By Maria White

On June 4, 1874, a group of dedicated sportsmen gathered in Chicago for a field trial. Before that trial, they held an exhibition, comparing their dogs to each other purely for beauty’s sake without regard to their hunting ability. They recorded the results of that exhibition and thus the dog show was born.

Originally called a bench show, the dog show is a place where Flat-coat breeders and owners gather to have their dogs evaluated by a Judge to see how closely their dog compares to the Flat-coated Retriever standard as written and approved by the FCRSA. The Judge’s job is to compare each dog against the Breed Standard judging on such things as Physical Structure (head, teeth, feet, bone structure, muscle tone, etc.); Condition (proper weight, condition of coat, animation, etc.); Gait (as seen from the front, side and rear) and Temperament. Judging is done by a process of elimination. Dogs that have not completed the requirements for a championship title (referred to as “Class Dogs”) compete first.

They are judged by sex with the males being judged first, then bitches. For each sex there are six classes:

  1. Puppy – for dogs between 6 months and under one year of age.
  2. 12-18 Months – for dogs between 12 months and under 18 months of age.
  3. Novice – for dogs who have never won a first prize.
  4. Bred by Exhibitor – for dogs presently owned and exhibited by the same person or kennel who are recognized as the breeders of that dog by the American Kennel Club.
  5. American Bred – for dogs born in the U.S.A.
  6. Open – for all dogs American and Foreign bred.

The first prize winners from each of these classes are then eligible to compete in the Winners Class for their sex. It is from within the Winners Class that Championship points are awarded.

Championship points can be won by one dog and one bitch in each breed. The Winners Dog and Winners Bitch (as we refer to the final winners of all the “Classes”) receive from 1 – 5 Championship points, based on the size of the breed entry. A larger win, one that is worth 3, 4 or 5 points, is referred to as a “Major”. To earn a Championship, dog must win at least three different times under three different judges and accumulate a total of 15 points.

After Winners Dog and Winners Bitch have been selected, the Best of Breed competition begins. Dogs of either sex that are already Champions (referred to as “Specials”), and the two chosen Winners compete in this class and one is selected as Best of Breed. The Flat-coat that wins Best of Breed then continues on to compete in the Sporting Group and if lucky enough to win the Sporting Group would then go on to compete with the other six group winners for Best In Show. It is only the Best In Show dog that remains undefeated.

In order to compete successfully in the breed ring both you and your dog must learn the basics. For your puppy, the road to a championship begins by socializing him well. Begin by taking your puppy to as many places as you can and continue by allowing him to be gently handled by strangers while standing with you on lead. Your puppy will need to learn to stand calmly while being examined by a judge and early positive exposure to places and people will help you greatly when you take your pup to his first show.

Once your dog has learned to walk calmly on lead and to accept the attention of strangers, begin to teach your dog to gait on lead. In the show ring, you will be asked to gait your dog at a brisk trot so that the judge can evaluate his movement. Our breed standard states gaiting is to be done on a loose lead. It is important to remember that a judge can only judge what a judge can see. If your puppy is leaping, galloping and lunging around the ring, grabbing at his leash and playing then the judge will be unable to evaluate his movement and therefore unable to award a placement to your dog.

Teach your puppy to allow you to “stack” him. This means standing your dog in place and then moving his feet into the correct position so that the judge will get a favorable impression of your dog’s outline and structure when standing still in the ring. “Stack” the front feet straight under the shoulder and rear feet so the hocks are perpendicular to the floor. Never, never, never fight with your dog and force him into position. Start very slowly. Concentrate first on just getting the dog to stand still with his feet reasonably four-square. Once this is mastered, try just moving one foot. Build slowly to the point that you can move all four feet into the proper position.

Finally teach your Flat-coat to “bait”. This means teaching him to stack himself freely, with an air of confidence and a happy, wagging tail. This is accomplished by using either food or a favorite toy and getting your pup to focus his attention on that item while standing four square. Begin this by rewarding your dog for standing still and not jumping or lunging for the food or toy. Once your pup has the idea, teach him to move his feet at your command (use the food or toy as a guide) and reward him each time he places a foot where you wanted. Remember to keep this and the other exercises short and fun for the dog. It is more important to have a happy, confident pup than a perfect stack. If your Flat-coat is enjoying himself, with practice and patience the rest will follow.

For you, the road to a Championship begins with reading and then re-reading the breed standard. It is important that you develop a thorough working knowledge of the standard so that you can then evaluate your Flat-coat’s strengths and weaknesses. Then apply this knowledge while in the ring by accentuating your puppy’s positives. Seek out a good handling class and perfect your skills as a handler. These classes are generally offered through local breed and obedience clubs. A word of caution though. Handling classes are really for the handler and not for your dog. In general, they are too long for a young dog and you run the risk of boring them and making them dislike showing. If possible, take an older dog or a retired champion to class for practice. If you cannot find another dog, then make sure and keep the session short and fun.

Excellent resources for more information about the breed ring include:

“The American Kennel Club Gazette and the “AKC Events Supplement” This magazine is published monthly by the AKC and contains excellent articles as well as a complete listing of all AKC approved dog shows for the upcoming months.

“The Winning Edge – Show Ring Secrets” by George Alston and “How to Show Your Own Dog” by Virginia Tuck Nichols. These are two excellent how-to books about showing dogs.

“The Complete Dog Book” published by the American Kennel Club. Contains the standard of all AKC recognized breeds as well as a good overview of the sport of pure bred dogs.

Maria White has worked for several professional handlers and has shown many Flat-coats to their Championships as well as showing many other breeds to winning points.