So You Want to Run With the Big Dogs?
By Laura Lorger
There are a few things to consider before you decide to special a dog as an owner/handler. Though I am not an expert, my life at this time revolves around specialing a dog. In my opinion, to special a dog you need to consider the following three categories: the dog, you as a handler and third, the art of specialing.
Let’s look at the first item…the dog. As you all know, not every champion is meant to be a special, in fact, a lot of them are just great being our family couch potatoes, which isn’t a bad thing. I was fortunate when I had a breeder trust in me to co-own and run with the dog I am specialing now (I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but what the heck, how bad could it be?). You must have a REALLY good dog to jump into this yourself. You are showing against handlers judges see on a pretty regular basis, and you are just popping in with potentially one dog or just one breed. Who are you? Remember, you are showing against “professionals.” This is their job and they are good at it, otherwise they wouldn’t be employed. To start, you are at a disadvantage, and having anything less than a really good dog would be another disadvantage…potentially losing before you even get started. A key point here is to not have blinders on. I, like every one of you, love my Newfs at home and they are all beautiful in my eyes. Do they meet the standard for temperament, structure, movement, and type, almost to perfection? Your best bet is to ask a couple of people who have experience in specialing/judging Newfs and ask for their HONEST opinion. Don’t be hurt if they don’t think your dog is specials quality. Remember, you asked for their honest opinion.
Once you are comfortable continuing, you need to do conformation training and conditioning. Your dog needs to enjoy showing, do it consistently, be under control (it is very embarrassing when you are being bounced across the group ring by a 150 pound hormonal male Newf heading to the bitch in season at the front of the line), and be in shape. The training will get you and your dog bonded and it will allow you to see if your dog enjoys showing. Keeping it fun is a very important part of training. Conditioning is for you and your dog. Just as it is harder for you to run with an extra five to ten pounds of weight, it is the same for them. They will not reach their true potential if they are not in condition. On that note, let me ask you this, what would it hurt for you and your healthy, mature dog to start jogging half a mile or a mile every day? That is all it would take to help both of you get around that ring multiple times without collapsing…and believe me, some of the judges take the term “working dog” to an extreme!
Now let’s look at you. Again, I am going to say, you will be competing with “professionals.” That is their title: “professional handler.” When was the last time you saw any professional go to work dressed in anything other than dress clothes? You, too, must look professional, but be sure to wear clothes that allow you to show. Women, be sure that skirt isn’t too tight—you become the entertainment when it splits and you don’t even know it! Most of the men aren’t going to tell you! Next question, how do you look when you handle? And even more important, how does your dog look? The way I found to answer these questions was to have a mentor who is a top-winning owner/handler from another, more popular breed. It proved very helpful. Again, it was a matter of not taking criticism personally, but constructively. In return, I am now able to help her show her dogs at the level she expects.
The last part is specialing. You now have your dog trained and conditioned and you have been mentored, but you still need confidence. You have to perform believing and trusting in your dog and yourself. Also, there is the time factor. You have to be able to put in the time to keep your dog trained and conditioned and the time for travel and showing. As I found out, showing just every other weekend usually isn’t enough to get you to the number one spot. The handlers are out there pretty much every weekend, not to mention attending show clusters that are three and four days long. Now, as an owner/handler this can be a problem if you work full time (flex-time is great if your employer offers it).
You need to learn which judges will like your dog. You are paying for them to judge your dog, and right or wrong in your mind, it is their personal interpretation of our standard on that day.
Money is a must in this game. I am not saying you have to be rich (although it would help!), but you do have to be able to pay for entries, gas, hotels, eating on the road, advertising, and possibly kennel help for the dogs at home. Oh yes, don’t forget to tell your spouse, because when all of those credit card bills start coming in they start questioning this whole process. When it comes down to it, it probably isn’t that far off from hiring a respectable handler.
So you may ask, why do it yourself rather than hiring a handler? For me, the personal satisfaction of having one of the top winning dogs and being recognized for doing it myself, makes it all worthwhile.