Taking it to the Next Level - The Making of a Special's Dog
Few things in life are more mysterious than discovering the secret to success. People are fascinated with stories of outstanding achievement and notoriety in the hope that some sure-fire recipe will be revealed.
The dog community in large part is comprised of hobbyists and professionals who are naturally goal-oriented and consumed with achieving those goals. We have chosen four-legged partners to accompany us on the journey. One of the unique aspects of dog show competition is that it is made up of a broad spectrum of participants with a wide variety of aspirations, motivations and goals. That being said, Conformation exhibitors and breeders will tell you the most common goal and greatest thrill to experience at the dog show is when that fifteenth point is awarded and a Championship title is attained and the second is the attraction of the Best of Breed and Group level of competition.
What exactly does the Champion title indicate? Ideally, it should validate quality rather than speak more to the tenacious perseverance of the dog’s owner. I do not believe that one wakes up on the Monday morning after the finishing show and looks at his dog with whole new eyes. He is the same dog he was before that last point, with a little longer name to be recorded on certified pedigrees and in the computers of the American Kennel Club.
Statistically, after a championship title is obtained, less than 20% of those dogs will continue on to compete in the Champion class. Since May 2010 however, those statistics have become somewhat skewed with the initiation of the AKC Grand Championship program. Many finished champions have come back to the show ring to compete for the GCH title, some owners with less motivation of winning the Breed and more interest in receiving the Select point award. The Grand Champion competition has given judges the opportunity to see some really good dogs returning to competition to the exultation of many professional handlers and their accountants. It has undoubtedly increased the degree of difficulty for the every-weekend show Champions to continue to consistently “get out of the Breed.”
The Best of Breed or Champion class is commonly known as the “Specials” class. We typically refer to those champions competing in the class as Specials. The definition of the word special in Webster’s is: “Exceptional; highly valued…”etc. Does this realistically apply to all of the dogs exhibited in that class? It is a fair statement to say that judges should have the expectation of good quality and the obligation to hold those competing in this class to a higher order than in the non-champion classes. Breed type quality, condition, and expert presentation are an expected and assumed commodity for a competitive Best of Breed dog. Mistakes in presentation and poor training, lack of condition, minor coat and grooming errors are at times forgiven in a puppy or open class but certainly should never be in the evaluation and ultimate selection of the Best of Breed dog--this is a Masters Class comprised of dogs supposedly pre-certified to possess more than adequate attributes of merit and quality.
What is the recipe for success in the Best of Breed ring? The first consideration of stepping into the competitive atmosphere of a Breed, Group and Best in Show arena should be an objective, unbiased assessment of the dog’s potential by someone who is qualified to do it. The criteria for setting realistic goals has to be commiserate with the conditions required for success. Resources such as an experienced mentor with established credibility or a professional handler familiar with the campaigning aspect of dog shows is an essential part of the team. The fundamental element is obviously a specimen of above-average breed type virtue coupled with great stamina, mental and emotional stability, an attention-craving attitude and the extraordinary aura surrounding all stars. A dog must have a tolerance level for such mundane bores as constant grooming and table time (depending on the breed), travel and crating, the ability to survive and thrive in the constraints of life on the road and a willingness to partner with the human handler. Such attributes are often un-tested in a class dog’s initial exposure to dog shows given the fact that a young, above-average quality dog will most likely obtain his championship title in short order; even though lacking polished training. The financial aspect of this venture is significant and should be thoroughly considered and researched prior to mapping out the plan for a show campaign. Entry fees, travel expense, handler bills, advertising, the list can add up quickly, depending on the amount of shows exhibited in and whether a professional is employed on a regular basis. Getting in too deep is an easy pitfall of the game given the allure of big ribbons and the notoriety it brings with them. It is possible to work within a budget structure and stick to it if the owner has the fortitude to withstand the temptation of going beyond the budget’s limitations. The commitment and dedication to the goal is considerable; the mandatory 5 T’s—tractable funds, time, travel, training, and tenacity. Imbalance of the 5-T’s will have a devastating impact on a Specials dog’s success in the show ring.
Planning a short and long term strategy is the first component of the plan and the ability to remain flexible should be second. Choose 6 to 8 shows to enter in the Champion class in order to observe and assess potential. How does your dog visually stack up to the other specials in the ring? Does he look like he fits in both breed type and style, maturity and behavior? Don’t let yourself make excuses for a poor performance, lack of condition or a natural ability to stand out. There are no excuses on this level of competition. Winning or losing on the day should not be part of the consideration; losing is not necessarily a deal-breaker, nor is winning a deal-sealer. Have someone you trust and respect in the breed watch the class and give an honest opinion as to what they observed.
Designing a show campaign requires someone with expertise and the experience level to make decisions based on the dog’s welfare and the ability to choose shows wisely and be mindful of the many pitfalls encountered along the way. If a professional handler is your choice, it is essential that all elements of the venture are discussed, agreed upon and a written contractual agreement is signed by all parties. Minimize the odds of having some issue come back to haunt everyone halfway through the dog’s show career.
Extensively campaigning a bitch should be a thoughtful decision for active breeders. Most bitches come into season once or twice a year and may affect her health and ring performance when going through a heat cycle. Many worthy and deserving bitches have glorious careers and ultimately retire successfully to a whelping box; however, some have been incapable of doing both. One must be prepared to face such an eventuality after a discussion with a reproductive vet about the effects of stress and constant travel on the bitch’s hormone levels as it relates to productivity.
Advertising in dog publications is one of the realities of a special’s dog’s career. The expectation in doing so is that placing an ad in a magazine denotes serious intent on the part of the owner and handler and helps establish credibility at this level of competition. The motivation should not be that judges are swayed and intimidated by over-blown glowing ads of accomplishment and “hit em over the head” promotion. Subtle ads are more positively received by the judging community and the fancy in general. Avoid using too much copy and stay focused on strong visual impact that speaks for itself. Readers turn pages when the copy is wordy and too time-consuming to bother reading. A lasting mental image is powerful. Never use a bad picture of your dog, even if the win is a memorable one. Use instead a more flattering photo with a bold text one-liner about the win. An Interesting candid that tells a story is very effective. Magazines that offer informative articles and timely editorials are the best options for wide exposure in reaching the targeted audience. If the budget allows, there are professionals that do ad copy and lay-out.
Special’s dogs are not the only living beings that must exhibit grace and steady temperamental qualities under pressure. Remember, the show-going public is watching. Exhibitors that possess the winning traits of a true competitor have mastered the difficult art of both winning well and losing well. Nothing leaves a more lasting impression than watching a sore loser act like an idiot. A public reputation for obnoxious behavior is formed at warp speed. Everyone roots for the competition just to view the action. Conversely, good sportsmanship is noticed, appreciated and remembered by everyone. A proficient handler will, in all situations, keep the pressure of tense moments sheltered from his dog’s psyche. Meltdowns and tantrums do nothing to transmit to a dog that this is fun. Childish behavior can do irreparable damage to a sensitive animal who wants to please you. Everything goes right down the lead. A seasoned show dog knows absolutely the difference between winning and losing by the emotional climate surrounding him. Positive reinforcement and encouragement should be a large part of the regimen regardless of the win/lose outcome of the show day. It’s a trade-off; have an activity your dog enjoys separate from the show and he will give you more in the show ring.
Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out; the beginning of a show campaign with a young Special requires that he be thrown out there to get multiple opinions. If you try to second guess all judges decisions before even entering, you’ll never get the dog’s career off the ground. You cannot win if you are not entered. If the day’s outcome isn’t positive, use it to explore the why factor. Sometimes it’s not a question of a judge’s dislike of the dog. It may have been too many mistakes in the ring, condition or a lackluster performance. Those are the judges you want to bring the dog back to when the issue is corrected and he is a little more experienced. A loser’s mentality will find excuses and a winner’s mind-set figures out what went wrong and how to fix it.
Be smart about making decisions on when and where to show and taking down-time. Rest yourself and your dog when the judging panels aren’t in your favor, but plan ahead as to how, where and when to make up the lost time and points. Don’t get on a plane if you don’t know what awaits you in unknown show venue conditions and unknown judging panels. Never fly without a legitimate reason to do so. One must establish credibility on the home turf first. When you are researching show judging panels, remember that Step 1 is a Breed judge that is positive for your dog and is the only way to get to Step 2-the Group and ultimately to Step 3- Best in Show. One does not get to the Group and Best in Show ring by looking only at which judge is judging at the end of the day. Keep the horse in front of the cart. Research the breed judges and their preferences of type, style and performance. Learn to make your own decisions rather than taking everyone’s advice if they are not a qualified part of the team. Listening to the gallery on a regular basis will have your head spinning. Retain what seems rationally valid and throw out the rest of the chatter. The reality of most competitive activities is that there is a very small circle of true supporters. Stay focused and keep your head down; worthwhile goals require infinite patience. Do not expect to blow up the winner’s circle after a few months of showing. It takes at least that long to lay the ground work – consistent ring performance in handler/dog teamwork, credibility, researching judges, etc. Many professionals design a Special’s show campaign by mapping out a strategy for an initial “warm-up” year and a second one with a more refined focus on attaining goals.
Success is predicated on fundamental basics; the strength and depth of the winning components coupled with pure perseverance and dogged tenacity. If you are one that gets discouraged easily, think twice about taking it to the next level.
© Copyright 2018. This article is copyrighted by the American Bouvier des Flandres Club (ABdFC) and may not be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the ABdFC.