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milos ringAKC

Did you know that more than 80% of show dogs are handled by their owners? To celebrate the dedication and enthusiasm of owner-handler exhibitors the American Kennel Club has created the new AKC National Owner-Handled Series. This non-titling competition will be held at select dog shows across the country.

The AKC National Owner-Handled Series will be conducted following Best of Breed judging in each breed ring. All dogs in the BOB competition (including WD & WB) will stay in the ring after the judge makes their placements in BOB competition. The ring steward will ask all professional handlers, household members and current assistants to professional handler to leave the ring and then the judge will then select the Best Owner-Handled (BOH). The dog and its owner will continue to accrue points for any group placements or Bests in Show.


In the UKC Owners are always the handlers - this is a great venue to show your dogs and develop that "ring relationship".

Handling your dog in a conformation ring does not always come naturally to every owner. What should you do to become a proficient Owner Handler?

Unless you are experienced, there can be quite a learning curve when it comes to handling your own dog in the ring. What class should you put your dog in? Which shows to enter? How much grooming should you do? What should you wear? How do you compete against those polished professionals? Read the stories below to learn about this satisfying sport.

You will find excellent videos on handling under the Junior Handler Course.

Becoming a Better Owner Handler by Christie McDonald

A primer by Shannon White



!           There are many reasons why some people elect to use a professional handler to show their Leonberger. Sometimes the owner is physically disabled in some way that prevents properly presenting their own dog, sometimes the owner does not handle the stress or becomes extremely nervous in the ring, which can cause the dog to become stressed or anxious. Sometimes the owner has limited funds, and needs the dog finished in as few ring times as possible, or cannot take the time off needed to get to shows. Sometimes a dog gets silly or goofy with their owner in the ring but is calmer and more organized with a handler. And of course, some owners want their dog to be the top-ranked dog in the breed or group, and a professional handler who is well known can go a long way toward making that happen. There are many reasons to hire a professional.

!           However, there are just as many reasons to take your OWN dog into the ring, and it can be tremendously rewarding to do so. Unless you are experienced, there can be quite a learning curve when it comes to handling your own dog in the ring. What class should you put your dog in? Which shows to enter? How much grooming should you do? What should you wear? How do you compete against those polished professionals? This article is intended as a general overview to help you get started handling your own dog, and to help improve your performance if you are already showing your own dog. 

!           The easiest way to start handling your own dog is probably an all-breed show, where there will be fewer Leonbergers present than there will likely be at a specialty. These all-breed shows may seem overwhelming when you first start showing, as they are often quite large, with hundreds or even thousands of dogs entered, representing the entire range of breeds. If possible, tag along with a friend who knows how to navigate through the apparent chaos and can help you get where you need to be on time. At some AKC shows, the hosting club may offer a workshop or overview for new exhibitors. But if those options are not available when you happen to get started, what follows is a general description of what you can expect.

!           When you enter an AKC show, you should receive an envelope in the mail about a week before the show, which will include your dog’s armband number, what class he/ she is entered in. There will also be something called the Judging Program, which lists the ring times for all the breeds, broken down by breed ring number. You will want to arrive at the show grounds at least an hour before your scheduled ring time. Be prepared to pay for parking with cash, as many shows will require you to pay to get into the parking lot. You will need to check in at your breed’s ring prior to ring time. That means you will need to find the ring and speak with the steward at the judge’s table inside that ring. You may need to wait your turn, so it is important to allow enough time for that in your planning. You will not tell the steward your dog’s name, but rather will ask for the armband by breed and catalog number listed in the confirmation of your entry.

!           Be aware what breeds may be ahead of your breed in that same ring. This is often posted outside the ring, but it will also be listed in the judging program you received prior to the show. The general wait time is approximately 2 minutes per dog, so if there are breeds ahead of your breed in that ring, and there are 15 dogs representing those breeds, you can expect your breed to be roughly 30 minutes after the ring judging starts. Your breed will not start until the other breeds ahead of you have gone. However, sometimes dogs that are entered do not show up, so it is possible your breed may not have much of a wait if some of those dogs do not show up. So keep an eye on what breed is in the ring, and if the other breeds are beginning to gather outside the ring.

!           If you can get to a handling class that is run like an actual ring, that will help you and your dog become familiar with what to expect in the show ring that day. Though there may be some variation from show to show with respect to the judge’s preference for what they want to see in the ring, in general the usual format will be as follows. If possible, get to your ring before your breed is needed, so that you can watch the judge and see how he or she is doing things.

!           The dogs will be called in by class and in order by armband number. All the male classes will go first, followed by Winners Dog. Then the female classes will go, followed by Winners Bitch. And lastly, Best of Breed, which will include all champions and grand champions of record, the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch.

!           Either the steward or the judge will point to where they want you to line up. Some judges will give you a brief moment to organize your dog into a “stack” (standing still), and others will immediately give instructions for going “around” and where to set up. If you are not sure what the judge means, and there is nobody ahead of you to follow, it is okay to ask for clarification. Usually you will be instructed to trot your dog around the ring to the place indicated (typically near the ring gate where you came in). Setting up means to put your dog into a stand so that the judge can go over them.

!           Some judges will want you to show them the dog’s teeth, while others will prefer to check the teeth themselves. Your dog should already be familiar with both options! After the judge has gone over the dog, they will usually walk away a few steps and instruct you to take the dog “down and back” while pointing to where they want you to go. The purpose of this is to evaluate the dog’s movement, which helps the judge evaluate the dog’s structure. The dog should TROT (not gallop or walk) in as straight a line as you can manage. Again, having been in a handling class to help you practice this will go a long way toward helping you.

!           When you get back to the judge, let the dog come to a natural stand. At this point the judge will usually instruct you to take the dog on around to the end of the line. This allows the judge to evaluate the dog’s movement from the side, so the dog should trot along at your side and come to a stand at the end of the line.

!           The judge may rearrange the line up before sending the entire class around once more, or he may send everyone around and then point to the dogs in the order that he wants to place them. Either way, you should be paying attention to the judge.

!           If you win the class, stick around, as you will need to go back in for Winners. If you take second, stick around, as you may need to go back in the ring for Reserve if the dog who beat you in class takes Winners Dog. If you take third place or lower, you will not be needed to return to the ring.

!           What to wear? You can bet that any professional handlers in the ring will be wearing suit and tie (for the men) or skirt suits with pantyhose (for the women). Technically you could go in the ring in blue jeans and a t-shirt with sneakers. There is no rule that says you must wear a suit. However, those of us who dress up do it as a symbol of respect for the sport, and for the judge’s time and effort. If you are not able to wear a suit, anything that would fall under the heading of “business casual” would be fine, as long as it’s clean and in good repair. In theory, a judge worth their salt should be able to look past what you have on and choose the best dog. However, the reality is that if you are going to successfully compete with professional handlers, it is important to show respect for the sport and for the judge by dressing in clean business-casual clothes.

!           Grooming. Your dog should be clean and thoroughly brushed. Our standard is very clear on the subject of no trimming other than neatening of the feet, but if you bring your dog into the ring, it should be clean and brushed. Professional groomers have learned grooming tricks to make cowlicks lie flat and to emphasize or de-emphasize a particular feature in the dogs they handle. For instance, if your teenage Leonberger is currently a little bit high in the rear, learning how to blow-dry the coat on his topline (the top of his body along his spine) can minimize the appearance of that until he grows some more and levels back out.

!           Training. While a very experienced expert in our breed could probably look past a lack of training in the ring and judge the dog appropriately, a little bit of training will go a long way toward allowing the judge to accurately evaluate your dog. The dog should be familiar with the process of having a stranger come up and look right in his face, open his mouth, and slide their hands through the fur to feel structure. Your dog should be familiar with you showing the teeth (including the sides) for those judges who prefer you show the teeth yourself. You should know how to do this as well. Your dog should know how to trot at an appropriate speed without jumping up on you, charging after the puppy in front of them, or trying to get the heck out of the ring. All of that comes from training. So train, train, train. A dog that never stands still, or cannot trot consistently around the ring cannot be evaluated properly by the judge, may lose to a lesser quality dog who merely behaved long enough for the judge to see them clearly. 

!           While it is absolutely possible to successfully show and even campaign your own dog against professional handlers, you will definitely do better if you look clean and presentable in the ring yourself,  and if your dog is familiar with the process and able to allow the judge to get a good look at them in the ring.

Owner-Handler Show Glossary
(please note: in dog show terminology, the term “dog” refers to a male, and the term “bitch” refers to a female. For purposes of this glossary, the term “dog” may be used simply to refer to your canine.)

Classes: “Class dog’ or ‘Class bitch’ refers to dogs that have not yet earned their championship. The typical classes for regular all-breed shows are 6-9 month, 9-12 months, 12-18 months, novice, Amateur Owner-Handler, Bred By Exhibitor, and Open. Males compete only against other males in classes, females compete only against other females.

Winners Dog/Bitch: The winners of each of the above classes will then compete for Winners Dog and Winners Bitch. This is the level where “points” are awarded toward the championship title. Only the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch will receive the points toward the championship, and the amount of points will depend on how many dogs or bitches were in the classes, and may vary depending on the geographical region. (see points)

Champion or Special: Once your dog has earned the championship title, they are often referred to as specials. Continuing to exhibit a dog after the championship has been earned is often referred to as “specialing” the dog. Dogs who have earned the championship title no longer compete in classes, but are entered directly into the Best of Breed competition. (see Best of Breed) Please note, a dog may continue to be shown in classes for a period of time after the points and majors have been earned, until the owner receives written notification of the title. (check with AKC current rules for period of time...)

Points: In AKC, a dog must earn a minimum of 15 points, which must include two “Majors” in order to earn a championship title. How many points the dog may earn at any given show will depend on how many other class dogs/bitches compete that day, although all breeds can earn a single point by defeating at least one other class dog of their own gender for Winners. (check?) For AKC points, refer to the Point Schedule for your geographical region to determine how many dogs/bitches must compete to earn more than 1 point. This amount can change yearly, and is based on how many entries of each gender there have been in classes in that region during the previous year.

Majors: Simply put, a “major” is 3, 4, or 5 points earned at a single show. In AKC, your dogs points must include at least two majors. It is possible to earn a championship, for instance, with three 5-point majors, earning both the 15 points and at least 2 majors.

Best of Winners (and Crossovers): When there are entries in classes for both dogs and bitches, but there may be more males than females, or vice versa, it is possible to increase the number of points your dog earns by defeating the other gender’s Winner
or Best of Winners. For example, all the males in classes will compete, and the winners of those classes will compete for Winners Dog. If the Winners Dog only earned a single point, or perhaps no points because there were no other class entries for
males, he will still go into the Best of Breed ring along with the Winners Bitch, who may have earned, say, a 3-point major for the number of other females she defeated. The judge will then choose either the Winners Dog or Winners Bitch to be Best of Winners. In our example, if the male is awarded Best of Winners over the female, he will then be awarded an equivalent number of points as her points. So she will keep her 3-point major, and the male will also be awarded a 3-point major.

Best of Breed: After all the class dogs and bitches have competed, and Winners Dog and Bitch selected where applicable, then the Winners Dog and Winners Bitch will go into the ring again, along with all champions and grand champions of record. From this lineup, the judge will choose one dog to be Best of Breed, one to be Best of Opposite Sex, and Best of Winners. Where applicable, the judge may also award “select” to a male or female champion, which counts toward the Grand Champion title.

Best of Opposite Sex: Whichever gender is selected as Best of Breed, the best of the opposite gender will be awarded Best of Opposite Sex.

Select: Points awarded to champion (special) that the judge deems to be deserving of recognition after Best of Breed and Best of Opposite.

Grand Champion: Dogs who have earned their championship title are eligible to begin earning points toward their grand championship. These grand champion points may be attained through taking Best of Breed, Best of Opposite Sex, or Select, and are based on the number of other dogs defeated. To earn a grand championship in AKC, the dog must earn 25 points, which must include 3 majors, 3 wins over other champions, and under at least 4 different judges.

Specialty: A specialty is a breed competition that is just one breed. It can be held in conjunction with an all-breed show, or as a separate event. Typically specialties offer additional classes beyond the usual all-breed classes, and may include Brood Bitch, Stud Dog, Veteran, etc.

Checking in/Picking up: Upon arriving at a show site, you will need to go to the ring where your breed will be showing and check in. You should have received your dog’s armband number assignment in the male approximately a week prior to the show, but if you have not received it, there will be a catalog at each ring. In each ring will be a steward assisting the judge. You must check in with that steward and let them know your dog is there. Do not give the steward your dog’s name! Just tell them the breed and catalog number. The steward will find the armband for that dog and hand it to you. There will usually be a baggie filled with rubber bands at each ring as well. Pick up a couple of these rubber bands and put them on your left upper arm, and tuck the armband inside those rubber bands. (hint: it helps to make little notches in the side margins of the armband, as this will help keep the armband in place. Also, if you have narrow arms, you can fold the excess edge of the card bad and out of the way-­making sure the number 1s fac1ng out).


Tiffanie Coe's - How to be a successful owner handler
How to be a successful owner handler

As many of us embark as owner handlers in the AKC, there are a few points to keep in mind: 1) Yes, we are owner handlers & we should be proud of it. 2) We should always enter the ring with confidence. Approach each opportunity with the mindset that you are the best handler and you have the best dog. 3) We have the luxury of knowing our dog inside and out.

The above have helped me be successful as an owner handler. Do I always have the best dog in the ring, “No.” Am I always the best handler in the ring, “No.” Every time I step foot in the ring, I try to be confident, temper my nerves, and always show my dog to the best of my ability. I also never stop showing my dog. Does that mean I keep my dog stacked 100% of the time. No, that would not be fair to the dog. It just means that if I allow my dog to relax, I still want my dog to look presentable. Judges are always looking around the ring. They glance out of the corner of their eyes, they see you in the background during the down and back of another dog, they glance up to survey the ring.

Every dog is different. Every dog needs to be handled differently. For example, my Grand Champion bitch has fantastic reach and drive, she moves out quickly, and has an amazing head. My champion male is a slower mover, but has great angulation. I handle each dog differently so that their strengths are presented to the judge.

Every time you enter the ring, you should have realistic goals and stretch goals. Realistic goals could be as simple as having fun with a baby puppy, or setting my dog up so that it does not move during the judges exam. A stretch goal could be a specific placement, earning points, or gaining a title.

One thing that attracts me to dog showing is that you never know what is going to happen. Each time you enter the show ring, your placement is based on one person’s opinion at that given moment. I have shown enough in that some of my dogs have been shown under the same judge more than once. In some instances my dog was put up, in others; it was not.

To best prepare for a dog show, you must study your dog. You must know what your dog’s strengths and weaknesses are. If you cannot be honest about your dog, you should not be showing. Every dog has strengths and every dog has weaknesses. If you do not know your dog, you cannot present it in the best way to the judge. What makes professional handlers so good? They know the details about the dogs they are showing. They know the tricks to fix crabbing in the ring. They know how to quickly fix and eastie / westie front end. If the dog is a young puppy and cannot stretch out the rear, they will line the dog up ¾ to the judge to give the illusion of a well set rear. We owner handlers can do the same thing.

Keeping the dogs entertained in the ring is also very important. We need expression, we need to have our dogs up on their toes, we need to have dogs that look like they want to show. Bring toys into the ring, teach your dog simple tricks such as “touch” or “Paw,” and bring a variety of treats or bait into the ring.

Learning the basics of dog showing from a great handling instructor is also very important. You can read books, you can practice at home, but getting professional training lays an excellent foundation for future success. I have driven 2 hours one way to take handling classes because it was important to me to lay a solid foundation. Keep in mind that each dog is different, you will need to handle them differently and present them differently. A collar and lead that worked for one dog may not work for the next. Arm placement, speed, bait, tricks, toys, won’t work for all dogs. You will need to experiment in training class to see what works for your dog. It is great to get ideas, but in the end; you know your dog the best.

Grooming….luckily with our breed they are to be shown in the natural state. This means we are only to trim paws. I’m a firm believer that the type of shampoo and conditioner really make a difference. You don’t want the dog’s coat weighed down with product, you don’t want a dull coat, and you certainly do not want to enter the ring with a dirty dog. It takes time, dedication, and patience to get the best looking dog. I spend hours grooming before a dog show. I wash, I condition, I blow dry. I have a variety of grooming tools – different brushes for different parts of the dog – back, mane, ears, feathers. I have a variety of combs for ears, feathers, pants, etc. You need tools that are appropriate for your dog’s coat. Some leonbergers have longer coats than others. If your dog has a longer coat, you need brushes with longer bristles. If your dog has a shorter coat, you can get away with brushes that have shorter bristles. I allow my dogs to be dogs, but I do brush them daily. I do not brush a dry coat, so I always mist the dogs before brushing them because it helps to prevent breakage of the guard hairs. Make sure your dog does not have any knots in the coat when you enter the ring. Toe nails….it is so important to stay on top of nail trims. I prefer to dremel. I prefer short nails. I dremel every other day, yet I still feel my dogs’ nails are too long. I’m working to get them shorter and I think short nails really help to make a neat & tidy foot. Some people prefer to clip nails. That is ok too. If you are going to clip, you should invest in high quality nail clippers and ensure they are sharp. If you have dull clippers you can actually cause more damage to your dogs’ nails because instead of a clean cut, you will have a jagged cut. Teeth….don’t foget to brush your dog’s teeth on a regular basis. Keeping clean teeth will also help keep your dog healthy. Ears….yep, stay on top of your ear cleaning. Many times a judge will start looking at grooming if it is a close decision. The dog that is groomed the best may have the edge over an ungroomed dog if the judge feels everything else is equal.

Let’s talk about show pictures. When does one get a picture? Some people get a picture for every win, others choose not to get pictures at all. My personal opinion is that I get a picture for the first show, the first point, and then every major win or new title after that. If there is competition and I win Best of Breed, I will have a picture taken within reason. I have had my share of terrible show photos. I have also had my share of amazing show photos.

I have to be honest, show entry fees, parking fees, gas, hotels, and pictures add up. Dog showing is expensive, but you can be successful if you do it correctly. Set a budget, set a travel distance, set a number of shows per month, etc. Coordinating with other leonberger people to ensure entries help everyone earn points.

In addition, one needs to have a dog show wardrobe. Depending on the venue you are showing in, AKC, UKC, IABCA, ICKC, CKC, etc. each has a certain attire that is expected. Take a minute to observe the people that are the most successful in the ring. Most of the time those handlers whether professional or owner handler are very well put together. They have an outfit that compliments their dog or the dogs that they are showing that day. For example, if you are handling a white American Eskimo dog, do not wear a white suit. If you are handling a darker color leonberger and you wear black, you need to ensure that your dog does not get lost against your black outfit.

In addition, one needs to have a dog show wardrobe. Depending on the venue you are showing in, AKC, UKC, IABCA, ICKC, CKC, etc. each has a certain attire that is expected. Take a minute to observe the people that are the most successful in the ring. Most of the time those handlers whether professional or owner handler are very well put together. They have an outfit that compliments their dog or the dogs that they are showing that day. For example, if you are handling a white American Eskimo dog, do not wear a white suit. If you are handling a darker color leonberger and you wear black, you need to ensure that your dog does not get lost against your black outfit.

Sportsmanship….this is so important. Our breed still has somewhat of a family atmosphere in that we tend to know everyone at the shows. While it is nice to win, sometimes it won’t be your day and you must be gracious to the other winners. You have to ask yourself, did you really deserve to win or did the other person present their dog better? Losing can sting, but always congratulate the winner, thank the judge, and try to think about what you can improve upon before the next show. Sometimes dog shows can be hectic and thanking in person is not an option…an e-mail or facebook post can go a long way.

How does one improve? It is extremely helpful to stud photographs and video. You may find out that you are doing something that throws your dog’s gait off. You may see that your dog consistently turns its head, you may realize that you are setting your dog up incorrectly. Critiquing yourself can only make you better.

So, let’s do some critiquing:


Aira’s Best in Show win from Madras, OR for the UKC show: Not the greatest picture…I was in street clothes as there was a tornado that blew through the show grounds earlier that day. I was soaked to my under garments and only had my street clothes left. Luckily the judge didn’t hold it against us. No one helped spot during her picture. I could have stacked her better and goodness she needed her underpants brushed.


Aira’s Best of Breed win: she is sulking, head down, etc. Terrible win picture. We were rushed to get the picture taken.

Alert and well stacked

Aira’s New Champion picture: One of my favorite win pictures of her. She is alert, has great expression, and is well stacked.

Let’s take a look at some of Leo’s win pictures…

Example of bad show picture

His first show, oh wow, one of the worst pictures ever! In fact I will never use this photographer unless it is the only one at the show. The Seattle Space Needle is coming out of my head, Leo is not set up correctly, and my eyes are closed.

Additional disappointing win photos are all of my pictures from nationals with Leo. He was not set up, the photographer did not have a good angle, and it was utter chaos during picture time. I honestly was so disappointed that I opted not to buy any pictures despite being so proud of Leo’s Reserve Winner’s Dog placement from the 6-9 month puppy class.

RWD - not a good pic

Now let’s look at what I consider to be a great show picture below, Leo’s Best of Breed with Judge Judith Daniels. He looks amazing! He is well stacked, level topline, and although he was moving a rear foot, his overall profile looks very nice.

Excellent picture

Leo’s New Champion picture from Wenatchee is also another one of my favorite win pictures. He is set up very well, he is alert, and has a great profile.

Nicely set up dog

So, how does one get a good show picture? 1) You need to tell the photographer what you want. Do you want ¾ profile or complete profile? You need to know your dog in order to know what type of picture will look the best. 2) Practice setting your dog up in front of the mirror. What you see in the mirror is what will be displayed in the picture or what the judge will see in the ring. 3) Practice setting your dog up and having someone take pictures. You can also try different outfits on to see what looks the best with your dog. Different coat colors lend themselves to a different pallet of colors for your wardrobe. 4) Decide if you want mouth open, closed, or if you don’t care. 5) Make sure that your lead is neat and tidy. The worst picture is when you have a sloppy lead. It takes the focus away from your dog. 6) Always have a spotter! I can be honest and say that I have a dog show photographer that I know and trust. When he sees me coming for a win picture, he knows exactly what I want. Why? Because I met with him. I showed him what I was looking for in my pictures. I told him my dogs’ weaknesses and he knows how each of my dogs should be set up. He is honest and tells me what I need to fix in order to take a nice picture. It was not an overnight success, it took a couple of photos, but ever since we sat down and reviewed what I was looking for, I have not had a disappointing show photo under him. 7) YOU choose the photographer. If there are multiple photographers at a dog show, you are the customer. You do not have to go with the first photographer that appears at the ring. I always request a certain photographer and I will wait until he is available to take the photo.

So, we have covered training, confidence, sportsmanship, grooming, attire, and photographs….what’s next? The most important item of dog showing… HAVE FUN!!! If you are not having fun, your dog will not be having fun! Yes it is fun to win, yes it is fun to earn points, and yes it is fun to earn titles, but why do I show? I show because I absolutely LOVE being in the ring! I love showing dogs. I handle for friends because I love running in the ring. I prefer to handle my own dogs, but I also enjoy helping my friends and handling their dogs too. Am I a professional handler? Heck no! I handle dogs for other people free of charge. I show in a variety of venues and some do not allow professional handlers. Being able to handle in those venues and help people means more to me than any compensation for showing dogs other than my own. I’ve been offered payment and have politely declined every time. All I ask is that if I win with the dog, that we are allowed to get a win picture. Why? Because win pictures are important to owners, handlers, and breeders. It isn’t just about that dog, but it serves to establish breeders that are breeding quality dogs, it is a way to recognize a dog’s achievement, it will be a happy memory after the dog has crossed the bridge.

Dog showing can be fun, it can be frustrating, it can be rewarding, and it can make dreams come true! It will build an amazing relationship between you and your dog that is far more important than any point, title, or ribbon. One of the most amazing compliments I received in the ring came from a judge that wanted to award me and my dog Best of Breed, but my dog was completely out of coat. The words from the judge that day meant more to me than the placement we received. Because of her comments, I took a picture with her so that I would always remember her important words.

Pamela Isaacson - My story in the OH series
The Isaacson Family I'll admit it, I had no idea what I was getting into. When we wound up with our boy as a 16 month old rehome, we were asked to "possibly show him." Having worked at shelters previously, I uttered the fateful words, "Sure! I've trained dogs before. How hard could that be?"

I was so wrong. Showing a dog is 20% training, and 80% everything else. I had no idea that people would spend hours grooming their dogs, especially when the standard practically yells "no alteration to the coat of any kind." I thought, "He's clean, he's brushed, and I'm listening to my conformation trainer. I should be ok!" Anyone who has ever gone to a dog show is laughing their heads off right now at my last statement.

Let me back up a bit.
What do you need to know as an owner handler? Rather a lot! There are the basics -what a dog show entails, how to groom a dog for the show ring, how to enter the right class and the right choice of judge, what happens in the ring, the proper tools: chain/lead/grooming tools/footwear(!), and an understanding of terminology that is unique to this sport. The most important tool in your toolbox: A good handling class teacher or breed mentor (usually two different people, but occasionally, they are the same person!) They can teach you many of these things that you need to start out in this wild world of showing dogs. No matter what, be prepared for awesome highs, and embarrassing lows, sometimes together in the same ten minutes.

As a person who had no knowledge of the sport, I was incredibly fortunate to wind up with an amazing conformation teacher. A good teacher will teach you how to stack, how to bait, and how to get around the ring without stepping on your dog or passing out from nerves. A GREAT teacher will explain what to do when these things eventually happen, and also, WHY people do strange things in the ring (and which ones to... um, borrow... for yourself!) My teacher is tough, will call you out if you're doing something silly, and -even better- tell you examples of dirty tricks you may see in the ring and how to work around them. "Dirty tricks? At a dog show?? Aren't these people all there because they love dogs?" you may ask. Trust me, as with any competition that includes accolades and pretty colored ribbons, this is a competition. There is rivalry, there are alliances, and there are dirty tricks. As much as I'd love to say that the cream will always rise to the top, I'd rather be realistic, and say, that there can be mean people in any sport, and if you want to show dogs, you need to have some thick skin. I strongly suggest that you sit through the movie "Best In Show" and at least two episodes of "Toddlers and Tiaras." No, I'm not trying to torture you, I'm just giving you some perspective. Some people will do anything to win, and some people will be flat out crazy, but there will also be soem wonderful people tucked in as well. If you can't sit through two episodes of T&T, without hurting, then showing dogs will chew you up and spit you out in your first year. If you can get past that, you're in for an amazing and thrilling experience!

In the line Nice ribbon

Back to the showing itself.
My conformation teacher, PW, can make you feel amazing with a hard -earned "well done!" and also have you in gales of laughter, when she talks about running into a column and being carried out of the ring, or being taken for a drag by a Saint Bernard. She can also explain how to visually correct the topline of a growing dog at an awkward stage, how to stop another handler from crowding your dog, and how to find your voice, know your standard, shop for show-appropriate suits, and remember to thank your steward. A great instructor is worth every penny and then some. As much as I'd like to hear "good job!" on a regular basis, I'd much rather hear PW tell me to put my feet together and shoulders back during the free stack, because I currently look like I'm squatting over a toilet. Guess who rarely forgets to paint that pretty final freestack picture with feet together?

Outside show

When I started this crazy journey, I met TONS of people, all of whom seemed incredibly friendly and helpful. And many of them really were! Are there people who are helpful until you win? Yes. Are there people -even professional handlers- who will tell you that there is a better way to trim your Leo's feet, and take time from their own grooming work to do so? Absolutely! As with everything, you'll find some interesting people along the way, and you need to decide how you want to be remembered at the end of the day. Listen, watch, and learn every time you go to a show. WATCH the people you admire, and try to emulate them, and avoid habits of people you don't. LISTEN to what people say, and then form your own opinions (which may change as time goes on!) LEARN something new with every show, and then bring questions back to your teacher at the following week's class.

Inside show

So... you still want to be an owner handler?
That's GREAT! It's the most amazing way to throw yourself into the show world, and learn from the ground up! It's also something special for you and your dog to do together, and a bonding experience like no other. The hours of practice, grooming, long drives, and nerves, the moments of triumph and disappointment, the excitement of getting that first point, that first ribbon, that first cheer, will have you hopelessley addicted for more. And that first time yoru dog decides to lie down and lick themselves in the ring?* Don't worry, it's happened, and eventually, you'll get to tell others about it as a learning experience as well!

Yes this happened. In my second-ever time in a Group ring! I survived, and so will you!
Group win



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.