Updated: Sep 17
I've written about dog shows and conformation before, especially after the Westminister winner this year was repeatedly disparaged by the media, but I've never really written about my journey in the conformation world.
When you think of dog shows the technical name for that is conformation. That's conformation- as in conforming to a breed standard. It is also a term that means: physical structure, generally applying to animals. If you know these two items, the purpose of dog shows quickly becomes obvious. They are an event to judge dogs against a specific standard (to see if they conform to it) and they are an event that judge's a dog's structure. This is why the general public gets upset when their personal favorite loses at Westminister or the National Dog Show or some other big televised show. Dog shows aren't just a beauty pageant. They are for breeders and owners (and handlers on behalf of the first two groups) to receive feedback on the structure and temperament of their dog.
I started showing because Anubi's breeder asked me if I would show him. Conformation is something I've long respected (as a kid I loved the televised dog shows) but knew absolutely nothing about, but I agreed out of curiosity. After all, how hard was asking your dog to stand there and then running around in a circle? The answer? It's so hard. There's so much nuance. One of my mentors in dog training told me "I became a better dog trainer the day I started showing dogs." And it's so true. You learn so much nuance from showing dogs. You understand behavior better, you learn how dogs move and how they should move, you need to understand structure. I utilize that knowledge on an almost daily basis. If a dog isn't sitting square and kicking a leg out I examine structure. More often than not, the dog's structure informs me that the dog has problems with their knees or hips, which is why the dog rolls to one side while sitting.
When I got Anubi, we started learning how to stack, both free stacking (letting him set his own feet) and hand stacking (setting his feet for him). I read a bunch of books through work and watched a bunch of videos. We went to handling classes and I had coworkers help be the judge. Jamie Morris who has Drevers and is in my area, contacted me out of the blue to encourage me to enter the Seattle Kennel Club Open Show, so we entered our first show. I did so by searching Google for the Seattle Kennel Club dog show and then finding the premium that way. There were so many pieces that I was unaware of, including that superintendents (in our area BaRay mostly) are the ones that post a Kennel Club's premiums (the document that tells you everything you need to know about the show, what classes are offered, price, how and when to enter, who's judging, what other events are offered (such as rally and obedience) etc).
I had been to one, small outside dog show when I was younger, but I hadn't really been to a large dog show before. We entered the Seattle Kennel Club's Open Show for Misc and FSS breeds (this was before Azawakh were fully recognized by AKC). I also was doing a Meet the Breeds booth, something more in my wheelhouse, so I set up my booth the Friday before the show and then the next day went down to our ring about half an hour before our designated ring time.
Some very kind exhibitors walked me through picking up my number and that it went on my left
arm. My books had told me the order of what to expect in the ring but I still watched the rings around me, soaking up as much as I could. Meanwhile, my 8 month old puppy took it all in like a total pro. We were the first breed in the ring for the Open Show. I stepped into the ring and presented my dog, we were the only of our breed, so I took him around the ring, stacked him for examination where he stood like a rock as the judge went over him, I presented Anubi's bite and he was very obliging (though I didn't present his full mouth, which I should have since Azawakh are required to have full dentition), then I took him down and back so the judge could see him moving from the front and back, I stopped and asked for a free stack and the judge looked at his expression. We got our 1st in Class and Best of Breed ribbon and I stepped out of the ring. Some very kind ladies with Norbottenspets asked me if I wanted advice. I desperately did, so they gave me some tips about gaiting my dog better (take longer strides, keep my elbow tucked in, don't pull my dog off center, etc) and as I started to leave they told me that I needed to go back in for Group (Miscellaneous group).
So we watched rare breed after rare breed be presented and admired the total pros. I met a woman with a four month old Portuguese Podengo who has since become a good friend. Then we went back in the ring and did everything all over again, but this time with other dogs in the ring. And the judge pointed at me and said "It was a lovely group, but Best in Miscellaneous goes to the Azawakh." And I remember just being handed the ribbon in total shock. Everyone congratulated me, even the nice Norbottenspet people whose dogs had lost to my green boy. We wandered out of the ring and people again told us that we needed to stay for Best in Open Show, so we waited and went into the ring again and lost to a stunning Transylvanian Hound. I didn't even get pictures taken. I didn't know I could ask the judge to take a picture with my dog and I. We wandered back to our booth to speak with tons more people and the next day Anubi and I took a Group 3. So began our conformation career.
We got better at the rhythm. We showed eight weekends that year and took Best in Miscellaneous five times. Anubi ended that year two points short of his Certificate of Merit (the conformation title for non-recognized breeds, similar to a Champion in recognized breeds) and then had to start over in points. I made so many friends who I saw at almost every show and became a part of a truly lovely, supportive rare breed community.
But showing got harder from that point out. At 8 months, Anubi was a friendly, happy, confident puppy. At 9 months, when we next showed, he was a terrified teenager. It was raining and very windy when we next showed, which wouldn't have phased him the previous month, but that day was terrifying. We had a very handsy judge and Anubi absolutely balked and shied away at examination, catching me completely and utterly off-guard. The whole weekend left me so frustrated and surprised.
It turns out, having an Azawakh as your first show dog once those guarding instincts kick in is no joke. We worked on standing solidly for exam a lot. I played around with how to hold my hands, how to present my dog, how to get my dog to be comfortable with exam. In the meantime, Anubi worked his way through a very difficult teenage period that lasted a solid 12 months. He was spooky and scared of people and sometimes in the ring we excused ourselves and requested that the judge let use practice everything but the standing for exam. Since these were Open Shows, the judges were usually very kind and happy to oblige me. If I knew what I did then, I would have stopped showing while Anubi got his confidence back, but we did slowly and gently work through his fears.
Finally in August Anubi took Best in Miscellaneous in three back shows. He seemed to have his confidence back and in particular, he was moving beautifully. I then took him to a UKC (United Kennel Club) show in November. I hadn't realized yet, but he had a double ear infection and screamed when the judge touched his ear and tried to bolt. I pulled him from the rest of the weekend and almost quit showing then and there. Upon encouragement of friends, I entered Anubi in a cluster of six shows in December after his ear infections had cleared up. Their advice had been to excuse myself if I needed to, but to try to get him more comfortable in the ring again (keep in mind, during handling classes he's always been completely fine. It is really the formal ring that makes him uncomfortable).
The first show out, I excused myself. The judge let me practice gaiting however, which seemed to relax him. With each show, Anubi started to relax more and more until he took Best in Miscellaneous on the final show, the last before the breed was recognized.
Our first year showing after recognition, Anubi was solid. Every single show he got increasingly more solid until I was confident enough to show in the Hound Group ring. I showed to some absolutely wonderful judges who were quite experience with the breed. I showed to some judges who I'm not sure had ever even
met the breed. But it was a wonderful education experience. I think bringing Amidi out to show helped Anubi's confidence immensely. She naturally shows off for people and though Anubi tends to win Best of Breed, Amidi has the attitude that attracts a judge's attention. Anubi ended 2019 as the #2 National Owner Handled Series Azawakh and left me in complete shock.
Our last show before Orlando, I went into the ring with Anubi. It was an outdoor show and was raining. Somehow, even in August, this always seemed to be our luck. Anubi moved decently but when I set him up for his exam the judge approached him head on and met his eyes firmly. Anubi started to shy away, very uncomfortable with the challenge this judge had presented him with. I reset him and then she placed both hands firmly on his head and shoulders at once, almost as if she were leaning on him to hold her up. He started to shy away even more and the judge got impatient with me and picked up his rear, shook him, and said "You will stack". Poor Anubi sunk into a sit at the far end of the leash. I was so shocked I didn't say anything. I didn't walk out of the ring. I was just completely shocked that any judge would physically shake my dog. Amidi showed beautifully though even she was quite uncertain about the judge's very physical way of judging a guarding, sighthound breed. I pulled my dogs from the rest of the weekend, unwilling to submit them to that environment, even under a different judge again. We then went and played in Fast CATs and both dogs seemed to relax.
When I took Anubi to Orlando for the National Championships, I was terrified that he just wouldn't stand. He'd bounced back almost immediately from the experience and was recovering much of his puppy confidence, but I was worried that presented with a ring and judge again that he would just wilt. I can honestly say after a five hour plane ride and an airport adventure, he showed beautifully. Not his most confident, but he proved so much more resilient than I feared. I have seen dogs ruined for the show ring after what he'd endured.
So why do I show? After going through all of that, why do I show? If I don't, then judges don't get to see the breed. Or they only see examples of a particular line. Or they only see bad examples. If I don't show, I can't present dogs that move correctly and truly, so the judges never see it. Judges can't put up what they don't see. Dog showing is one of the biggest ways to educate about the breed. I can't tell you how many times judges have stopped me in the middle of the concourse and told me I have stunning Azawakh; how they judge the breed in Europe and they appreciate seeing nice examples in the states. I have talked lines and lineage and conformation with so many judges who aren't even judging my breed that particular day. I've been stopped by judges who
don't judge Azawakh, who have never seen the breed and they ask me questions. I get stopped by Saluki or other sighthound exhibitors who often ask me about the differences between Salukis, Sloughis, and Azawakh. I have been at the Golden Gate Kennel Club benched show where the dogs are up on benches all day. I've talked to hundreds of people each day about the breed. There are very few better educational experiences.
And honestly, the exposure, the hectic environment, these are all things I want my dogs to be able to cope with. If my dog is ever truly panicked or traumatized, like Anubi was, you can bet I'll walk out of the ring next time. I have pulled entries before when I've needed too. My dog's mental state will always come first. But if we don't push ourselves and our dogs, within reason, if we don't know how to handle stress and pressure, we don't grow. Azawakh are not an easy first show dog, but they have taught me so much about conformation, presentation, and confidence.