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By Connie Vanacore

In life there are many examples of the ingredients essential to succeeding at anything, and there are enough books on the topic to fill many libraries. However, there are specific elements that are crucial to success in the dog world, although these may apply elsewhere as well.

Every team coach, no matter what the sport, is a psychologist for his or her players. Perhaps the most famous rallying cry is Ronald Reagan’s “Win one for the Gipper!”

A Team Effort

Recently a college football player, being taken off the field after breaking his leg, admonished his team to win it for him. Despite being the underdog, the team did win—to great acclaim and cheers. The players were no different than they were before, but their motivation was spurred into greater effort by their combined will to succeed.

The same impetus applies to any effort. The will to win is the essential ingredient in any competitive effort, whether it be soccer, football, high marks in school, or dog shows. Success requires skill, training, and the right ingredients to make a team. 

How does this apply to dog shows? In canine events there is no more important element than the relationship between the handler and the dog. It does not matter whether it is the owner or a professional handler who shows the dog; what matters is the attitude and relationship that flows between them.

Dog showing has changed dramatically over the years, and those changes are reflected in the attitudes which handlers—both owners and professionals—bring into the ring.

I recently attended a large-entry circuit, spanning many days, with many of the same dogs and handlers entered every day. Under those circumstances it is particularly important for everyone connected with a dog to be at the top of their game. The win for any dog is the culmination of a learning process that should begin long before the dog and handler ever set foot in the ring.

Instilling a Love of the Game Early On

Ideally, it should begin when the dog is a puppy, where he is taught with kindness and patience what it means to be a show dog. Lead-training, stacking, and trotting in a pattern are all essentials, just as is having early training in obedience, field, agility, or any of the other dog sports introduced while the dogs are young and most impressionable. This is not so different from the way participation in childhood team games prepares young athletes—in both cases, youngsters must learn to love the game. To be a winner, it is critical that no matter what the sport, the novice must love what they do.

Dogs are no different in their reactions to training than any human being learning a sport. Good handlers, whether novice or professional, are critical to the success of any show dog. Oh, there are examples of a dog being a “natural,” just as there are natural athletes. However, even those rare individuals have to hone their skills, both mental and physical, in order to win. 

Years ago, before the time of endless shows and huge traveling circuses of dogs with their retinues of handlers, assistants, “schleppers,” and hangers-on, dogs were either shown by resident kennel managers or by their owners. Those days are long gone. In their place has sprung up a business of part-time handlers, along with those professionals who carry 20 or 30 dogs to the ever-increasing number of dog show circuits. In addition, amateur-owner-handlers are finding their place in the ring in increasing numbers. With their own classes now in competition, they are playing a more important role in many of the shows.

A Matter of Trust

At the end of the day, those handlers, whether professional or amateur, will win as much on spirit and talent and how the dog performs as how he is built. It takes teamwork between the handler and the dog. It involves trust on the part of the dog and confidence on the part of the handler. This is partnership at its most intimate and personal level. A dog must have trust in the handler, as well as the handler trusting the dog. Those handlers who are of the “have lead will travel” variety may have some success if they are fortunate enough to handle a truly spectacular specimen. Usually, however, the really significant handlers in the sport have taken the time to get to know and understand each dog. They are able to evaluate each one’s strengths and weaknesses and show him to his best advantage.

Excellent handlers are blessed with what observant teachers call “good hands.” It is a talent that rarely can be taught but which dogs, particularly, appreciate. It is part of the skill of winning.

To be a winner requires courage, knowledge, instinct, and the ability to relate to others, whether it be a teammate on a soccer field, or a dog in a show ring or a field.

C.V., Irish Setter Club of America (AKC Gazette, July 2013)

Read more articles from the AKC Gazette here.

Did you know that more than 80 percent of show dogs are handled by their owners? The AKC National Owner-Handled Series celebrates the dedication and enthusiasm of owner-handler exhibitors and allows them to compete head-to-head against one another in the conformation ring.
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