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First Time Owner-Handler? You Can Do It!
By: Chelsea Murray ATDI, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP
Hours of research, conversations with friends and breeders, and weeks of anxious waiting have led you to this moment. You finally have your hands on your first show puppy and you are excited to get into this new sport with your new dog. But after attending a handling class or two, you realize that it is much harder than it looks. “Oh goodness, what did I get myself into?” Is often one of the first self-doubting thoughts that crosses a new owner-handler’s mind. And as new handlers work out kinks as they learn new skills, they often hear things like “You should just put your dog with a professional handler, they will finish faster”. Even though these comments may be made with good intentions, they can leave newcomers feeling defeated before the game even starts.
The truth is that even though from an untrained eye, the ring routine might look simple, there are a lot of new skills and managing nerves that goes into a smooth ring performance for a handler and their dog. New skills take time to learn so it is natural that you may feel awkward at first. . Try not to get discouraged and remember that this sport is in need of new faces to get involved. So, first-time show dog owners, I am here to shed some light on how you and your dog can succeed in the show ring and why you both deserve to do it together!
Learning New Skills
Learning something new is challenging. Not only is your dog learning new skills but so are you! Some skills like winding up and unwinding your show lead can be done without the dog, which is great. You can clip some car keys to the end of the show lead and work on shortening and lengthening the line with one hand. This gives you a chance to fine tune your own mechanics, which makes it easier once your dog gets into the game as well. Anytime you can work on mechanics without the dog, you should! Each time you practice it will turn into muscle memory, which will decrease stress and improve your ability to focus on more important things on show day.
Some other mechanics like hand stacking need to be done with your dog. This can make it trickier because fumbling through handling can make the dog fidgety and uncomfortable. It is important to work slowly and patiently with your hand mechanics. The smoother you become, the easier it will be for your dog to be comfortable with the skills as well. It is always a great idea to get an experienced positive reinforcement professional dog trainer (like Vicki with Show Dog Prep School) on your team to help you work through all of the aspects of a successful show ring routine. Coaching will help you build smooth skills, practice will help these movements become muscle memory, and both of those will give you confidence in yourself.
At dog shows, it is so important that you dress the part. This doesn’t mean spending your savings on a fancy suit, but it does mean that you appear clean, tidy, and look professional. Capris, pants, skirts, dresses, etc. – there are many options to suit your needs (pun intended). No matter what you choose, keep an eye on hemlines to conservatively cover you as you bend over towards your dog, and be sure to pick shoes that give you traction on surfaces that might be slippery. It is also important that you wear a color that allows your dog’s topline to stand out (don’t wear a brown suit with a brown dog) and make sure it is something that you feel relaxed in. If you are uncomfortable, you will be more stressed and that will impact you and your dog.
Try different outfits when you practice to see what feels best and determine if you have any preferences in style. For example, despite the fact that I wear a treat bag on my hip daily for training, I wasn’t as comfortable with it clipped to a dress skirt. Personally, I found that built in pockets worked better for holding my bait. Therefore, I had to practice with my jackets to get comfortable with moving my hand in and out of the pockets to retrieve food, improving the show ring performance.
Practice Different Ways to Engage Your Dog
Another tip for first timers is to make sure you have a variety of tools to help keep your dog engaged. The show environment, which hopefully you have experienced before, is busy! There are lots of distractions and potential stressors out there so it is important that you enter that environment with a variety of ways to keep your dog focused on you and have fun. Small squeaky toys can be used ringside and in the ring to help loosen your dog up. Fun tricks like hand targets, shake, and spin can give you ways to improve focus and reduce stress. These games will not only help your dog learn the environment is fun, but can also give you more ways to reduce your own stress as you play with your dog. It’s hard to be grumpy or stressed as you watch your dog smiling at you!
There is no doubt about it that no matter how long you have owned dogs, your first few experiences in the show ring you are likely to experience some stress. This is normal. The environment is generally loud and crowded and this is all new. The important thing is to make sure that you don’t allow your nerves to get the best of you! Personal stress will definitely flow down your lead to your dog. A few things that have helped me:
- Look at the whole thing as a learning experience. You are just there to have fun with your dog! If you are there to learn instead of win you can focus more on the journey versus results, which will improve your mindset.
- Take deep breaths. Breathing slowly in for two and out for four can help you alleviate tension and calm your nerves. Close your eyes if you need to for a moment to settle yourself.
- Visualization can also help! The night before the show you should visualize the space and how you and your dog will do in the ring! Be specific!
Lean to Be Your Dog’s Advocate
There are so many wonderful teachers in dog sports, including conformation. Many long time breeders, judges, handlers, and owners are willing to share their wonderful knowledge with you. Soak it up! Take notes at the end of the day about what you have learned and allow yourself the time you will need to digest it.
But along with that great knowledge, you’re sure to hear suggestions to do things in different ways and also recommendations to do things you may not agree with. An important part of owning a dog is learning to be their advocate. As someone who is passionate about animals and positive reinforcement training, I understand the discomfort felt when speaking up especially when it feels like confrontation. But as you navigate this new world it is important to be able to thank people for advice while understanding where your comfort lies and what you will or will not be comfortable doing. Feel free to internalize the bits and pieces of advice that make sense for you and discard advice that is inconsistent with your own positive path with your dog. Knowing ahead of time and planning what you will say to those who mean well but offer unsolicited advice will help these words flow freely so that you and your dog can stick to your training plan.
Find Your People
We all need support so look around and find some! Someone to help you bounce ideas off, a family member or friend to help you carry supplies, and even new show friends who share your ideals and who you may be able to crate near at future shows. These communities can be found all over and might even come from outside of your breed. Keep an open mind!
At the end of the day, it’s important for new people to get into conformation, as we all support the love of purebred dogs. There are always moments when learning a new sport presents some challenges but finding support will help you succeed. And along the way you and your dog will learn a variety of new tools that will help you inside and outside of the ring. You can improve your communication, the ability to get attention with distractions, and learn new ways to reinforce and engage your dog, all while improving your relationship. Achieving success as an owner-handler will give you tools that you can take with you far beyond the show ring.
Are you an owner handler? What did you find challenging or exciting about navigating the show ring with your dog?