The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the biggest dog show competition of the year with hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to watch. Around 190 breeds of dogs are evaluated during the show, with each competitor being heavily scrutinized by a judge. Before entering the ring, the dogs are trained by their owners and handlers, who see their happy family members as athletes in training. Some of these handlers go to extreme lengths to get their pups ready for the spotlight and have shared their inside knowledge. This is a window into their once-hidden world!
Treadmills Help Develop The Proper Trot
As soon as a dog steps out onto the show floor at a dog show, they are being judged. The speed at which they trot, which is one of many criteria being scrutinized, is taught by putting the dog on a treadmill.
Karen Mammano, a seasoned trainer and handler explained, “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have.” If the gait is not perfect, the dog may have lost the competition before it ever really began.
Doggy Treadmills Don’t Come Cheap
Anyone serious about handling and training their dog for the Westminster dog show is going to have to invest in a doggy treadmill. On average, one of those will set a serious competitor back around $1,000.
This piece of equipment is vital, though. As handler Sharon Rives says, “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete… any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”
Teaching Proper Stance Takes… Soup Cans?
Just like needing to trot with a proper gait, all dogs at the show must stand and stay still, with their legs and paws a specific length apart. Handlers take many different approaches to teach this, but one of the more classic ones is to use soup cans.
Sharon Rives says that’s what her parents used to do. They would put four soup cans on the ground, measured for the desired distance, then have the dog balance on them. This stance training would begin when the dogs were just puppies.
A More Modern Approach Uses Blocks
Rives uses the same idea that her parents did to train dogs, but she doesn’t use soup cans. Instead, she uses stacking blocks, a much more modern approach to proper dog handing:
“I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable… maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”
Dogs Names Aren’t All They Appear
Dogs can be taught to respond to several names for the purpose of the show. One of Rives’ dogs will come to her whether she says, ‘Wiggle” or the dog’s much longer name of, “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.”
Rives explained her unique naming process this way: “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from. Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” The second part of the name came from a Top 40 Songs theme she was using at the time.
Handers’ Cars Have To Meet High Standards
Every dog that goes to the dog show must get there somehow. As important as a vehicle is for the transportation of the pooch, it’s even more important the car is safe. That’s why any handlers who intend to drive must register their vehicle, which then goes through a thorough inspection.
The Mammano clan has their vehicle ready to pass any inspection, “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank. We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”
Handlers Know Shows Aren’t Natural
Dogs have natural instincts. Dog show training tends to break those instincts. The good news is that trainers like Mammano understand how unnatural shows can be, “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring. They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds.”
Mammano tries to make sure the show is as fun for the dog as possible, because at the end of the day, what’s most important is having a happy dog.
Biting Gets Dogs Blacklisted
Safety, as we’ve said, is more important than anything at a dog show. That means safety for the dogs, the handlers, and the judges. If any single dog gets out of line and bites for any reason, they will be disqualified.
Once a pup is disqualified, they will likely never be asked to return or qualify for another show ever again. Even if it’s an innocent bite, there is no room for any form of violence at a dog show.
Most Handlers Admit To Making This One Big Mistake
Sharon Rives says no matter how long you’ve been a dog handler, you’re not really a dog handler until you fall in the ring. She’s done it, and she says just about everyone she knows has too:
“I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen. That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”
Falling Isn’t The Only Awkard Situation That Can Happen
As embarrassing as falling in the ring can be, Rives says she suffered through one experience that might top it. She was 16-years-old during a show when she didn’t have a place on her outfit to carry her dog bait (what handlers use to keep the dogs focused).
Normally, Rives would have hot dogs or cheese she could hold in her mouth. On this day she had liver, so she hid it at the top of her pantyhose, “the liver made its way down the waistband of pantyhose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”
Handlers Dress To Impress, But They Can’t Overshadow The Dogs
When choosing outfits for dog shows, handlers are careful to dress professionally, but not fancy enough where they overshadow the dogs, “You want to dress to complement the dog’s colors. If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”
Of course, the bigger show, the more handlers tend to bend their own rules. When they get to the Westminster dog show, all bets are off.
Westminster Is “Fashion Week”
As the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show approaches, handlers pull out all the stops. It’s the last big show of the year and is lovingly referred to as “fashion week.” And what is the most popular thing to wear? Suits!
Another unique aspect of Westminster that handlers have to be concerned about is their footwear. The show is nationally televised, and they are going to be on their feet all day. Finding fashionable shoes that are comfortable has led Sharon Rives to wear ballet shoes, “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes.”
Handlers’ Bodies Get Beaten Up
The focus of shows might be all on the dog, but that doesn’t mean handlers don’t get a workout. David Fitzpatrick is a handler who works with Pekingese dogs and says that handlers are constantly in need of medical attention:
“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced… You get tired just from being at the show.” Left legs tend to take the biggest beating, too, since handlers must make constant left turns with their dogs in the ring.
Superstitions Are Alive And Well
David Fitzpatrick uses the same leash at every dog show he attends. He is superstitious about it, admitting, “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”
Fitzpatrick isn’t the only superstitious handler, though. Mammano retires leashes after a major win. She also holds her number with three rubber bands wrapped around her arm. Other trainers freak out if their dog’s favorite toy goes missing, “when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”
Diets For The Dogs Go Out The Window
To ensure that dogs are on their best behavior, handlers always have their favorite foods on hand in the ring. One dog that Fitzpatrick used to handle was so picky it would only eat filet mignon.
After one too many experiences trying to control his canines’ diets, Fitzpatrick gave in. “They get whatever they like… I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”
Dryer Sheets Are A Handlers’ Secret Weapon
There are a lot of secrets that handlers won’t give away, but using dryer sheets isn’t one of them. According to Rives, “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”
Another not-so-secret trick that handlers use on lighter colored dogs is chalk. Fitzpatrick says chalk can be used to lighten a pooch’s coat, making sure they look their best.
No One Talks About Grooming
Dog handlers consider their sport to be self-regulating, and grooming habits are never shared. There are limits to how groomed a dog can be, and if one handler sees another handler over-grooming their dog they won’t hesitate to blow the whistle.
Rives says, “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed. It’s a self-regulating sport. If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”
Prize Money… What Prize Money?
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is so high profile it would easy to assume that winning comes with a big money prize. Aside from free stuff, handlers who win get bragging rights at the most.
David Fitzpatrick won Best in Show in 2012 and said, “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”
Start Training Pups In A Boring Environment
Dogs that train for dog shows begin their new life as puppies. Training starts early, and should initially take place in a boring environment. If a puppy is in a spot where there is too much stimulation, they will be too distracted to pay attention.
One handler says you should also train your pup while they have a leash on. Remove all of the toys from the room you’re in and let the complete focus of the dog be on you.
Some Dogs Are Bilingual
Dog shows don’t just happen in the United States. Handlers that travel with their dogs must train them in multiple languages. That means that some dogs on the dog show circuit can be considered bilingual!
As with any training, teaching a dog to listen to commands in more than one language is something that should be started young. It would be a pretty amazing feat to say your dog won a competition in the United States and France!