Showing Your Dog in AKC Conformation Shows
Westminster. Eukanuba. Grand National. AKC dog shows that people aspire to qualify for and possibly even win. These are nationally televised shows which take place once a year and are restricted to only the best of the best. They are the elite, and those who show their dogs are often the elite as well. For most dog owners, they are far above where we live and where we could hope to compete. But somewhere, almost every single weekend in this country, there is a show we can enter and compete in. They are fun, exciting, informational, and they will provide you with a chance to better yourself and your dog and that magical bond between you.
But it is work, have no doubt about it.
Several years ago, I began speaking with my wife about finding a hobby that we both could enjoy together; something other than parenting, working, cleaning, grocery shopping, and such. She loves animals, with dogs claiming the number one position in her heart; I love labrador retrievers in particular. So, I thought that maybe, just maybe, we could get a nice lab and begin training and showing him with my wife. She wasn't too keen on the idea at first, but at least she was open to it. So she began researching breeders and I began researching both the breed and the AKC in order to learn how best to go about this.
I even bought a movie to watch and learn. Best In Show is a tongue-in-cheek movie about the dark (albeit humorous) side of dog shows. It is now one of my wife's top ten movies to watch; she just loves it. And we have learned a great deal from it, believe it or not.
I will share with you what we have learned on this journey; the ups and the downs of showing a dog in the conformation aspect of dog shows.
Have You Ever Shown Your Dog in an AKC Show?
We knew nothing about dog shows beyond what we watched occasionally on television. We did know there were seven groups: Toy, Non-Sporting, Working, Terrier, Hound, Herding, and my personal favorite, Sporting. Each has its own particular dog breeds associated with it, and each breed has its associated breed standards.
As Sporting is my favorite, I will use it as an example. Within the Sporting group, there are some 28 breeds, ranging from the spaniels to the retrievers to the pointers and setters to the vizsla and weimaraner and griffon. These are hunting dogs, and some may retain that hunting instinct even if they do not hunt any longer. So, their personalities and traits may include that peculiar aspect known as "drive." Drive translates to activity and these dogs require it. Remember, just because you may want to have a dog to show in the ring does not mean the dog itself knows what you want. The dog may want nothing more than the opportunity to hunt. While that can be an asset, it can also be an issue if not properly utilized.
As I stated, I love labradors and have for some 30 years now. They are loyal, trainable, and look good to me. They may not be show champions as often as other breeds are, but they are my choice. So, we started with information. What restrictions are there on labs in regard to size, weight, color, etc. We used the official AKC site to answer these questions, then got down to business.
My wife used the internet in order to find the proper type of dog. In our case, we decided we wanted an English type of lab, also known as a bench lab. These dogs have been specifically bred over generations to produce exactly the type of build and size desired in the ring. Once we located some breeders who produced our choice, we investigated them and their bloodlines, searching for those who had been in business for some time, those who produced winners and champions, and looked at those dogs who had won and reproduced solid looking, tractable dogs.
What we found was... what we wanted was very hard to come by, and very expensive. Perhaps not expensive to some, but to a single income family with five children, more than a couple of hundred dollars is expensive. Some of the puppies ran into the thousands of dollars. While they were puppies who showed good promise to grow up like their parents and grandparents, we simply could not afford them.
We also found that while some breeders dedicated themselves to bringing forth a particular color phase, the AKC refused to acknowledge that color. Silver is one which is advertised as being unusual and desired while in fact is a knock against the breed itself. The three accepted colors are chocolate, yellow, and black. No white, red, fox, or silver, just the three main colors. Do not fall for advertising, do your research and get something which will allow you to compete.
We ended up getting a puppy from a fairly new breeder, but one with ties stretching back to solid stock. We paid a substantial sum (for us) for him and were very happy when we set out on training. Elsewhere I have spoken on this aspect so there is no need to go into it here other than to say you MUST dedicate yourself to the care and training of your chosen dog. You must also choose a dog food which allows the puppy to grow properly and not become fat or overweight. There are innumerable types, brands, styles and such so you must do your due diligence on this aspect as well. And just because it has a name you recognize on the bag does not necessarily mean it is right for your dog. Try to try again; research; test. Buy a small bag to see if it agrees with your pet and remember: what goes in must come out. Some major brands use corn as the number one ingredient and from our experiences, corn accomplishes two things: it fattens up the dog and produces large amount of output! If you choose, you can leave it. We don't; we sack it and place it in the trash. Why leave it lying around smelling to high heaven?
Now for the actual training associated with getting into the ring. We contacted our local kennel club and found that they offered classes in general obedience. We went through the six week course which cost us $65.00. At the end of that, we enrolled in a once-a-week conformation training course. This course has no beginning and no end; it simply takes place once a week for about an hour and all who desire to attend can. The cost is $5.00 per session, paid as attended. One of the local kennel club officers who is also a judge teaches the class and puts us through our paces, offering insights and clarifications, tips and observations. There is a specific pattern the competitors are to travel and you need to learn it. The movement of the dog counts as much as the overall look and stance of the dog so this must be practiced time and again. Believe me, you put in a solid hour's worth of work and at the end of that hour both you and your dog are ready to hit the showers.
This type of training accomplishes two things: it gives you practice in what it takes to show in the ring, including how to walk and trot, how to move, in what direction you are to move and how to maintain control of your dog while moving. And it gives your dog practice in allowing them to be handled in various locations and positions, how to stand properly, how to move and how to present themselves to the judge. It also allows the dog to learn to ignore those other dogs in the group. This is vital! They must be focused on you and you alone. Failure on one small part of this can and oftentimes will eliminate you from the running, so work to become a team! Then take these lessons home and practice, practice, practice! It will take anywhere from a half an hour to an hour daily (sometimes more) for you and your dog to become a team that moves effortlessly together around the ring then presenting yourselves before the judge and standing tall and proud.
Another option available to some owners is to have (hire) someone to show their dog for them. Personally, I feel that, as I am the owner, I am going to show my dog. But there are others who have more than one to show and use an outside party to either do this for them or work in conjunction with them to show. There is also a Junior Handler program for young people to participate in. Usually these handlers are showing an experienced dog that knows what to do and assists the young handler in pursuing their dreams.
Okay, you are a team! You feel you are ready for competition with other dogs. Your dog presents him(her)self well, they totally ignore the other dogs around them and have learned to move well, under control, and to stand well. Now, you need to find a show to enter. But where?
A little research online will lead you to the dates, locations, and times of area shows you can enter. There are several promoters who work hand in hand with the AKC to put on these shows. I will add links to their websites for you to view at your leisure towards the end of this article.
Some names of these promoters are Jack Onofrio, Roy Jones, Jim Rau and Jack Bradshaw. For the area in which we live it seems Jack Onofrio is the predominant promoter; it is possible this will differ in your area. Search all of them for shows in your choice of venues. Once you have selected where you want to go and when, it is simple to sign up online and pay via electronic funds for the shows. Generally the entries close about two weeks prior to the show so be sure to be aware of any upcoming shows in your selected area. For us, we prefer to not travel too far so we stay within our four state area of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. There are plenty of shows within an easy two or three hour drive and more should we decide to spend the night somewhere like St Louis or Little Rock.
Now, some insights gained from our limited experiences thus far. Overall, the people you meet at these shows are extremely nice, helpful, and generous with their time. Do not be afraid to ask questions;we are all animal lovers and will help one another. That being said, there will be a few who feel threatened by any new (read unknown competition) person and their dog, so some might be a bit tight with the info. Take it in stride and move on. You will quickly come to recognize those who are open and those who are not.
They say clothing makes the man (and woman) and it is no less important in the ring. Dress to impress, but slightly understated. Your dog is the star, not you. Dress to compliment your pet in color and style. Wear comfortable shoes that you can stand for long periods of time in and can jog around the ring without stumbling and falling. Remember: you get one chance to make a first impression, don't blow it!
On that rare occasion you just might meet up with one of those so bent on winning they resort to slightly underhanded tricks, like the owner who brought their female to the show... in heat. No males were able to concentrate and perform so only the females looked good that day: and one kennel owned all of the females entered. Technically it is considered good sportsmanship to keep a female in heat home and not bring them to the show for just this reason, but as I said, some want to win a little too badly.
Well, there it is in a nutshell. It can be as much fun as you want it to be, or as stressful as you make it. A tip from me to you: enjoy it! Meet new people who love dogs as much as you do, travel, take your family with you and experience new things together. Don't get too serious about it because that will just spoil the relationship between you and your pet. This is meant to enhance that relationship and to entice you to become more involved with your dog. No dog should be that pooch in the yard that you feed once a day, water when they need it and never interact with. Dogs do better when you invite them to be a part of the family, someone to walk with, play with, love on. The vast majority of us who are just having fun may never win a ribbon, or breed our dogs for money; we are just having a blast with them. For my wife and I, we are looking forward to doing this more and more as we become empty nester's. We have one graduating from high school this year, and one more next year. After that we only have our youngest for a few more years and then poof! We're alone! This will be something we will enjoy for years to come, traveling along seeing and doing as we are able. Join us!