One of the things I like about the conformation dog show game is the nod to a more genteel time, a time when a jacket and tie were the normal Sunday afternoon attire for men, a time when how you played the game was almost as important as whether you won or not. I am not among the doomsday prophets that think our sport is at an end, but I frequently see things at shows that make me wince.

One practice that has gotten out of hand are the hordes of handlers’ assistants who occupy the perimeter of the group rings waiting breathlessly to provide another piece of bait, a spray bottle or a cool towel. At the most extreme, the assistant actually touches up the grooming in the ring. While most of this behavior does not rise to the status of “double handling,” a violation of the rules, it is a major distraction to the gallery.

I generally sit through every group at every show I attend. I make a point to arrive at ringside early to secure a seat with a good view of the ring. Frequently I will have an assistant carrying a suitcase full of grooming products and other dog show accoutrement push their way in front of the gallery so they can attend to a dog in the ring. Normally, I tolerate the intrusion. I have an abiding affection for the young people in our sport and don’t wish to deprive them of the opportunity to participate at the most competitive levels. However, such behavior can be taken to the extreme.

At a recent show I attended, the host club had thoughtfully provided a large holding pen for the waiting dogs and handlers, adjacent to the very large group ring. At one end of the fence separating the holding pen and group ring was the steward’s table and the entrance to the ring. At the opposite end, the fence was connected to the back fence. Throughout the judging, there were several assistants attending to their charges where the two fences met. At some point during the judging, the separating fence became disconnected from the back fence. Unfortunately, while the judge had a dog on the examination table, only a few feet from the separating fence, the fence came crashing down, spooking the dog and the gallery. While the BIS-winning dog did recover, he was still left out of the group placements that day. Was it due to the crashing fence? Only the judge could answer that one. I can’t say that I saw any particular assistant near the fence when it came down. I was watching the dog on the table. I can only say that I saw the fence tampered with several times during the group judging.

In any event, is all that mid-judging grooming necessary? If you are showing a breed that is legendary for its stamina, shouldn’t your dog be able to survive for 30 minutes in the ring without intervention by your assistant? I have written here before that I believe the major benefit of AKC conformation shows to be an opportunity to sell our sport to the general public. I’m not sure that a dozen assistants buzzing around the rings, blocking the view of the gallery or even affecting the dogs in the ring furthers that goal. With apologies to Hillary, it does not take a village to show a dog. I would point out that assistants are not allowed around the rings at the Westminster Kennel Club show. I think other clubs should note what has worked for 137 years.

And that’s today’s Back Story.