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Art of Self Reflection
As published in the AKC Gazette - written by Astrid Robitaille

The Dog Show Game is unique among sports in that amateurs compete with professionals in an arena of subjectivity. Add in the fact that our dogs, unlike basketballs or hockey pucks, are living, breathing creatures who have good days, bad days and in the case of Leonbergers, the often uncanny and creative sense of humor that they’ve been known to deploy at very inopportune moments, and the show ring can become a maelstrom of emotions for exhibitors and spectators alike.

For owner-handlers, especially, stepping into a ring full of professional handlers can be a daunting experience. As an owner handler, I know well the self-doubt that often pools in the pit of the stomach prior to a ring time. Those nagging questions such as, “Is my dog good enough? Have I groomed him well enough? What if I trip over my own feet on the down and back?” are bound to echo in the minds of even seasoned owner handlers. It’s easy, especially after leaving the ring without a ribbon, to let those feelings of inadequacy morph into frustration and anger. Many times I’ve heard exhibitors, professional and novice alike, angrily mumble about politics as they head back to their setup.

While politics may be at play some of the time, it’s an undeniable truth that when novices compete together with professionals, it’s up to the novices to bring their A-game. Showing dogs requires some honest assessment and self-reflection, as well as careful preparation and training, and It’s necessary for owner handlers to be their own toughest critic. Additionally, it’s often helpful to enlist the help of longtime Leonberger fanciers who know the breed and have an experienced eye for structure and type as well as movement to give you honest, constructive feedback about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses, not just standing but in movement as well. Knowing which elements of structure to emphasize and which ones should be downplayed can help you formulate a game plan for exhibiting your dog to its fullest potential.

However, even if you’re a seasoned Leonberger fancier, it’s impossible to see yourself in the ring as the judge does. One of the best tools I’ve found to improve presentation is having a friend videotape you from outside the ring. Just as professional athletes “review tape” to up their game and identify areas to fine-tune in practice, owner handlers can benefit greatly from taking a look at their own dog stacking and gaiting, as well as those of the professionals in the ring, and those who took home the ribbons. As an owner handler, I find it extremely helpful to review old tapes of me in the ring with various dogs I’ve owner-handled. I always catch something different upon which I can improve— and those glaring reminders of what not to do are always valuable! I’ve picked up so many tips from watching tapes of professionals in the ring, from how best to present a bitch’s phenomenal head so that it will stop a judge in his tracks, to ways to downplay a straighter rear, to what suit colors and patterns look downright awful against a Leonberger coat.

A good example is movement. Often, sitting ringside, I see owner handlers as well as professionals not moving their Leonberger fast enough. Our standard calls for a free, easy, elastic gait with good reach and drive. It’s essential to move the dogs fast enough so that these qualities are exhibited, and until you see yourself and your dog in action and can really critique this movement for yourself, it can be difficult to gauge. Having your breed mentor video you in the ring allows you to watch not only your dog’s movement and paw placement, but also that of your fellow exhibitors.

Evaluating yourself, your dog and your competition is a great education, and can go a long way towards preparing you and your dog to bring your best performance to the ring. It’s never easy to accept criticism, and sometimes we can be our own worst critics. However, having a solid knowledge of exactly what strengths and weaknesses you and your dog bring to the game, as well as strategies for maximizing your assets can go a long way toward sharpening the owner handler’s competitive edge.