Owner Handlers: Why Do We Go to Nationals?

by Rhoda Springer

When talking to regular (ie not dog show) people, I always have a difficult time relaying just how big our National Specialty is. I’ve tried sports analogies like the US Open (golf or tennis, take your pick); or, the Olympics (but every year). That is usually met with a polite smile. I have tried entertainment – the Oscars for instance, but you don’t have to go through a nomination process. I get another set of polite smiles.

The truth is, you have to be in the sport of dog showing to really understand the enormity of each parent clubs’ national specialty. It is something that exists in the bones, a deep seeded excitement that usually involves asking for those vacation days a year in advance and looking down at new puppies and wondering which ones you will be taking.

But let’s face it, for the owner handler, the national is a daunting prospect. And if you are competing in Best of Breed with a dog that you have gotten ranked, it can be terribly frustrating. A whole year is distilled down to a single day’s competition during a weeklong marathon with the opinion of a single judge (in most cases). And all the ‘big dogs’ from all over the country are there – with their professional handlers. So why do we do it to ourselves?

All Our Friends Will Be There
A tragic admission on my part, but any time I have been naughty in some fashion I have lamented that I am going straight to Hell. That observation has always been closely followed by the statement, ‘At least, I will be among friends!’ Is the National Specialty a form of Hell? Well, depends on your perspective I suppose, but you will definitely be among friends! Almost everyone will be there. Old friends, new Facebook friends, friends you only get to see once a year at this thing, and friends you are really glad you only see once a year at this thing. There will also be some absolute strangers and a few people you would be quite happy to never see again. But, they will all understand and share your insane passion for the sport and your chosen breed. There will be no need to explain why you are taking at least a week’s worth of vacation for a dog show to these people. They will get it. They may have even driven across the country staying in cheap motels (that accept dogs) along the way to get to the event.

And when we are all united in our insanity, we are a mighty force to contend with. In my breed and in my area, most regular dog show weekends put me in the minority as an Owner Handler. At the National though, we are in much greater numbers. It has been my experience that most judges will look at the dogs more when we are in the majority and at our Nationals, they usually have more time per dog. I call that a plus.

You Can Go Wild with Fashion
I know there are some of you that shop for the National all year long. For this one event, we scour the clearance racks for ‘breed themed apparel.’ Sure, that’s not something they probably cover in a fashion merchandising class, but if they knew us, they probably would.

Since my breed is Rhodesian Ridgebacks, anything safari or African themed is sought out. So if is zebra, leopard, or giraffe printed, or has a lion, elephant, rhino, giraffe, ibex or any other African animal on it, it is snapped up like a half priced Kate Spade bag. We will wear that leopard printed sequin studded suit with our dangly, lion headed earrings (with the rhinestone eyes) along with our giraffe printed bracelet with pride! Sure, if we wore that in to work one day it would be met with some pointing and snickering; but here at the National, it’s like we just stepped off a Paris runway.

You Get to See (and Be Seen)
For many of us, this is the heart of the thing. It is not just a chance to connect with our fellow breed enthusiasts, but to see what they are doing in their breeding programs. You will be able to have those side discussions that won’t be on Facebook or on blogs and stand around evaluating what they have in their ex-pens. And as always, you get to shop for the elusive ‘perfect stud dog.’ I’m pretty sure that last one’s a unicorn, but if it does exist, your chances of actually seeing one should improve at a National.

As a breeder, and an owner-handler, I find it very beneficial to see these dogs from other parts of the country. Most of us slog away in our backyards, and we can lose perspective on what the judges are seeing – since those judges are usually moving around the country every weekend. Perhaps your entry lacks bone or has a completely different look than the majority of the country. So when you walk into your neighborhood show, you are actually walking in as the odd man out but never realized it.

And you can watch other owner handlers. Some owner handlers (and professionals for that matter) will catch your eye over and over again. What are they doing that makes that happen? Are their dogs simply superior? Is it something they are wearing? Is it a good thing that is making me look? If that handler is winning or placing in class after class, maybe you should be adding their skill sets to your own.

And you will be seen. Make it count! And consider ordering the DVD if your club does that. Video can be the single most helpful tool in reviewing and/or improving your handling skills. It can point out nervous ticks you have when you are showing. Everyone has them but are they detracting from your entry? You can see if you are swinging your arm wildly while gaiting or fussing too much during the stack. The camera is impartial and very informative!

Because It’s There
Famed English mountaineer, George Mallory, has been credited with saying that he wanted to climb Everest ‘Because it’s there.’ There is some controversy about whether these were his actual words but the meaning is plain enough. And I think it also sums up why we all head to our Nationals every year – or at least, every year we are able. It is pretty much at the core of our being. You go because it’s the Nationals.

My own National is set for the week of September 21 this year, and I really don’t have any illusions that I will be coming home with a van jammed packed with trophies and big ribbons. This year’s judge usually doesn’t like my dogs. But so be it! I will still be there. Because there is always an opportunity to learn. So I vow this year to take at least one step outside my comfort zone and spend time with a fellow Ridgeback enthusiast that I don’t know that well. I will see what they have to teach me (even if the lesson is to not do what they are doing!). I will try to make it as fun as possible for my 9 month old puppies who are my future (besides, they are blissfully removed from the drama that sometimes surrounds these events). And if I take home a single ribbon, I will be very happy.

No matter my chances, I will be present. Because that is who I am. It is more than winning (although winning a National is absolutely fantastic!). It is reconnecting to the core of my chosen breed for one week of the year and refueling my passion for the next 12 months. I go because it is there.

And I might see a unicorn . . .