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Owner Handler-force Or Farce

written and submitted by Bill Garnett

“the DOBERMAN PINSCHER is a square, compact, medium size dog of balanced proportions, noble in its carriage, courageous by nature and SOUND of mind, body and joints”

How many times have you heard owner-handlers explain why they didn’t win by using some of the following excuses; “The handler who won and the judge are old drinking buddies”, “The judge is just a crook”,  “The judge only puts up big, red, ugly dogs”, “The judge is incompetent and knows absolutely nothing about the Standard and even less about movement”. The excuses go on and on and on. To say that none of them is relevant would not be rational, but, they can only be as relevant as you, an owner-handler, will allow.

Let me tell you something that’s going to startle you.  As an owner-handler you have the advantage over the professional handler.  Why?  Because you and you alone control every aspect of your dog showing involvement. From the quality and condition of the dogs you show, to the very judges you show under.  If, in the foregoing scenarios, the judge was indeed a crook . . . then why were you there? If he only puts up big, red, ugly dogs . . . then why did you show him a smooth, standard, black dog? If he is indeed incompetent why did you expect more? If he knows nothing about the Standard and even less about movement why do you expect him to recognize it in your dog? My point is this. If any of the accusations were true, you should have been elsewhere. I personally always felt it was better to drive eight hours and have a chance to win than to drive one for a guaranteed loss. At the risk of being cruel and blatantly blunt, 75% of owner-handlers lose because their dogs in the majority of cases are inferior to the professional handlers’ for whatever reasons. They are not conditioned as well, groomed as well, trained as well nor presented as well.

At this point I know what you’re thinking, “I thought you said owner-handlers have the advantage.” And again I say they do, but only 25% use or take advantage of that advantage.  Let’s talk about that 25%. This group has learned how to win by controlling ever aspect of their dog showing involvement, through sacrifice, hard work, early hours, late hours, judge research, education, dedication and planning that makes the CIA look like a Boy Scout troop.  Lets take a look at the things that a successful owner/handler does to get and maintain that advantage.

The first step in establishing their advantage is in the selection of the dog they plan to show.  Seventy-five percent of owner-handlers, for a whole host of reasons, err at this juncture,. From kennel blindness to breed ignorance to just plain being sold a poor specimen from a so called breeder.  For whatever the reason, it happens and right off the bat you’re at a disadvantage. Believe me, the advantage starts with your selection of the dog you plan to show. I don’t believe  anyone would argue that point. Make no mistake about it!  It must be superior to the professional handler’s dog. If you think for one minute you’re going to beat the handler with a mediocre dog or one just as good as his forget it! He has years of experience convincing judges that his mediocre dog is better than your mediocre dog. Trust me he’ll beat you every time,  he’ll clean your plate! You have to have the better dog! You must select a better dog from the start!  And don’t think the handlers don’t know who has the better dog.  Let me tell you a story about that.  I was showing a future BIS bitch in the black open bitch class when the professional handler in front of me turned around and complained that she wished they would stop lining up the class numerically.  I asked, “why” she said, ” that gorgeous bitch of yours shows up every fault in my bitch.  There’s just no way my bitch can beat her being so close to her”.  Interesting that the pro felt if she could get away from my bitch she may be able to sell the judge that her bitch was better.  What does that tell you about some judges? The pros know.  But believe me you’ve got to have the better dog.  How to select a better dog would encompass another entire article. However, there are some things that have served me well and I’m more than happy to share them with you.

Never! I repeat, never be in a hurry when choosing a puppy. If he’s good today he’ll be even better tomorrow. Beware of picks of litters.  Picks of what litter? The pick of one litter may be the least of another. Grading litters is easy, but are there any standard conforming prospects in them?  Remember every litter has a best puppy, but best of what? Try to view the litter over a period of time. I personally like to view puppies at 8, 10 and 12 weeks. But the best possible advice I can give you is. “If something bothers you let it”!  By that I mean don’t let a fault be explained away by a self-serving breeder with the normal rhetoric, “He’ll outgrow that” or “he was sick last week,” or “a little exercise will strengthen that” and last but not least, “he looked great last week”.  Believe me, if it bothers you let it!  If it bothers you now, it will bother you twice as much later. If it bothers you now think how it’s going to bother the judge. The bottom line is you must start out with a good, standard conforming
puppy!  It must be better than the handler’s – if not you’re in for an expensive and demoralizing lesson.

At this point you may say, what’s to prevent the professional handler from having a good one as well.  And to that I say nothing, absolutely nothing!  Remember, in 75% of the cases he will have a dog that is as good or if not better.  But, he is not invincible. He has factors working against him that are at times difficult to overcome. You see his selection method doesn’t “always” provide him with the best dog. His evaluation is sometimes tainted by a variety of factors, the least of which could be a mortgage payment, a motor home note, or an overdue American Express bill. Into this picture “strays” a mediocre dog with “deep pockets.” You’d be surprised how fast that dog secures crate space in the handler’s van for an extended stay regardless of his quality, lack of condition, or his inability to win under good judges. If you’re going to be an owner-handler you have to be honest with yourself.  Do I have a good dog?  Is he better than the handler’s dog?  If not, take him home and love him to death until the day he dies. But if you’re going to continue to be an owner-handler you’ve got to start with a damn good representative of the breed. And it can still go down hill.

So, now you’ve got a good one. Is that all it is to it? Just wait until it’s six months old and go out and beat the handler?  Wrong!  First, it has to be in better condition both mentally and physically and then it has to be better trained than the handler’s dog. If not, he’ll nail your hide to the wall. This is not as difficult as it may sound. You see, the handler has to condition and train a stable of dogs. Unless he has kennel help and plenty of it, he doesn’t have as much time to devote to each dog that you do. Now the advantage swings in your favor for you only have one or two dogs with plenty of time to do it right.  However, the advantage swings right back to professional if you don’t get out of the bed in the mornings and off the sofa in the evenings.

Talk to ten successful owner-handlers about how to condition and train a puppy and you’ll get ten different answers. However, the first thing to remember is that he is a puppy and the three most important ingredients in training a puppy are patience, patience, patience. So how do you go about conditioning and training a puppy? I can only tell you what has worked for me.

At sunrise it’s up and out, taking the puppy for a nice walk. If the area will permit (safety factor) I
let him off lead for a short periods of time. Off  lead he’ll follow you – you’re his security blanket. This exercise helps with bonding but also helps in developing his sense of confidence. He’ll tell you when he’s had enough. He’ll start lagging behind, sitting or lying down. You’ll develop a sixth sense about his endurance. Anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes and it’s back home, up on the grooming table for a nice brushing. All the while you’re talking to him, reinforcing his love and trust for you. Bait him a few times and give him a treat. After brushing. feed him and put him down for a nap. Around 10:00 to 10:30 put him out in the yard to run and play with another dog or puppy that he gets along with, or if you are available, create some games and situations to keep him romping and playing. Around 11:00 to 11:30 bring him in, brush him, praise him, bait him, feed him and put him down for a nap. Around 2:00 to 2:30 it’s up and out for a couple more hours of play including house time for socialization. At 4:00 to 4:30 it’s back on the grooming table for brushing, praising, baiting and down for a nap. At 6:00 to 6:30 it’s time for a nice walk and some off  lead romping. Back home by 7:00, brush, praise, feed and down for a nap. At 8:00 to 8:30 it’s up and out and then into the den for house play and more socialization. At l0:00 to 10:30 it’s out for the last time and off to bed. You do this routine not once a week, not twice a week, not three times a week, but 7 days a week, every week. You can vary the routine with trips to shopping centers, office buildings, parks or little league ball games. You see, proper conditioning is mental as well as physical. And those side trips will get him used to different sounds, smells and looks.  Always keep plenty of treats in your pockets to reward and praise him for his accomplishments whether it be tilting at buttercups or coming when called. As the puppy gets older, keep him on the lead longer. This establishes your control. Off lead the puppy may develop too much of a sense of independence,  if allowed to get out of hand it can create problems when training him for the show ring. Flexi-leads are wonderful, but I personally have found them not to be controlling enough for a puppy and you may lose a split second of correction time in the beginning.  Never! Never! Never correct a puppy too long after a mistake.  It’s either right away or not at all.  He has to know why he’s being corrected.  If too much time elapses he may become confused and less sure of himself.  Remember. . . long praising . . . quick and short corrections!

As the puppy develops physically and mentally and you have gained control of him on and off the lead, usually around 4 1/2 to 6 months, it’s time to teach him timing, rhythm and foot placement and continued conditioning. To accomplish this I measure off a figure eight with the two circles having 20 step diameters each.  Start by gaiting the puppy, or I should say attempting to gait the puppy around the figure eight with him on the outside of the circle off of your left hip using a six-foot lead, giving and taking lead as needed, based on the variance of his pattern. As the puppy learns his paces you increase the number of laps from 5 to 10 to 15 to 20 to 25 to 30, based on his interest span, development and performance. If you have laid out the circle properly, 30 laps should equate to a mile. Coupled with the circle gaiting, I teach the puppy to fetch a rubber ball are a frisbee. The benefits of which are two-fold. Almost all puppies enjoy chasing and fetching and the short quick burst of speed breaks up the fat in the hindquarters, setting up good hindquarter and ham development. What is important to note at this point is that you only incorporate the fetching and circle gaiting exercises into his regular routine every other day. Just as in body building, the first day of exercise tears down and the second day of rest builds up. Remember only every other day!

Let me take this time to point out just how the fetching and circle gaiting procedure is integrated to derive the maximum benefit. After briskly walking your dog for about 1/4 to 1/2 mile and he’s loosened up, it’s time for the fetching. This should be a real fun time for you and your dog. Usually when the ball or frisbee comes out, he’ll get all excited and start bounding around waiting for you to throw it. This is what you want to encourage; for it instills enthusiasm, attitude and an intense happy expression. You fake throwing it sometimes to get him all worked up. Now this is important. When you begin throwing the ball or frisbee,  try to develop and maintain a rhythm to keep him moving, whether its bounding up and down or chasing, only throw it about 10 to 20 yards to insure that he sprints for it. As a friend once told me Dobermans are sprinters not marathoners; we want sprinter’s muscles not long-distance runner’s muscles. Do this 10 to 12 times. Then after only a couple minutes rest, go right to the circle gaiting. As I mentioned earlier it’s 30 laps. But what I didn’t mention is that it is 15 laps clockwise and 15 laps counter-clockwise. This exercise not only continues the hindquarter and ham build up that the sprinting started, but contributes to his overall tone as well by making sure that he develops both sides of his body equally.  After mastering this exercise, what you will discover is,  not only will you have a puppy beautifully conditioned puppy but one that is a picture of timing, beautiful rhythm, wonderful foot placement and the two of you will be a picture of teamwork that any decent judge will recognize and appreciate. It’s really beautiful!  After 30 laps you toss the ball or frisbee for 5 more sprints, only 5, then a walk of 1/4 to 1/2 mile and then home. Remember, only every other day for the ball fetch and circle gaiting routine!  Also remember to carry plenty of treats and start to surprise him with when he gets one.  Never give him one when his is doing his figure eight routine.  You don’t won’t him looking for treats or bait while he is gaiting.

Now we have a good dog in great condition, both mentally and physically. Are we ready to do battle with the professional handler?  “Not so fast my friend” . . . to quote Lou Corso:  “Now we must learn to out groom the handler.” We do so by learning to sculpture the outline of the dog to the degree that not a hair is out of place. First we shave the insides of the ears.  Then we create a clean line by shaving the back edge of the ear of all hair that has grown beyond the edge. Then we shave off the whiskers. I use a #10 blade. Some people prefer a #15. Shave the back of the leg and pastern of any protruding hairs that break up a clean line from elbow to ground. Then, using a pair of cuticle scissors, trim the hair from around the toenails and using your clippers, shave any hair between the toes and under the pads. Then I use a black magic marker and color the nail.  All of this improves the look of the feet 200%. Looking at the underline of the dog, trim any excess hair that prevents a clean unbroken line. Pay particular attention to the skirt.  Next, using trimming scissors, cut in the tail by defining where the black or red meets the tan or rust. You can actually raise the set of the tail, if needed, by the way you cut it in. Next, trim any excess hair on the back of the legs that breaks up the line flow. Do the rear feet exactly as you did the front. Now take a pumice stone and go completely over the dog, stripping him of all dead hair and any undercoat he may have. Then brush him from stem to stern, after which you use a high quality coat gloss for sheen and coat enhancing. Toe nails are trimmed and filed once a week and kept no longer than 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch. Not only does this protect the feet by preventing splaying, it improves and maintains them as well.

Now we have a better dog, in better condition, both mentally and physically, groomed to perfection.  We should be ready to take
on the handler now, right? Wrong!  Having a better dog, perfectly trained, in beautiful condition, groomed to perfection means nothing unless we show him under someone who knows the difference and couldn’t care less about who’s showing it.  So the next thing we must do is learn now to identify those judges. Personally I have found all-rounders with a good reputation to be good candidates for an owner-handler to try. Breeder judges often are tough for a newcomer, particularly if you and your dog aren’t aligned politically. Judges with the working group, that have decent reputation have a sense of breed type and generally know balance and soundness and for the most part will go with the best dog.  Pay particular attention to the judges who give owner-handlers the Reserves but never Winners, the Bests of Opposite but never the Breed, the Class but not a look in Winners. Scour through breed publications with a fine tooth comb, looking for owner-handlers winning and the judges they won under. Pay special attention to judges putting up good dogs, regardless of who is showing them. But really pay close attention to the judges putting up the bad dogs. Remember once burned, twice shy. Judges don’t change. They go on forever doing the same things, good or bad, for whatever reasons. Start developing a good guy, bad guy list, but be fair. If you’re in the hunt and the judge beats you with another good dog, he still belongs with the good guys. What you must understand is that handlers don’t pick judges all that close. For the most part they go right down the road.  You must remember, the handler holds a trump card. Win or lose, he’s cashing someone’s check. You can be more selective than the handler. Based on your good guy, bad guy list you can actually increase your odds of winning considerably and in doing so enhance your advantage.

At this point the advantages are really piling up, but you’re still vulnerable. Up to now all your preparation has been leading up to the dog show. Now comes crunch time, the show weekend. You feed your dog a normal meal Friday morning after you’ve groomed him to perfection and packed your van neatly with nothing rattling. Rattles drive me crazy and I personally feel they can unnerve a dog.  Why should your dog have to listen to a rattle for 400 miles? Leave home in plenty of time to stop and exercise your dog along the way. I usually stop every four hours. A dog that feels good . . . acts and looks good. I try to arrive at my motel no later than 8:00 p.m., which gives me enough time to exercise and feed my dog a light meal of one or two milk bones or a half cup of kibble. We rest until about 10:00 or 10:30, out for exercise and in bed by 11:00 or 11:30. It’s interesting how few people you
see exercising their dogs at this time. You hear them laughing and talking in their rooms or watching TV while their dogs count the hours until morning.  These are usually the same people that are making the excuses the next day as to why their dogs didn’t win.

My dog and I are up early Saturday morning.  He’s exercised, I’m showered and dressed, and we are out in time to get to the show grounds at least 1 to 1 ½ hours before our breed judging. You may ask, why do I do this, why such a demanding routine? And why so early?  Well, believe me, it’s the difference between winning and losing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve gone through the agony of picking a good dog, the rigors of conditioning, training and grooming him, walked hundreds of miles in heat, rain and humidity, studied every publication I could get my hands on and sorted through every tidbit attempting to evaluate judges, planned my battle and picked my battlefield and then do I blow it all the day of the show for an extra hour of sleep. No way. I’m going to get my dog settled in and walked around the show grounds, exercising and introducing him to any strange circumstances between my setup area and our ring that could startle him if happened upon by chance later on in the day. Back to our set-up. I re-groom him although I groomed him before we left Friday. After grooming I put him up, making sure he has plenty of ventilation and he’s comfortable. Then it’s off  in search of my first cup of coffee. But the preparation doesn’t stop there. I bump into friends and ask them what they know about my judge. Sometimes you get useful information, sometimes not.  If my breed is later on in the schedule, I’ll go and watch my judge evaluate other breeds. I try a get a feel for the things they feel are important and what their emphases are and a sense of timing of their procedure. Sometimes I get such a good feeling for a judge’s procedure that I am able to anticipate every move he or she makes. It’s a wonderful feeling.  Now I’m 100% prepared. No stone has been left unturned that would aid me in my preparation and help maintain my advantage as an owner-handler.

Now let’s take a look at what kind of morning our competition has been having. A couple of dogs have soiled their crates. He’s got that to clean up. A couple of other dogs won’t dump because they don’t like the confines of an ex-pen. One or two owners have been hanging around since dawn driving him crazy and wasting his valuable time. One or two dogs look kind of gaunt. They won’t eat on the road in either their crates or ex-pens. He’s worrying, “I’ll have to stuff them tonight”.  Checking his schedule he sees that he has two conflicts. He’s having trouble finding someone to cover. His kennel help quit 3 weeks ago. He has a problem check from a client that he has to get straight before he’ll show that dog today. And to top it all off his generator is on the fritz. With so many dogs he’s going to have a problem keeping them comfortable. And what does he have to look forward to but an owner-handler who has a good dog, in wonderful condition, beautifully groomed, trained to perfection and feeling like a million dollars. On top of that the judge knows his stuff and the owner-handler knows everything the judge likes or dislikes.  Now you tell me, which of these two people would you rather be?

It gets better for the well prepared owner-handler. What’s happening with the other 75% of the owner-handlers? Well, so far they haven’t gotten to the show grounds. In order to save a motel bill they left at 3:00 am. for what they thought was a five-hour drive. At this point they’re backed up on the interstate somewhere, their dogs need exercising badly, they’ve got another 55 miles to go with only an hour to make it.  Finally they roll in five minutes before their class, whack off  their dog’s nails, hit or miss his whiskers and don’t understand why he’s roaching going around the ring. They have no idea of the judge’s procedure and are too tired and disgruntled for the judge’ s instructions to sink in. Now are you ready for this? They lead the lynch mob who seeks to crucify you because your dog won.  It makes no difference how nice he is, how well he’s conditioned, how perfectly he’s trained, how beautifully he’s groomed, that he looks and acts like a million dollars. They don’t applaud the judges for knowing their stuff or you for knowing your stuff.  No, they resort to their old standby, “It was a fix”.  I guess in a way, you did fix it, . by sacrifice, hard work, homework, teamwork, education and just plain dedication.  So you see.  Owner-handlers do have the advantage and any truly “professional handler” will tell you that. It’s what you do with the advantage that counts. Unfortunately, 75% of owner-handlers don’t take advantage of their advantage.

I hope in some small way this article will help the 25% of owner-handlers that do it right, to grow to 30%, 40%, 50% and even higher. A man and his dog is truly what the sport of purebred dogs is all about. The pleasures of those moments are the memories of a lifetime.