Maintaining The Standard

By Sheila Atter



Social media is an excellent and popular way of bringing interesting viewpoints on various aspects of dogs and the dog world to a wider audience. I do it myself and am grateful to those who share this column with others, just as I appreciate the fact that articles that I might not otherwise have seen are brought to my attention in this way.

One such has been going the rounds recently, and has attracted quite a lot of comment, mostly of the “it’s the same here” variety. Entitled ‘Send in the Clowns, the (Dog) Show is Over’ (you can read it here: ) writer Carol Hawke, a respected American breeder/exhibitor of many years’ standing expresses her thoughts on the situation that prevails at most AKC shows, where it often seems that the judges – the clowns in Carol’s eyes – totally lack both integrity and knowledge, and merely look for the well-known handler, making it possible for the most untypical and sometimes unsound dogs to win high honours, whilst the typy, well-constructed exhibits that are owner-handled usually stand down the line.

Having both exhibited and judged in the US, I have experienced first hand the flounces of some of the professionals when an owner-handled dog beats their charge. Not all of course – the best of the American handlers are true professionals, win or lose. They present their dogs to perfection, and will only take on a dog that they think has a good chance of hitting the heights. However, by definition, not all can be the best. Handling has become big business in America, partly because of the distances that are involved. It’s expensive enough in this small country of ours, to campaign a dog at the top level, but ,the cost of showing a dog over the course of a year in the US can easily reach six figures. American show dogs can be on the road for weeks at a time, and most owners cannot afford the time to do this themselves.

In comparison we have very few professional handlers in the UK. There are many reasons why an owner uses a handler. Sometimes they are physically unable to do the dog justice; they may be uncomfortable being in the spotlight and prefer to watch from the sidelines; they may have a quality dog, but find it difficult to get to many shows. Often it is just a case of a dog ‘clicking’ with one person, but not another. Whatever the reason, it is always a pleasure to watch a good dog, fully in tune with his handler – whether owner or professional – performing to perfection.

Conformation judging is a very subjective sport. Whilst most judges like to think that they are judging the dogs, not the handlers, human nature is such that all but the very strong-minded are to a certain extent influenced by the actions of others. If a dog has been BOB on many occasions, perhaps even taken group placings as well, it takes courage to place it down the line because of an off day, or even because the dog isn’t quite as good as his reputation might suggest.

The whole raison d’etre of showing dogs has changed considerably over the last few years. No longer is the dog show the place where breeders go to get the opinion of knowledgeable and respected judges, valuing their decisions without question. Nowadays it is almost commonplace to see disgruntled exhibitors haranguing judges on social media – or even to their faces at the show. Showing has, in general, become a contest of hairdressing and handling skills. There is, certainly amongst the younger handlers, a recognisable dress code. I’m not suggesting that scruffy jeans and sweatshirts should return as appropriate wear – after all, we are talking about a dog SHOW, and a well-turned out dog should surely be complemented by an equally smart handler. However, just as inappropriate are the very short, tight skirts and low cut tops worn by some. The eye is inevitably drawn to the handler, rather than the dog!

Carol Hawke’s excellent article finishes with the following:
“It takes courage to admit the truth in order to change the course of this game back into a sport for the future. It all depends on who is at the helm and whether anybody left actually cares enough to admit this is a pathetic game nobody really admires anymore. Just so you remember or perhaps need to hear it for the first time; showing dogs is about choosing the breeding stock that best fits the breed standard!
Today’s breed standards express modern trending instead of breed foundation and purpose.

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The clubs don’t care because the members would rather win than breed to the standard anyway.

Handlers are the only consistent way of winning at AKC dog shows today.

The illusive eye for a dog has been exchanged for an eye for familiar faces.

Dog shows are now a politically charged game, not a sport. So go ahead, “send in the clowns!” because that is all you’ve got left in this circus.”

I fear she is right – certainly with regard to America.

Does this have any relevance to us? From the comments made on social media I rather think it does. We have not gone so far down the handler route as the Americans have – but we do have a scenario where many feel that it is just the ‘faces’ that get noticed. But, you know what? The ‘faces’ were novices once; they just worked harder, bred or bought better dogs; honed their presentation and handling skills – and didn’t whinge about being beaten, defeat just made them try even harder.

Ms Hawke blames the AKC for the woes that have beset the show world in her country. Maybe she is right. Can we equally accuse the KC of turning our show scene into a circus? I’m not sure we can. I think we have to look to our own attitudes. We have to support those judges that do have integrity – and accept that maybe our dogs can’t always be first. It can’t be denied that there is definite divide between the same old, same old faces that seem to win whatever they have on the lead, and the ‘ordinary’ exhibitor who feels that they, quite literally, can’t compete. Carol is right – it all comes down to the judges. If they are well enough educated to know what they should be looking for in the dogs, rather than which faces they recognise amongst the handlers, they might well come up with the same results – but at least their decisions will be made with integrity.


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About Sheila Atter

Sheila Atter
Sheila Atter lives in the Lincolnshire Wolds with six Cesky Terriers. She fell in love with this breed in 1989, and since then has owned, bred and shown them with success. In 1998 she was made a 'Member of Honour' of the Czech Breeders' Club for her work in promoting the Cesky Terrier in the UK. Before falling for the charms of the Cesky she owned Parson Russell Terriers and Otterhounds, and is the author of two books on Parsons, as well as contributing to another. She has written for most of the canine publications in the UK and several in the US.

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  1. Beauceron

    Sadly, at least in our breed the clown theory is very true. Winning dogs are poor examples of the breed, usually overweight and too big for the standard - but that's what USA always want, more size! Meanwhile great agile examples coming all the way from breed homecountry are left behind...

  2. Rowdeygal

    When I first(very excitedly) collected my first Beauceron Sefton, I was fortunate enough to have a young handler, my great nephew Reef. I'd been asked by him a few years prior if he could be a junior handler and of course I said yes. I trained him with the help of friends in the border collie breed who I'd known for many years. Sefton did his first training with Reef who handled him in his very first show at 6mths old to Best Puppy and RBOB. Reefs mum is a soldier so I knew I would lose him due to postings, and he is now in Cyprus. But as over the years with Reef, I strongly felt that in order to keep our junior handlers I needed to have a junior as a replacement for Reef. So many juniors move on as they grow up, it's those that are passionate that we need to hang on to, they are our future handlers/judges ambassadors to the world of dog exhibiting. I was put in touch with a young man named Robin Alner, by my friend Marina Scott. Robin met me at Discover Dogs this year at Crufts with a view to handling my Sefton. Robin and his girlfriend Olivia now share the handling of my beautiful boy, taking him to a whole row of first places Best Puppies RBD's and BOB's at ChSh and Open Show level. They have created their own website on Facebook Beeyatal Handling and Training. A fabulous young team who are also judging breeds themselves now. I'm proud to say they are dedicated and you can see how they love their chosen path, both looking to do Animal husbandry at University too. This is the importance of using these youngsters to give them a platform to carry on in our discipline and see them as our future. I could of asked anyone to handle Sefton as I've been working and training exhibiting dogs since 1983, but having trained a junior and having the knowledge and experience to see how much work it takes ,our juniors should be used more often. When you get a winning team, when you see how happy your dog is with the handler, when you see how the bond develops between them, it's such a joy, promotion of juniors is an absolute must, and they need more owners to have faith in them, to hand over your precious cargo to further the juniors career. How many junior handlers do you actually see in the show ring at either Open or Championship shows? Give them a chance, go and watch the juniors , see how much they have to learn, the etiquette that goes along with the hard work they do. After all , who could forget Lisa Bridges daughter "small", running out to shake the hand of the group winner at this years Crufts, made my heart swell, her mum must of exploded with pride.

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