Who can ever forget the first day they exhibited their dog at an AKC show? I remember mine very clearly. Going from the world of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club specialties, which the late Nigel Aubrey-Jones called “the country club of dog shows,” to the hustle and bustle of AKC all-breed shows was a daunting prospect. Although I had exhibited, stewarded and judged at those Cavalier shows, and showed my dogs at AKC obedience trials, I was just another nervous novice when I pulled onto the grounds of the Trenton Kennel Club show in May of 1996.
To prepare for that inaugural appearance in the conformation ring, I did my homework. Off I went to several AKC shows to learn the ropes. I knew to find a spot in the grooming area to set up my table and my crates. From my obedience experience, getting my armband from the ring steward was a familiar task. I studied the class order to know which class followed which class, how each class was assembled, and where to stand if placed. Of course, were I not the winner, I would congratulate the handler who was. If that was not enough, I needed to listen carefully to the judge and follow the directions exactly.
With all that in mind, I pulled up to the grooming tent to unload my dogs and their gear. Where in that crowded tent could I find space? Fortunately, my husband had the responsibility of parking the car while I got the dogs settled and ready to show. Then it was time for the breed to be exhibited. I had my armbands in proper order under two rubber bands on my upper arm. When the steward called my number, I marched into that ring to face the venerable R. William Taylor. My heart was pounding in my chest. My legs felt like rubber. I could barely breathe, and I desperately needed a big drink of water. Four times I entered that ring, three classes and Winners. I felt precisely the same way for each of them. Yes, I remember.
What We Can Do
All these years later, I still empathize with the new exhibitor. What can we do to make that initial experience a positive one? What can we do to transition the novice into an active member of the fancy? At every dog show there are exhibitors for whom this is their first time. No matter what hat we are wearing at that show, let’s put out the welcome mat.
Show Chairmen. Putting out the welcome mat can be beneficial for the show and the new exhibitor. Perhaps set aside some dedicated space in the grooming area with “welcome” signs. Advertise that the area exists. Put a reminder on the judging program and make it easy to find. Take time to go over yourself or have a club member assigned to visit the area throughout the day. How nice would it be to thank the exhibitor for entering your show, to answer any questions or to simply wish them well? Be creative. Your attempt to be welcoming just may result in additional entries.
Chief Stewards. These people have a critical role in putting out the welcome mat. Just remind each ring steward that they are the frontline of most newcomers’ ring experience. The initial interaction between the ring steward and new exhibitor is another chance to be welcoming and helpful. Often, the novice informs the ring steward that this is their first time in the ring. A big smile and some kind words can be a great gift to give that first-timer.
Fellow Exhibitors. You have a critical role in the welcoming process. We all started somewhere. Remember? What would have made your first time exhibiting at a dog show better? Be understanding. Make some space. Share your love for the sport. Maybe that newcomer would be a great future member for your breed, Group or all-breed club. Think about that.
Judges. In the ring, judges have a myriad of ways to put out the welcome mat. How many times have you had a new exhibitor tell you this is their first time, first show dog? We welcome guests into our homes. In that same way, we welcome exhibitors into our rings. Whether they leave with a ribbon, a kind word or both, they will never forget you. Make it memorable.
Showing dogs is a choice, not a requirement in life. If you are reading this, you know how it has become an important part of your very existence. We all look forward to our next show. Take a moment. Think back to that day, that show that was your first. When you get ready to go to your next show, and all the ones that follow, don’t forget to pack the welcome mat. It is essential.