The start of spring usually means the start of conformation dog shows closer to my area (shows within a 3 hour drive) and last year all of these "local" shows had been cancelled due to COVID-19, so of course, this year we made sure to enter as many as we could!
A lot of people that don't compete in conformation just assume it is a beauty contest of the prettiest dog getting the ribbons. That actually isn't what conformation is all about. Conformation is about the judge evaluating the dogs in front of him or her and picking the dog (or bitch, if female) that most closely resembles the breed standard as an example for the breed and they choose the dog, ideally, that is the closest to that breed standard.
I've dipped my toes into conformation before, but I definitely wouldn't say it was something I took too seriously or really vested as much time as I should have if I wanted to be successful. There are not only particular grooming skills that need to be done at the show to best present your dog, but also grooming, exercise and nutrition needs that need to consistently be done outside of the show ring. And then beyond that, is the handling aspect. This is one of the reasons why a lot of breeders hire professional handlers to show their dogs as opposed to showing themselves. How you handle and present the dog can make a huge difference in showing a dog meeting that breed standard or making the dog look like they don't conform as closely to the breed standard. Some may also argue that there are politics involved with using professional handlers versus showing a dog yourself, but it can still be done on your own if you know what you are doing. Picking on myself, Zap is very moderate (desired and breed standard), but sometimes I over-stack her and stretch her when presenting her which makes her look long (not desired and not closer to breed standard). So my handling and presentation can be the cause for a judge not choosing us because I made her appear to not conform as close to the breed standard. Similarly, there are grooming and handling things that can be done to help your dog appear to resemble the breed standard a little better. These are little tips and tricks you don't always seem to figure out just on your own, but by talking to other people in the breed. For example, at one show a top handler with a top dog was in the ring with her dog and a friend was pointing out how she was stacking and presenting him to cover up a very minor flaw. Now does that mean that dog shouldn't be in the ring and doesn't meet the breed standard? Absolutely not! But it does give some insight into how handling and knowing how best to present the dog in front of you can make a big difference in that dog's success in the show ring. Training and practicing also can make a big difference too, but this isn't obedience, so the skills are vastly different in what you practice. But some of the basics include the dog being able to stand for minutes at a time, holding a specific standing position (stack) and staying still while a judge touches them and goes over every inch of their body, moving a certain way with the handler without trying to just run around the ring, being comfortable with the other people and dogs in the ring, can they handle all of the noise and excitement outside of the ring, just to name a few of the areas to consider. I can fully admit I hadn't put a whole lot of time or effort into training conformation skills with my dogs and tended to focus more on all of the other performance goals I have with them; essentially, conformation training with my pups tended to get the bare minimum compared to all the other skills we worked on. A great handler can potentially show a dog successfully with minimal training, but again, I am a novice handler (at least in conformation), with novice grooming and handling skills and still learning this sport. So, I really did need to put more effort into the training and try to absorb as much info as I possibly could if I wanted to be successful.
The month of April was when we would have 3 weekends of shows for Zap and Stitch. The first weekend was in Claremore, OK. This was Stitch's first show ever and the first show I had with Zap in over a year. The main focus was on Stitch, and I entered Zap even though we hadn't practiced conformation hardly at all in the last year with her, but she had started to mature very nicely and looked good enough that I couldn't resist bringing her along. They were entered on a Thursday and Friday. Stitch was a week shy of 6 months of age, so he had to enter the Beginner Puppy class for those two days. Zap I had entered in Open Black since she is almost 2 years old at that point. We could have entered Saturday and Sunday, but there was a Rally trial that weekend I entered Tesla and Phoenix in (Tesla for more Master's points towards her RACH and Phoenix so she could earn her Rally Advance title) and in my mind, I could gain more that weekend with Tesla and Phoenix than I would with Stitch and Zap. The main goal for that weekend was just ring experience and making it a positive experience. If Stitch won anything, it wouldn't go towards any championship points since he had to be entered in Beginner Puppy and for Zap, the chances of her winning were slim to none because of my inexperience handling, the fact I still had a ton to learn in terms of grooming and presentation, and the top nationally ranked Australian Shepherds and top Aussie handlers were there that weekend. But my main goal was getting Zap in the ring also just to get more exposure for her and if by some miracle she won anything, that would just be gravy on the biscuit.
I had definitely done the most practice in terms of stacking and being still with Stitch. For Beginner Puppy, he was competing against another male Aussie puppy who was turning 6 months old in just a couple of days; Stitch was turning 6 months old the following week. The match in terms of that was relatively even, however, this other dog looked much more mature compared to Stitch. His owner seemed to have more of a clue of what she was doing in how to best present her dog and they seemed to have more training under their belt as well. He was a very nice dog and does appear to be a dog who will have a successful show career in the future. The judge for Beginner Puppy really looked at both dogs and ultimately picked the other dog to win that class. However, the judge emphasized that they were two very nice dogs, essentially implying that it could have gone either way. So even though we didn't win, the compliment still felt like a win in my book.
I also learned I needed to not try to move him so fast. Stitch is a gorgeous mover and one of his top assets, but when I move too quickly trying to show off his movement, it just makes him too excited, bouncy, and sometimes move angling sideways rather than moving straight. His breeder who was there emphasized we need to slow down and practice with that more. But, I was pretty proud that Stitch was able to hold his stack I placed him in and hold relatively still while the judge went over him.
Showing Zap in Claremore threw me in for a loop. Before the pandemic when she was showing as a puppy, Zap was always super ecstatic to have the judge go over her and when we moved in the ring, she really just wanted to run and would sometimes chase after dogs directly in front of her. So, that was honestly what I was expecting to have to manage with her since we haven't shown nor really practiced any conformation skills in over a year. However, Zap was a perfect angel with the judge standing still, acting calm and collected, like a pro who has been doing this forever! Zap is also an excellent mover, but she can be a be a bit wild when she is excited, so normally I am having to slow her down. After over a year of not showing and not really practicing any conformation, when it was time for her to go around the ring and our down and back, Zap basically heeled the entire time barely getting up to a pace and had some nice heads up heeling....not what you are looking for in the conformation ring. To say I was shocked and amused at the same time would be an understatement. I guess I now know that she has retained all the heeling practice we had worked on in bits throughout the last year. But that is not what you want to see in a conformation ring, so now I need to work on her getting that enthusiasm and movement back up when she is on-lead rather than thinking in a ring with a lead on, we need to heel.
Overall, Claremore was a learning experience with quite the learning curve. I learned a lot from watching other handlers and their dogs, listening to what people would say and comment on ringside, and tried to absorb any tricks or advice doled out to help me. We had our next show in a couple of weeks in Grove and Stitch would also be eligible for the 6-9 month old class at that point with potential to earn points, so we had lots of work to do in two weeks.
The two weeks had come up quickly and it was now time for us to show in Grove, OK. We were entered in two days of shows on a Saturday and Sunday. On the first day, I was running a bit behind on getting ready with Stitch and just barely made it to the ring in time. I was a little flustered getting Stitch stacked and ready so the entire experience with him in the ring almost felt like a blur. I felt like he did a little better and seemed like he knew what was going on in the ring a bit more, was stacking nicely, but moving was still a weakness in keeping him under control when we were moving. I tried to slow it down a little bit more, but he is a dog with excellent reach, so I almost felt like I was subduing one of his assets, but with him running like a madman, it wasn't showing off his asset either. When it came time for the Winner's Dog ring, he didn't get much of a second glance from the judge, but it wasn't too surprising. Then it was Zap's turn and she seemed to pick up speed a little bit, but it still looked like she was just thinking we were supposed to heel and not really move as she is capable of doing in a natural setting. So, no luck for our first day. Zap and Stitch's breeder, Olga, was there this weekend as well. It had been suggested to me last week and again today that maybe I should let Olga show them since she is a much better handler and knows what she is doing. So, I asked if the next day she wouldn't mind showing them for me just to see if I can learn how she would handle them and also possibly get some results.
So Sunday came and Olga was ready to show Stitch. Stitch showed wonderfully with Olga. He was very responsive to her and she knew how to manage him and get him to move. The judge gave him some serious looks and considerations in the Winner's Dog ring. Then, judge Danelle M Brown awarded him with Reserve Winner's Dog (basically 2nd place out of all the dogs [males] that were not champions). To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement. While it doesn't mean we have earned any points, it is still a big accomplishment to get that consideration from the judge and especially from the 6-9 month class. A professional handler who knows Olga very well even commented to her that if she would have probably slowed him down just a little more, he easily would have won that class and he could tell the judge heavily considered it. Below is a video of Stitch and Olga in the ring. I still kick myself that I didn't keep the video going longer so I could catch the judge actually awarding the Reserve Winner's Dog (RWD) to them.
Then it was Zap's turn. She still did fairly well for Olga, but it was the same issue of getting Zap to move the way she does naturally rather than having a "heeling" mindset. So, no love for Zap in the ring that weekend. We had the Fayetteville, AR show the following weekend and since Zap didn't seem to move any better for Olga, we decided she would show Stitch in Fayetteville and I would show Zap.
The Fayetteville shows rolled around and I was pretty excited because since it was local, I didn't have to drive a few hours there and back each day, which was a win, but it would still be long days since I agreed to help Olga at the show since she was part of that kennel club and was in charge of a few different aspects of the show. It had been raining all night the day before and early that morning and with an early ring time, that meant keeping dogs clean was going to be a challenge. My plan was to just groom my dogs at home and bring them to the show sight for any last minute touch ups before they go in the ring.
For Saturday, Olga went in with Stitch. By this point, it was Stitch's 3rd show and he has decided he thinks playing show dog is lots of fun and he really enjoys being in the ring. So while he did ok, he had clear moments reminding us that he is still very much a boy puppy and when it came time for the Winner's Dog class, he didn't get many looks from the judge. But that's ok, the puppy at least had fun and won his 6-9 month age class.
Then it was Zap's turn. She looked great and I had been practicing moving with her. I realized that to get her moving, I really need to move to encourage her to actually reach and drive. This was my own personal challenge since I have always been self-conscious by nature and am always worried about slipping and falling, and frankly, tripping over my own feet, looking dumb since I am wearing a skirt, essentially, quickness was not something I excel at. But, I knew I needed to try to pick up speed and really move if Zap was going to do well. So in Open Black class, we gave it a try and boy, did that girl move. She stacked well, she moved great, she looked like a real pro in the ring. My theory about me needing to really move with her was starting to hold true. So then it came time for the Winner's Bitch class and I could feel that Zap was doing her absolute best and I knew that she looked good and was moving the way she is capable of moving. Then it came time for the judge's final considerations. It was between Zap and I, and the professional handler with the girl in front of us. He was giving really hard looks and then the judge pointed at us. We won Winner's Bitch and our first points under judge Tim Catterson. For those that don't know the terminology, Winner's Bitch means that Zap beat out all of the other female dogs that are not already champions. The pro handler that was in front of us got Reserve (basically 2nd) and he was very complimentary and said he saw Zap last week in Grove and he really liked her. I was thrilled. Then it came time for Best of Breed competition and I screwed up on over-stacking Zap so no love in the Best of Breed ring. But, I was still thrilled to have won WB and earned our first point towards her championship.
Sunday rolled around and we were ready to show. Olga, with Stitch and me with Zap. Stitch was again, very excited to be in the ring, so he acted like a puppy in the class ring. Then it came time for the Winner's Dog class. Stitch looked much better in that class and was in serious consideration for Winner's Dog. The judge gave some very long looks at Stitch and Olga, which is usually a good sign. Then for the last go around, Stitch's puppy side came out and he saw me and Zap ring side and started to pull like a freight train towards us. Silly puppy. I honestly think that puppy brain right at the end is what cost him. But with the exception for that, he did very well. Below is a video of part of the Winner's Dog ring with Stitch and Olga.
Then it was Zap's turn. I felt myself get a little bit nervous. I think now that I knew she could do well, I was feeling nervous that she wouldn't show as well. Essentially, I was starting to have expectations and got nervous about not meeting them. Zap did fairly well, but definitely not as well as on Saturday. And of course, I over-stacked her, stretching her out making her not look as proportional. So, no love in the Winner's Bitch ring. Zap showed fairly well, but I let my nerves get the best of me.
Overall, the month of April was a big show month for us. Where Stitch, Zap and I were at the start of the month in Claremore compared to where we started to end the month in Fayetteville was a huge difference and I think the three of us have grown a lot in those short 3 weeks. We've still got lots of work to do, but as long as we keep improving, we will reach those ultimate goals eventually.
Coming up, we have the USASA Nationals in May. I entered Stitch in the 6-9 month puppy class and Sweepstakes, so I am excited to see how he does stacked up against some awesome puppies. I hadn't entered Zap for conformation, but now wish I did. But Zap will be having fun playing scentwork at the USASA National instead. But, I think it would be fair to say that these two pups have very bright futures ahead of them!