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conformation-101

It can feel daunting at first, but everyone’s got to start somewhere when it comes to conformation. While this handy guide serves as an excellent resource, we were on the ground at the annual Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show at Centurylink Field Event Center earlier this month to gain some firsthand insight into showing dogs. We chatted with folks from all across the spectrum, ranging from first-year competitors to seasoned veterans, some of whom have been handling dogs for more than five decades.

If you’ve ever thought about showing your dog, take a cue from this passionate lot — who generously shared some tips and tricks of the trade!

Lita (Salem, Oregon)

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Years Showing: Since 1963 — I grew up doing it. That’s 55 years!

How did you get into conformation?

It was a family thing that was passed down.

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

With grooming, teaching my dogs to lie down and play “dead dog” has been helpful. You massage them and make a big deal out of them, and rub them and tell them they’re good dogs, then they like to lie on the table so you can groom them. You do this, and by the time your dog is 6-to-8-weeks, it becomes a contest of who can get to the grooming table first. Everything is a game and super fun.

Also, buy your breed from a person who knows the breed and can train you. Good ownership requires a lot of training from people who can help you do it right.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Definitely grooming. Old English Sheepdogs are very intelligent, but can be very stubborn. You have to be creative.

Gary (Spanaway, Washington)

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Years Showing: 10 — I’ve had Old English Sheepdogs for 35 years.

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

Herding dogs are a little different than other dogs in that they want to be super independent. They kind of try to tell you what to do; you have to be aware of that. My dog is the No. 1 herding Old English in the U.S., but he does behave.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

None! I like to groom. He has a good coat. If they don’t have a good coat, it’s harder to groom. He hasn’t had a bath in maybe almost three months.

Carmen (Tacoma, Washington)

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Years Showing: 30

How did you get into conformation?

Through 4-H (America’s largest youth development organization).

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

Number one: It’s supposed to be a fun thing, so please don’t stress out. You’re always going home with the best dog, no matter what anyone else says. But your dog needs to enjoy what he’s doing. Apart from that, belong to your local breed affiliation club and also belong to the parent club. Just plug into a local club.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

It is competition, and competition brings out character. It doesn’t always bring out the best character. You have to decide what kind of character it’s going to bring out in you. Some days, it’s harder to decide what that’s going to be. Competition is tough.

Julie (Edgewood, Washington)

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Years Showing: 17

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

Preparation and lots of training. I get my puppies out when they’re about 4-to-5-months old, and we’re doing handling classes and socializing. We would never bring them to a show until they’re at least 6- months old. A biggie is finding a mentor. People who will spend time with you and share their knowledge.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Staying on top of [my] breeding program. It takes a lot of time and money to campaign dogs and their breeding stock. Finding that balance and finding enough time for those at home has been a challenge, as well.

Dacia (Graham, Washington)

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Years Showing: Less than one

How did you get into conformation?

My girlfriend has been showing for years, and I just started getting into it. It’s been really fun! I’ve enjoyed learning how to show, and I never thought I’d do this. The people have been nice; lots of travel. There’s really a pretty good group of people to be around, and it’s nice to be able to look at a bunch of different breeds.

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

Learn as much as you can. Talk to other breeders. Get on the Internet and just ask a lot of questions. Sometimes breeders don’t tell you secrets. I’ve learned as I’ve been going, and I’ve spent a lot of time at classes learning how to work my dog and groom. My breeder has helped me a lot. It’s been a fun journey, and I continue to learn. When you’re a newbie, learning what to do in the classes with the judging and placing is important. There are a lot of details.

My best tip is to get a good-smelling bait, [so] the dogs are really attentive. Really spend a lot of time with your dog.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

I want to learn faster!

Ashley (Olympia, Washington)

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Years Showing: 2 — My mother and I both show Standard Poodles.

How did you get into conformation?

My mom and I are pet groomers in Olympia (at The Pet Works) and breed Standard Poodles.

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

The dog I’m walking (Amore) is actually the next dog to be added to our breeding line. If you’re thinking about owning a Standard, grooming is very important, and I definitely think that talking to a groomer before you get one is a really good idea . . . just about cost and frequency and stuff. I think a lot of people get into it and don’t realize how much work it is. But these dogs are absolutely wonderful.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

We do live in Washington, so it’s hard to keep dogs clean. Our dogs have little booties they wear, and Amore has all kinds of different stuff she wears to keep her fur protected. Grooming is the biggest obstacle. I probably spend seven hours a week, maybe more, just grooming my dog. She gets a bath once a week, which usually takes around three hours, and then she gets brushed every other day.

Luke (Curtis, Washington)

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Years Showing: I first went into the ring when I was 4-years old — a long time ago — so I’ve been showing dogs for 35 years.

How did you get into conformation?

I’m second generation. My daughter, Tegan is third generation. My parents bred and raised dogs, and my dad and stepmom are professional handlers, like we are.

What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

As far as handling, the key thing with showing dogs is to have fun with the dog. A lot of people think it’s about how you perform out there, but it’s really not. You’re asking the dog to do something completely unnatural. If it looks like the dog is having fun, then his attitude is good and that is portrayed to the judge. People get too caught up in the seriousness of it, so just enjoy things a little.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

I grew up in this, so it’s all second nature to me.

Do you have a favorite memory from all your years of showing?

Probably watching my daughter, Tegan, get her first win. Her first group placement was last summer when she was 6. Watching her, and the joy she gets, is pretty cool.