their handlers, are relaxed and playful, and everyone is comfortable with that attitude.

  • wishingwellknl
    Patty June 23, 2012 at 7:23 AM

    Bravo! To this die hard terrier lover there is nothing more beautiful than a dog catching a glimpse of something and staring it down with fire in their eyes….and nothing worse than a terrier that just stares at a piece of food or their handler!

  • Sylvie McGee June 24, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    Certainly showing Bassets, it’s a continuing frustration to have to train them to move with their heads up in that “flashy/showy” position. What good is a Basset with their head up, when it’s a *scent hound* that should be tracking its game. Worst, of course, at outdoor shows at fairgrounds, where our dogs are very often correctly trying to track the bunny that was there last night!

  • daphne eggert June 25, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    Phoebe, GCH Lomondview Clementina, is not known for behaving in the ring! She has her own view of what she will do regardless of what her handler wants her to do! As a terrier lover, I am always thrilled when I see her fix that “varminty” eye on something or someone, and literally stare them down. She is definitely not an automaton, even though I’m sure her handler wishes she would be more cooperative!

  • Collin June 25, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    The good news is that Phoebe the Scottie, while she may not always “behave” in the ring, is among the most appealing dogs in the ring wherever she’s seen, and thank goodness judges have rewarded, instead of penalized, her true Terrier temperament. In my humble opinion, there’s no question that we would do well to allow our American show dogs a little more leeway to behave the way their breed standards say they should behave.

  • Corrine August 26, 2013 at 9:10 AM

    As a Borzoi owner and Juniors judge, I believe EVERY BREED now is shown like a doberman. This is very disheartening to me as Borzoi are shown on a loose leash with very little baiting. It disturbs me that kids in the juniors ring are rewarded for showing which ever breed they have like a Doberman: lots of baiting. Sad!

  • Cheryl August 26, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    Thank you for saying this out loud. I have poodles, usually considered the ultimate in showiness. Now it’s just a stand and stare contest. How boring!

  • Robert Urban August 26, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    Excellent article and very true, as we continue moving towards the generic “showdog”…

  • Tracy Y August 26, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    This is a perfect point for making a dog finished under the age of 2 years a Jr. Champion, and once a performance title [beyond a CGC] earned and Health testing done…then it receives a CH certificate! THEN a Grand+ may MEAN something other than $$$$$ spent…boy would registration papers mean more than the paper it’s printed on! Besides then dual competitions could be held for Most Versatile in Show [a breed win + Performance Q in same day!].

  • Linda August 26, 2013 at 11:31 AM

    Many terriers are NOT supposed to be sparred. It is folly to suggest otherwise.

  • Alxe Noden August 26, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    When my Dane boy was an adolescent, he certainly acted his type: bold and friendly, wanting to lick the judges but also anxious to guard me from all those other dogs in the ring trying to get close to me! If we want to reward type then judges will have to allow type to exhibit.

  • Jessica MacMillan August 26, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    I think two years ago, when the Peke went BIS at the Garden was the ultimate description of this whole situation…. Everyone loved the Dobe and several other breeds because they were showy. That doesn’t mean all breeds are supposed to be showy and the Peke showed wonderfully well for his breed..

    People need to learn to separate was its correct for a breed.

  • Cindi Gredys August 26, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Great question and observation! “Aloof” is what the standard describes for my Borzoi and though I’ve been fairly successful in groups, as I’ve taught my dogs to free bait, if judges weren’t looking for attitude and that pick me look, I dare say many more sight hounds would be BIS winners!

  • Sharyn Hutchens, Timbreblue Whippeta August 26, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    I completely agree that it often seems all dogs in the BIS and even group rings have the same temperament. Even when i was a novice watching classes, it struck me that few of the dogs described as aloof or suspicious of strangers seemed to behave that way. I have wondered recently whether some breeds simply should not be in the dog show world because their ‘proper’ temperaments as described in their standards make them iffy prospects in crowds or in the ring being gone over by the judge. Perhaps those working breeds that are not supposed to accept strangers reasonably easily should be shown in only performance events suited to their temperaments, if there are any. Aren’t we doing these breeds a disservice forcing them into the generic show dog temperament (as delightful as that temperament might be)?

  • Ellen August 26, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    At a show this summer, I witnessed TWO Rottweilers object to the overly harsh (in my view) handling their judge subjected them to. My own young boy was physically pushed off his square, solid stack, and twice turned his head to see what the judge was DOING back there (he was shoving his rear, to be clear). The judge twice pushed my boy’s head back into “position”; my boy was puzzled but didn’t react. This, after a dentition exam the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before; is it REALLY necessary to shove one’s hand down the side of a dog’s mouth? Later, a young female Rottweiler DID loudly and sharply object to the rough handling and was excused (this was a multi-day circuit; she had, in the earlier days, been steady in her exams). Still later, the WB put up with the exam in her class and later in the Winners ring, but she snarked at the judge when, after her down and back during the breed judging, the judge repeatedly shoved her head straight (she had been handed off, and her owner/handler was on another dog in the breed ring; the WB was turning her head to look for her “mom”). She wasn’t excused but the substitute handler got a “talking to” by this very well-known and generally well-respected judge. My opinion: these Rottweilers were true to type. Neither of them looked for trouble, but they were subjected to rough handling that they felt (and I agree) was unfair and unnecessary.
    So YES: I agree with the thesis that in some cases, we are training “type” out of certain breeds.

  • Rebekah James August 27, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    When did focus on a handler become the wrong thing to do? Not all dogs are capable of this type of focus. It is a trained/learned behavior, and it requires drive and a willingness to work for the handler.

    I will be *amned if I will EVER apologize for the focused attention I get from my working breed when in the Breed ring. It has translated straight to the Obedience ring, where my dog won 1st, 2nd and 2nd place to earn her first obedience trial title, the AKC CD title, in 3 straight trials.

    It is none of my business how anyone else chooses to present their dog, but I am slightly offended by the insinuation that attention and focus turn the dog in to a robot or an automaton.

    Perhaps the author should train and show a dog themselves someday……

  • Dan August 29, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    Thank you for mentioning the Tibetan Mastiff. This is a guardian breed that should be keenly alert to its surroundings. It should not stare at its handler or blankly off into space. Temperament is a critical component of this breed’s form and function and is every bit as important as having a correct head, proportions and movement.

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