Diary of a First-Time Dog Exhibitor

What to expect when entering the show ring for the first time

The September “In the Public Eye” column discussed good things that happen when fanciers and pet people connect. Therein I referenced a colleague who had decided to throw her hat into the ring because her new Golden Retriever puppy was simply too special not to. 

Marietta Egervary, a 59-year-old advertising executive from Lisburn, Pa., had never even attended a dog show prior to acquiring Duffy. He made his show debut in the 6 to 9 month puppy class back in August. The only dog in his class, he performed well but did not go Winners that day. Nonetheless, she was tickled with that first blue ribbon knowing it still had to be earned.

So what would possess a busy professional who had owned four previous pet Goldens to take the plunge at this time in life? Simple. She hooked up with the right breeder and ended up with her first show-quality puppy. Encouragement and mentoring from the breeder, along with endless adoration everywhere they go convinced her Duffy was a true show prospect.

To find out what it’s like for a newbie these days, I interviewed Marietta a few weeks after the show. Here’s what she had to say:

Q. What inspired you to start showing after all these years?
A. The breeder was very confident of Duffy’s potential from the time he was a small puppy. In fact they were a little reluctant to give him up. I could tell Dave was keen to see Duffy in the ring and, while I had not really considered it originally, I thought it might be a fun, new exciting thing to get into. Plus I wanted to see how he stacked up against the other dogs — if he was really as good as the breeder thought. They have been incredibly supportive and are constantly in touch.

Q. How did you find this breeder?
A. About 20 years ago, I passed a house with two of the most stunning Goldens I had ever seen and stopped to ask the owner where he got them. Over the coming years I contacted Oak Lane Goldens when I was looking for a puppy, but the timing was never quite right. When we lost our last Golden I asked my veterinarian for their contact number only to learn they had just been in with their pregnant bitch. After a lengthy application process we were finally approved and, since we live nearby, were able to visit frequently.

Q. What were your perceptions of dog shows prior to this?
A. Having only watched them on TV, they looked a little snooty and the players didn’t seem like “regular folks.” I think there’s a perception of it being a rich man’s sport and somewhat of a “secret society.” I always thought the dogs competed for prize money. Once I understood the reward was in establishing a kennel’s reputation and upholding the standard of the breed, it made more sense. But there’s still that competitive, cliquish feel — like high school when you’re not in the in-crowd.

Q. What made you settle on a junior handler your first time out and how did you connect?
A. We ran into Rachel, just 14 at the time, and her mom at a pet supply store. Rachel’s mom was astounded by how beautiful Duffy was. We hear that often from total strangers! Rachel was so poised and self assured, we hit it off very well right away and started handling classes the following week. Though she had only handled smaller breeds before, she knew how to work with him. They were just lovely together.

Q. How did you prepare Duffy for his ring debut in the puppy class?
A. Weekly handling classes at a local training club help teach him how to show and me about “bait” and “gait” and “free stacking.” I had so much to learn and investigated everything I could online down to proper grooming of Goldens. I even researched the judges’ backgrounds and previous assignments. We practiced every day during the morning news with baiting, brushing, checking teeth to ensure that he was acclimated to being touched everywhere.

Q. Were you intimidated by the thought of showing such a competitive breed?
A. YES! You just wonder how a puppy will compete against seasoned show dogs from big-name kennels and average entries of 30 to 40 dogs. While I had faith in Rachel, I also wondered how she’d do at her age under the pressure of facing accomplished handlers in the ring. But I treated the entire experience as a first-time test and put no pressure on myself, the handler or the dog to perform since he was so young.

Q. Did you find the environment welcoming and what was the most challenging part of the first show?
A. Overall I liked the show atmosphere and, though some folks glanced down their nose at us when we arrived, others offered to help and the people ringside were quite friendly. The bath and grooming was the biggest challenge — it would have made a great comic video! Of course there’s the investment in the specialty grooming tools. We did not want to over-groom him because he’s still a pup and we wanted to keep him as natural as possible. I was only marginally prepared with what to bring and what to do. Next time I’ll bring a chair, use a dolly to haul things in and dress more comfortably.

Q. Was there anything about the entry process that confused you?
A. Being a complete neophyte to the dog show world, I knew nothing about which classes he could compete in or even why people showed dogs. I relied heavily on my breeder and Rachel for help. I tried to enter him online but the entry process is confusing for a beginner — even though I work online every day. So Rachel handled the entry process to make sure I did nothing wrong.

Q. Did you feel you were competing on a level playing field or did you sense a double standard at work?
A. I don’t know enough about showing yet to sense a double standard, but I do believe the seasoned veteran breeders, handlers and dogs have an obvious advantage over an unknown first-timer.

Q. What is your long-term goal with showing Duffy and will you use a professional handler?
A. We will likely use a professional handler to compete in more shows, win majors, etc., and keep working with our junior handler to keep Duffy up to snuff locally. I have foot issues that prevent me from showing him myself. For now, we don’t want him to be a fulltime show dog traveling all over — but we hope he’ll earn his championship. At that point, if the breeder considers him worthy and he passes his health clearances, we might consider breeding him. Or if he turns out to be a great show dog we’ll continue showing him as a champion. But that’s a long way off. We still have much to learn.

Q. As a “newbie” to the sport, how do you think the fancy can encourage others to get involved?
A. First I think that if local dog shows were promoted more heavily there would be more interest. Organizers should offer programs for kids and publicize them to get young kids and families interested. Present it as a fun activity that most dogs enjoy. Junior Handler programs should be promoted better. Why not have puppy or other classes at dog shows with kids just handling them for fun? Look at the 4-H programs — those kids LOVE their cows, goats or whatever and are proud of how they raised them. Someone should write kids’ books on showing your dog — teaching them how to groom, train and compete without making it too serious.

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