When I first started in conformation, I was very much under the opinion that polishing my presentation, while important, was a little bit cheating. I was under the impression that if you only present your dog the best that they can look that you're being disingenuous to their faults. And as I have learned dog structure, as I have refined and honed my own presentation of my dogs, I have started to learn how much presentation truly matters.
I've started offering handling classes recently. I'm trying to be upfront with my students thatI'm still relatively new to this myself. However, what I am good at is I can absolutely coach people to improve, and in a way that students are going to understand. I believe I've developed a reasonable eye for movement, and for a presentation, and I've been a new exhibitor recently. I remember learning what a premium and judging program are and where to check the day of the show. And so I know where new people are coming from. And, I can approach shy and reserved dogs in a way that isn't going to ruin the conformation game for them and is going to build them up and start them with a strong foundation, as opposed to being heavy handed. A harder handed examination is something that I will absolutely work up to – eventually, I’ll be a little bit more upfront and handsy with the examination, because I do want dogs to get used to that, but we're going to start them at a place where they can cope calmly.
And, what I've learned from teaching those handling classes is presentation absolutely matters. Many of you are out there saying yes, of course it does. But I knew that. There's a reason that I've worked to present my dogs to the best of my abilities, and to the best of their abilities. But, standing in the judge’s spot, if your down and back is weaving and the dog is crossing and looking up at you, I can't tell if that's proper movement or not. It could be that the dog is cow walked and not built correctly, or it could just be that the dog needs a little bit of help moving correctly in a straight line (because walking or jogging in a straight line is a skill). But if the judge can't see the proper movement, then how is the best dog supposed to be put up?
There are judges who will take the time to ask you to do that down, back again slower and take up some of the leash slack or let them move on a looser leash – judges that have an eye for the handling piece of that. But it's also not the judge's job, it’s not what they're being paid for. They're being paid to judge the exhibit and they don't have very much time. If a class has a bunch of no shows, sure they might have a little bit of extra time they might be able to take to help out exhibitors, especially if they're dealing with a clearly green, nervous exhibit, they may take that time. But I've learned to understand not to expect it. So, the more that you practice, the more polished your dog is going to look and the more that they're going to understand the pattern. I can take Anubi out there now, and unless they pull out something weird like a triangle or an L, he knows the pattern. And he's going to pretty much stack himself. He's a smart dog, he understands the system, and he follows it.
So, let's talk a little bit about a good presentation. I carry my bait in my hand. My dogs are not food motivated enough that they're going to be mugging my hand to try to get it. It means I don't have to fumble with an easy access pocket or hold the bait in my mouth or tuck it in my armband. But, that is a skill, and there are certainly dogs that I have handled where I cannot do that because they will break their stack to go after the bait. I can't mouth them with it. And so for me I can tuck that bait just in the back of my palm and then I still have full ability to manipulate my dog, the leash, and mouth them. That works for me. But the handling of bait is almost an art, and certainly a skill to do it gracefully. You really need to have good control of your hands and you need to have a good place to tuck- in your arm bands, in an easy access pocket, or in your mouth, something that's not going to look clunky. A lot of times people would consider bait pouches amateurish.
Not overusing bait as another thing. I may fake throwing bait so that I can get my ears dog's ears up, it's less of an issue with my breed because ears at alert are not how the breed is presented. But if I take a friend's Beezer into the ring. I need ears. The other thing is knowing when to use it. Just shoving food in their face is going to give the judge a distorted view of the dog’s head planes and of what the dog’s expression is. Yes, absolutely with your COVID puppies or with nervous dogs bait is reinforcement – if you stand there, I will reward you, I'm going to feed you. But, in general, I try not to feed until the examination is done, and then it is: here's some food as a reward you did a great job.
Leash handling is a skill that, at this point, I don't really even think about. I'm handling so many leashes every day, whether it's in the context of training or handling, and so I can understand when I want to add just a tiny bit of pressure and support my dog through leash, and when I want to exhibit them freely and let them stack themselves.
Firstly, I want to address the idea that every dog on a leash that has tension on it is strung up. On my down and back, Ami tends to weave a little but. I'm not sure why, some of it is probably structure because of loose cartilage in her rear feet, which causes her to step a little less true than she should. But some of it is habit from when I was first learning to exhibit and practicing, not as well as I could. And so, on the down and back I will take my leash and I'll put it pretty much straight above her head, she'll carry her head nice and high she doesn’t need help with that, but I will add a little bit of tension. I want her to move out a little bit more, with a little bit more purpose than I do on the go around where she moves beautifully. But, to support her on that down and back I add that light tension. What it may look like to someone who is not on the other end of the leash is that I am choking her and stringing her up, when really, I'm supporting her and reminding her to follow this leash pressure. It's communication with my dog as opposed to an exertion of my dominance.
On the go around, all three of my dogs that I'm exhibiting right now know the pattern and move beautifully, that was not true when Amalu started out. She really wanted to forge ahead and she would miss the corners. So, again, there was a bit of leash pressure backwards to remind her that she needed to move with me, not move of her own accord. I do love the way that a dog that is presented on a loose leash looks. I do think that with a lot of experience Specials we could be fading out that leash pressure and letting them move naturally. But, just because a leash looks really really tight and it's choking the dog doesn't mean it is.
Another note about leash handling is what to do with it during the exam and how to present your dog cleanly. A lot of people will just prefer shorter leashes so they have less to manage. I show my dogs on a relatively long leash between four and six feet. That's very uncommon, but I like giving them that room to move out naturally, which they'll take me up on the go around. What that means though is that I have to be very good about making sure my leash is all the way balled up in my hand, that it's not dangling and distracting the dog when they're moving, which of course can then affect their movement which then can affect the judging. I feel this is extra important when presenting an elegant sighthound. During the exam, what I will do since I have a long enough leash is I will drape that leash over my shoulder, so that I can hold their collar and support with my other hand if I need to because my dogs do get nervous about the exam, and just dropping a couple fingers to their hip remind them that they should stay in place- that is another way to support them. For me, my leash goes over my shoulder, but I could instead ball it up, and still hold that collar. I know some people who let that leash dangle. Dangling leashes aren’t my favorite. I don't want to distract the dog with it hanging there, I don't want them to accidentally get a foot through it when we start to move to get ready for the down and back or the pattern. And, again, I want the clean lines of the presentation without the leash dangling.
It’s important to get good about switching the lead from one hand to the other when I'm showing the bite. Showing the bite is something that many exhibitors struggle with and I'll be honest, I don't always do it as well as I could. It is important to know whether your breed is a full dentition breed as well. That means you’re not just showing that they have a scissor (or level, etc) bite in the front, but also look they have all of their teeth in the back as well. That means you need to present both the front of the mouth and both sides compared to a breed that just requires a specific type of bite. At that point, really you can just present the front.
Breed specific presentation also matters. An Azawakh is taller than they are long. They have very open angulation front and rear. All of this means that as opposed to standing with their hocks perpendicular to ground like most breeds, they stand with their feet under themselves. A proper show stack for an Azawakh so reflect this. Many of the scenthound breeds are presented with their tails up. This is also breed specific presentation. When I have someone ask me about that minutiae, I always send them back to their breeder to work on the specifics.
So at the end of the day all of this why presentation manner matters. If the judge can't tell your dog moves beautifully and stands beautifully, they can't put your dog up, There may some judges that see promise despite poor presentation, but with clean presentation, a judge can actually see what is balanced.
A final note before I wrap up this post, as I do think that there is such a thing as over preparing your dog for the ring over grooming. Hiding faults. I don't mind stacking a dog slightly three quarters so you can see their lovely front and their less desirable read. I don't mind on down on back if the judge hasn't indicated to you which way they'd like you to stop, stopping my dog that has beautiful expression head on facing the judge. I think all of that is strategic and saying “Hey, look at this. Look at this. Don't worry about the faults.” Where I have some skepticism is in regard to hair extensions and chalking. That’s not saying, “Look, here's the dog's virtues.” That’s saying “No, my dog doesn't have faults, I've hidden the faults and you can't find them.”
I think it's a difficult line to walk, to an extent, but that is my stance on this. I'm going to set my dog up in a way that exemplifies their virtues. When the judge is coming up to look at the stand for exam I am going to draw attention to my dog’s head and not maybe his angulation. However, I'm also not going to shave off whiskers to make them the muzzle look sleeker.
I'll end with a collage of the first time I showed Anubi in Spring of 2018, all pictures are by Carly Page in contrast to Fall of 2020 all pictures by Tain Rose.
Look how awkward Anubi is and how hard it is to get consistently nice movement.
In contrast look at the easy presentation and free stacking that came with improving my handling.