Competing with the Pros – How could you possibly?

One of the biggest issues owner handlers face is having to be as efficient, effective and successful as the professional handlers that they are competing against. Let’s face it, many pro handlers have been doing this since they were kids. Many of them started as second generation handlers or breeders following in the footsteps of their parents. Dog showing and breeding is many times a family affair. This was not the case for me. I started competing in obedience in my early twenties and then got my first show dog in my late twenties. My education did not come from a childhood of showing dogs, it came from getting a show dog and learning and listening to breed mentors, pro trainer friends and figuring it out as I went along which is not uncommon to how many people start.

Some people are naturals at handling, training and working with dogs. There is an intuition and ease in working with dogs and while some education and learning is necessary, they fall into it easily. For other people it is much less natural and takes more work and time to master showing dogs. No matter where you are on this spectrum of knowledge and skill, there is always room for improvement which is why I am always open to learning and improving my skillset because I know when I walk into the ring with my dog, I am going to have to work to present my dog better than the professional handler I am competing against.

So, where does that leave the owner handler wanting to be more competitive? Where do you start when you have a nice dog that you want to show yourself, but you feel intimidated by having to compete with pros?  I have a few tips for you that will help you on your journey to becoming a successful team with your own show dog.

Train the dog

I know that seems ridiculous to say, but having worked with owner handlers for years, I can tell you with confidence that this seemingly obvious step is frequently overlooked. As owner handlers one thing we definitely have going for us is only having one or two dogs to train, condition, prepare, schlep to the show and handle! This should give us a leg up on our training against pro handlers who have a truckload of dogs to train, condition, haul and show. It is unbelievably easier to present a dog that has been well trained to the behaviors necessary for the show ring. Walking into the ring with a dog that is not trained not only makes it harder on the dog it makes it harder on the owner handler who has to try and get by presenting a dog that has no idea what you want from him in an extremely distracting environment. Don’t put yourself through that! It can take just a few minutes a day to get your dog ready for the ring. Of course there are times when I spend more time training, but it doesn’t take much to stack your dog up a few times a day while reinforcing the behavior with treats. When training a new dog or puppy I put them on a show lead and work them right on my driveway just moving them and reinforcing the behavior. If you have a good positive reinforcement conformation class in your area, you might consider attending class to help your dog get some practice with other people going over him. If not, practice at home with a family member. Train your dog well because it will make a world of difference in your performance and confidence in the ring.

Create a routine

I always recommend to my clients that they get into a routine when showing their dogs. Practice to the point of having very strong muscle memory of presenting your dog. Figure out the most comfortable and reliable way to show your dog and stick to that pattern so that you don’t have to overthink it once in the ring. Why do you think handlers are so good at what they do? Because they do it all the time and every little thing they do is intuition. Half the time they probably aren’t even thinking about what the do because they no longer need to. Think about how you do anything that you once had to think hard about doing but now comes natural, like driving a car. There was a time when you had to think about putting on the brake or pushing on the gas, now you simply do it. Even when a light turns green, you don’t have to think, “the light turned green, now I will take my foot off the brake and put it on the gas” you just do it because you have done it so much you no longer need to think about it. Of course when showing your dog you need to be thoughtful, connected and flexible because your dog is a living being not a car, but you can still improve your confidence and performance by knowing what you plan to do and how you are going to do it and having a comfortable routine that works for you and your dog.

Dress the part

If you want to be competitive against professional handlers dress like one. This is the single most easy thing to do to improve your presentation of your dog. Pro handlers dress professionally. Women pros frequently wear business suits or a nice dress. Male pros usually wear a suit. You don’t have to go out and spend $500 for St. John’s suits, but do take a look at your wardrobe and make sure you look professional in the ring. This is another area where the owner handler could have an advantage. Pro handlers are showing many dogs and couldn’t possibly dress to compliment each and every dog, but you can! Choose colors that compliment and contrast your dog creating a pleasing picture when you show your dog. Wear clothes that are well fitting and don’t forget to do the “bend test” and make sure that you can bend over, kneel down and move comfortably without showing more than you want to.

Don’t over handle

One of the hardest things for new handlers is to not over handle the dog. Over handling, fidgeting, constant moving and fixing is a dead giveaway that someone is nervous or new. If you watch some of the most successful professional handlers, they do not over handle dogs. They know that constant moving and fidgeting frustrates the dog and the judge. If your dog looks good, stop, breathe and reinforce your dog so that he continues to do what he is doing. Avoid frantically repositioning each leg over and over or waving the bait around causing a distraction to the dog and the judge. This can take time and work to overcome because when people do it, they usually don’t even realize they are doing it. They are nervous, have performance anxiety and aren’t thinking about how it looks when they are constantly moving around. It takes practice to feel relaxed and comfortable in the ring, but try to remind yourself that this is a hobby. This is supposed to be a fun activity for you and your dog. Allow yourself time to develop the skill to present well and enjoy being in the ring.

Be prepared

Being prepared will help you feel confident and relaxed in the ring. You can prepare prior to the show by making sure your dog is trained and looks competitive. Do any grooming that needs to be done prior to the show ahead of time. When you are at the show be sure you have everything you need there. That means all your equipment, grooming equipment, chairs, crate and anything else that helps make you and your dog comfortable at the show. Arrive in plenty of time to set up, find your ring, potty your dog, groom your dog ad relax before you show.

Set yourself up for success

How do you set yourself up for success? Well, my advice is to go to the dog show with the intention of having a good time with your dog. Train your dog, be prepared, dress the part and go out there and do your best. If you win, that’s amazing, but if you don’t you will know it isn’t because of anything you or your dog didn’t do. If you went in the ring, presented the dog well and had a fun time that is a successful day at the dog show. Win or lose have a great time and love the dog beside you.


Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.