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Participating in dog shows can be beyond daunting for newcomers: It’s tough to be the new kid on the block, especially when it appears everyone else has been taught a secret set of dance steps while you bumble along, oblivious to the judge’s instructions or the rules of competition.

But the good news is that feeling will pass: After all, everyone is a beginner at the start. Following the tips below, you’ll soon find your bearings and get caught up in the contagious camaraderie that defines the very best of the dog-show world. And when you do, remember that now it’s your turn to help the next dog show newbie, just as someone did for you.

Find a mentor. For many, the sport of dogs is a family affair — they are just the most recent generation to be involved as breeders, handlers or judges. But if you weren’t born into this sometimes insular world, there are plenty of knowledgeable people who will help you learn the ropes, if you know where to find them.

If you already own a purebred dog, a good place to start is the breeder you obtained him from. If that isn’t a possibility, reach out to the nationally based parent club for your breed; inquire about membership, as well as mentoring opportunities. Alternately, look up a local all-breed kennel club, which, as its name suggests, made up of fanciers across many breeds; with the graying of the sport, clubs are always looking for volunteers and potential new members. Another excellent resource is the AKC Exhibitor Mentoring Program. It is designed to connect experienced handlers or breeders with newcomers to AKC sports and events.

Dog shows themselves are also a great place to meet people and absorb knowledge. Just remember that timing is everything: Approaching a handler before he enters the ring, or when she is in the middle of scissoring a Poodle, is probably not ideal. If you’re unsure, ask, “Is now a convenient time to talk?” If it isn’t, return at a time that is. Simple as that.

conformation dog shows

Buy a catalog. Sure, print catalogs are becoming somewhat anachronistic in our increasingly digitized world, but they are still sold at every show. They contain the name of each dog entered, as well as their owners and breeders, and so are an invaluable resource in researching potential mentors, both in your breed and outside of it.

Get some class. Handling class that is. Though showing a dog looks easy, it takes some time to get the routine down. That’s what training classes are for. There, an experienced instructor will teach you and your dog exactly what is expected from you in the ring, from how to “stack,” or pose, your dog to how to show the judge the bite, or teeth. There’s a lot of jargon to learn, but your handling-class peeps will get you up to speed.

Groomed for success. Some breeds are “wash and wear,” requiring only a quick pass with a hound glove or damp cloth to get them looking their best. Others, such as terriers and most long-coated breeds, need a grooming regimen to make sure their coats are appropriately maintained. Job one is finding someone who knows how to groom your breed for the show ring. (Warning: Your average pet-store groomer likely won’t be much help here.) Again, ask your breeder’s advice, or work on cultivating a mentor who can share her hard-earned knowledge in this area.

All dogs need to have clean teeth and well-tended nails, so training your puppy to accept tooth-brushing and nail-clipping as a regular part of his grooming routine is critical. And if your dog’s breed is one that is regularly groomed or examined by the judge on a table, gradually train him to be very comfortable standing on one — always supervised, of course.

Get an honest opinion. Not all dogs are show-dog material, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A true mentor will honestly assess your dog’s virtues and faults — and, yes, every dog has both. If a career as a show dog is not in the cards for your canine, consider an AKC Sport. Obedience, Rally, Agility, Coursing, Tracking, Tricks, and Performance Events are all excellent activities that will enhance the bond between you and your dog. Before diving in, CGC training is a smart first step for training your dog.

Is it a dog eat dog world? Dog shows and the people who attend them are competitive — that’s a fact of life. But AKC rules make a point of emphasizing good sportsmanship, and you should strive to be gracious in victory as well as in defeat. And be realistic: More people lose at a given show than they win, so don’t make winning your sole objective. Instead, establish a more attainable goal for yourself: Perhaps it’s engaging in a conversation where you learn one useful tip, or identifying one part of your presentation in the ring that you can improve on. Those aren’t as tangible as a blue ribbon, but they can turn out to be even more valuable.

Stick around. In the past, most dog shows were benched, which meant all dogs were required to stay for the day, and fanciers became a captive audience, learning a lot about their breed and others, if only by osmosis. At all but a handful of today’s shows, exhibitors are free to leave after their breed is judged, and most do, especially if they didn’t do any winning.

It’s up to you to buck that trend. When possible, stay and watch other breeds being judged. Pay particular attention to the professional handlers. Watch how they put their hands on their dogs, where they stand in the ring, when they let their dogs rest, and when they turn them on. A lifetime of experience went into honing their skills — why not learn from watching the best?

Oh, yeah — have fun! Amid all the first-time jitters, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that dog shows are supposed to be enjoyable. Whether they are or not entirely depends on your attitude, which in turn gets transmitted right down the lead. Chances are your dog doesn’t know if he’s won or lost — he knows he’s out having a good time with his human.

And while it’s a cliché, like most clichés this one’s true: No matter who wins Best in Show, the best dog of the day is the one you take home with you.

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