Dog Shows for the Uninitiated: A (Total) Beginners Guide to Dog Shows, Trials and Tribulations

8 Jun

As two of the three dog snobs actively compete (and the one who doesn’t will do obedience eventually because Fang has converted Potnoodle to the dark side already), it reasons that we spend a lot of time at dog trials.

*Dog Shows are typically referring to conformation shows. These can have obedience, rally and very occasionally agility at the same location. Dog trials are pretty much exclusively referring to one of the performance, sporting or companion events.

Before attending a dog show as a spectator (or perhaps first-time competitor), it is important that you understand a few basic rules.   Afterall, no one wants an angry breeder/owner/handler/trainer/judge/steward/spectator coming after you with a pointy comb unless you have a camera, in which case, keep it up. You can be Youtube famous and we can get more followers for predicting your demise.  Win-Win.

1. That is not your dog. That is my dog. Don’t touch my dog. Touch your dog.

It’s pretty straightforward kids. This is not a petting zoo. We all (hopefully) passed kindergarten and keeping our hands to ourselves was a key component. Aside from the fact that it’s common sense to not get all up in a dog’s face, just your hand putting a dent into a carefully coiffed rump or baby-talking to that dog prepping in the holding area could cost them points, a title and an actual monetary amount. How would you like it if someone came into the stage wings offering you peanut butter while you were trying to focus? While we understand that poodle’s topknot looks wonderfully pettable, just don’t. Their handlers have scissors and they will, we repeat, will cut you. Potnoodle’s poodles aren’t even conformation dogs and she doesn’t want your greasy hands in their topknot.

We aren’t sure which one used more hair spray, but it’s a safe bet not to touch either of them.

2.  If people look busy, they are. Leave them alone.

See that dog about to go into the ring?  This is not the time to ask the handler a question.   Asking any sort of question moments before entering the ring will earn you a serious case of stink-eye.  From grooming to getting to the correct ring in time to keeping the dog from becoming distracted, handlers have a lot to think about and will not take kindly to you interrupting their well-planned out pre-show routine.. When they’re out of the ring and look unbusy, however, feel free to go over and ask questions; most are very friendly and happy to offer advice.  Note that we say most, because just like in any other arena, there are always going to be assholes. A pro-tip, if you have questions for a specific person watch their ring performance and find something you feel confident in to compliment them on. A simple compliment on their dog is often the first step to a pleasant conversation.

He looks busy.

3. There’s no shame in being a beginner.

Everyone had to start somewhere and if you’re starting here you’re already ahead of the game. Mentors are getting harder to come by for a lot of reasons, so if you’re lucky enough to have one, be grateful. If you’re not, well you’re not alone. That ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ feeling doesn’t go away immediately but eventually you’ll see a pattern. All shows should pretty much work the same way. The key will be knowing what time you’re supposed to be ringside and being there. That schedule you get sent? That’s your bible. Go to the ring first thing when you get there, check in, pickup your number and then you get to wait around. If you’re really confused, figure out who else is in your class and stalk them around in as non-creepy of  a way as possible. Do what they do unless it seems wrong in which case, don’t. Clear as mud? It’s ‘Monkey, see. Monkey, do’.  Unless they’re being an idiot

“This seems like a bad idea.”

4. Ask the Stewards.

These people are volunteers (and usually club members) or they’re paid professionals. It’s their business to know what’s going on. As an exhibitor, these are the people you want to ask your questions to. They generally are nicely dressed, if harried and tend to be obsessively counting things. As a spectator, asking them questions falls under Rule 3. If you aren’t competing, there is bound to be someone seated spectating or just standing around sans dog to ask your questions to.

He’s a steward, right?

5. Being a douchebag will not help you. Being associated with people being nasty will not help you either.

You’re new and therefore being a jerk to anyone is not in your best interest. Being nasty to other competitors, stewards, spectators or judges will not help you. As an exhibitor that number on your arm is an identifier. There’s this bigass book that pretty much every show has called a catalog. That catalog has your information in it including, sometimes your address. Flash frozen poop on your doorstep is the least of your worries. The dog community is small and your reputation as a nice person and a good sport will mean a lot. Being known as ‘That dillhole who made the 82 year old ring steward cry’ is not a moniker you want.

As a spectator, your main goal should be watching and staying out of the way. It’s pretty near impossible not to run across someone nasty eventually. A good rule of thumb is to not associate yourself. Neutrality will save you a major headache down the line. Not to mention as a beginner, keeping your eyes open and your mouth shut will serve you much better in the long-run.

They are cute and can get away with it.

6. People telling you not to do something isn’t a personal attack.

Being asked to move, or move away, or just not be somewhere isn’t personal. Sometimes it can be someone being douchey (We’re looking at you Doxie handmaiden of Satan*) but most of the time there’s a reason beyond “I need two more feet of space next to me because my friend is going to stand there in 5 hours.” You’re probably in the way. Smile, apologize, and move aside and try to find somewhere less in the way. Being told not to eat a hotdog along the ring-gates is common sense so don’t get pissy if you’re told off for it.

She may have overreacted, slightly.

7. Be prepared for amazing feats of “fashion”.  

Mind you, by conformation fashion we are generally referring to a charming blend of modest lady-suits and sensible shoes.   Most female handlers tend to stick to a lovely palette we like to call “Palm Beach Chic”, which basically consists of muted pastels that look like they belong on the set of Golden Girls (RIP Bea Arthur).  The performance events are not immune. If you have a foot-fetish, the sheer number of Vibrams at agility events will give you enough material for a year. There are also endless puns on agility t-shirts  that make little sense to outsiders. Obedience and Rally often have some delightfully tacky breed-wear but it’s generally more subdued than elsewhere. While we suggest you don’t point or laugh (see #5), taking sneaky photos of the “fashion”  you see and then posting online (read: on our blog) is encouraged.  BusyBee is more than willing to provide tips on sneaky photo-taking as it is kind of her forte.


We’re bringing Utah back. Them other handlers don’t know what they lack.

8. Bring Cash.

At dog shows, parking is usually a per-vehicle fee. If you want to eat, or buy things it’s mainly a cash deal. Ipads and other tablet card readers have made it easier but you’ll pay for the privilege.  Know that there will be an abundance of sport and breed-specific gear for sale, and it is almost impossible to walk out of there with something you “need”, even if you are just there as a spectator.

Fang needs it** It’ll fit in the car and everything.

9. If you’re not competing, leave your dog at home.

Barring you having a competition-ready dog at home going for proofing, leave your pal at home. A lot of trials have a strict non-entered dog policy. Dog shows tend to have a more lax approach but a newbie handler with an overstimulated dog can accidentally create a lot of havoc.

Squeakers is perfectly friendly.

10. Crate Conservatively

This is especially true for the performance events. If you have one small dog and bring a giant crate plus an ex-pen…. you’re going to get dirty looks. You may even be asked to pack it up. We get super possessive of our crate space, so don’t bring the whole family and expect to set up a village. Don’t take up more room than you need, and don’t step into someone else’s clearly marked space unless invited.

But with a crate… and more violence.

*Fang has been asked to move by a Doxie-person without a dog for daring stand underneath her personal tree that she had staked out ringside the evening before (Seriously). It was an interesting afternoon.

**If Fang wants to remain friends with Potnoodle, she does not actually need it.

Did we miss anything?  What is your favorite (or least favorite) part of attending dog shows and trials?  Share below!

39 Responses to “Dog Shows for the Uninitiated: A (Total) Beginners Guide to Dog Shows, Trials and Tribulations”

  1. Beth June 8, 2013 at 2:12 am #

    Perhaps I’m not jaded yet or maybe it’s because I was handling a rare breed (for a friend) but I always went out of my way to be KIND when informing the public *not* to do a dumbass things, and to answer questions. That includes picture requests at awful times (such as about to entire the ring – in which case I invited them to chat after breed) and asking questions at possibly the most inconvenient time ever (on way to group ring – ain’t nobody got time for that!) Now most exhibitors are the other hand would be total dbags and I’m not surprised participating is dwindling with their kind of attitudes to people who honest to goodness Don’t Know Any Better.
    Also, I really DGAF if someone tries to baby talk or *look* at my dog. After seeing a Toy Poodle exhibitor lose her shit (I literally expected her to crap on the floor she was having such a fit) on some kids who were genuinely curious because they “ruined her dog for the ring” I think she needed a lecture on how one properly socializes and trains a dog. No matter, the quivering mass of hair spray went on to win BOB anyway. *sigh*

    • TheDogSnobs June 8, 2013 at 2:29 am #

      We’ve seen some shit lost ringside and it ain’t pretty or necessary. Personally I just note who it is and go out of my way to avoid them.

    • sibeluvr June 8, 2013 at 4:26 am #

      I always try to be nice and I have a more popular breed. I blame it on the rescue work; the people who manage to make it to a dog show and have questions about my breed usually aren’t *quite* as stupid as some of those who manage to stumble into Petco. Although I have a breed with easy grooming requirements, so don’t spend hours grooming pre-show. Pet away as long as your hands aren’t sticky or covered in ketchup or something.

      One thing I have noticed is that a lot of people at shows don’t know how to talk about their breed, even if they’re done showing and just gossiping with friends they’ll spend the rest of the weekend with. Seriously, if someone’s coming up and asking questions about the breed’s temperament or how they are to live with, use the time to freaking educate, you can chat later. Often the same people I’ll hear whining later about how all of these people wanting to buy puppies from them don’t know anything about the breed. Maybe it’s just my breed?

      • TheDogSnobs June 9, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

        It’s not just your breed. It’s pretty common. I think a lot of people are leery about discussing their breed lest they fall into the ‘Breed ambassador’ category. Personally *I* do not want to be an ambassador for my breeds. I have well-trained, obedient dogs with better temperaments than their breeds are known for. Generally speaking theses aren’t “pet”*** breeds that people are looking for even if they say otherwise. It’s a double-edged sword between discussing a breed you love and not advocating that breed for other people. I find it’s a hard balance so I’ve been more inclined to not discuss them if at all possible but in daily life it’s hard to avoid.

        I recently got asked about my Male-in-noise *cough* and the assumption that they’re “A healthier German Shepherd” and “Will they guard stuff?”… I explained that they are in fact a different breed and no, they are not the same temperament-wise. As he shared more about himself he just underlined that it was the wrong breed for him so I spent my time talking him out of it. I really get that people just want to be outside that stupid question realm for a weekend so answering dumb questions isn’t in their plans for the weekend. That being said, even at shows I’ll answer questions about my dogs because a newbie getting an ACD or a Malinois is getting in way over their head and they need to hear the bad along with the good before they go get a $200 puppy off craigslist. It’s a balancing act between what I want to do that weekend personally vs. what I want for the breed in the long run. Some days it’s a near thing.

        ***The Perfect pet that walks themselves, comes pre-trained, never poops at all ever, doesn’t get off the couch unless their owners want to play fetch and then they’re totally ready to play for hours or until their owner gets bored and then they go back to sleep, etc. Functionally the Lassie that doesn’t exist.

    • Pat F. June 11, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

      What is wrong with looking at dogs at dog shows? I cannot understand why any exhibitor would have a meltdown because someone looked at her/his dogs. If you can’t stand to have people looking at your dog (or the dog can’t stand it), then why are you bringing the dog to compete in a dog show (an event open to the public, to which the public is encouraged to come and see beautiful and responsibly bred dogs)? Of course, a *look* should not include making funny faces and noises at the dog (though it may if the looker is a young child) or jabbing fingers, people are curious. I have always preferred spectating at dog shows to handling (I was never particularly skilled at the latter); it’s a movable feast of gorgeous and varied dogs; people will be curious. The Toy Poodle exhibitor you mentioned should, in my opinion, get a reality check. No need to have a fit about curious children; especially since we want them to grow up to become responsible dog owners!

      I have a strong natural instinct to baby-talk dogs; since I consider most of them to be cute and lovable. I curb myself when meeting other people’s dogs at shows, unless they belong to friends, and just say how good they look, or wish the exhibitor luck.

  2. yukidomari June 8, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    my favorite part is going and listen to all the people with sticks up their asses who take themselves way too seriously, take shit about each other.. 🙂

  3. Lulubelle June 8, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    I went on a dog board once and when I told people who my breeder was, I immediately got frozen out. Turns out she has never done anything per se and is a good breeder, but she still has a breeder who is universally reviled for her bad behavior toward other breeders on her facebook friendlist. That was enough to make everyone on that board treat ME like shit, and it was months before I found out why. Dog people is crazy.

    • Rebecca June 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      “Dog people is crazy.”

      You can say that again!!!

  4. The Lady June 8, 2013 at 2:30 am #

    My favorite was talking to some beagle folks who’s friend didn’t show up and they were like “do you show, we may need you to go in the ring…oh don’t worry, little Sue here doesn’t need points” Luckily for my heart, I was just able to do some ring-side dog swapping with them and quick number changes.

    Oh, and my hard-learned lesson: Bring your own chairs! Many smaller shows don’t provide anywhere to sit!

  5. Toni June 8, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    Most of us Dachshund people are pretty nice and will share what we have even space. Sorry you meet the Bad one.

    • TheDogSnobs June 8, 2013 at 2:41 am #

      Fang figured it was a one-off and there are lovely Doxie people locally. I doubt this person was well liked regardless given what she was saying about other competitors. Just a bad apple

  6. catherineduke June 8, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    I’ve only been to one dog show, got terribly lost in the enormous building and missed the breed I was there to see. BUT I did get to chat up some lovely people with a “meet the breed” booth and a handful of gorgeous Anatolian Shepherds, and I ogled a corded standard poodle and wondered how much time her owner spent maintaining that FANTSTIC ‘do.

    It was a really nice day, even if I missed my Bedlingtons. 🙂

    • Tom Mahoney June 8, 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Hmmm. I wonder if that was our corded Standard Poodle. What show was it?

      • catherineduke June 9, 2013 at 2:56 am #

        It was the Golden Gate Kennel Club dog show at the Cow Palace in Daly City, CA and it was a white standard poodle.

        Luckily I have a smidgen of common sense and kept my hands off, but OMG I WANTED TO PET THAT DOG! 😀

  7. sabledog June 8, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    If I’m standing next to a dog, and you ask if the dog is mine, but I say no, he’s my friend’s dog…don’t proceed to talk shit about the breed and how we think they’re sweet and docile but we should tell that to the one lady in the whole world who was attacked by two clearly perfect representatives of the breed, that were also owned by obviously a responsible individual.

    I mean seriously?! I have to deal with enough douchbaggery without you and your rhinestone jean vest.

    • Krista June 8, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Ohhhh I just died laughing! The imagery of the rhinestone vest….. I think I met that lady… Or a friend of hers maybe lololol.

  8. RedDogMom June 8, 2013 at 3:45 am #

    Personally, I enjoy the post- show lunches or dinners at local, family restaurants. There’s nothing quite like seeing a non-dog person’s face when they overhear the out-of-context conversations going on at the dog table. To whit – “Did you see the rear on that bitch?”

    • HollyIggyMom June 8, 2013 at 6:17 am #

      Oh, I love the after show dinners! Besides just all the fun BSing that goes on, they prove that dog people tend to have iron stomachs and/or don’t associate their conversation with their food. (Which I’ve always found silly anyway!) Case in point was the time when we realized all the tables near us were dead quiet…and we realized we’d been eating Chinese food while talking about intestinal worms. lol

      • gray skeeter snd I do bite! June 8, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

        great I can just hear the soilence.

      • Dot Newkirk June 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

        Your comment reminded me of a time I was having lunch with a fellow Hospital Lab Tech and a fellow Dog person. We were talking about human and K9 internal parasites, diarrhea, etc and the silence around us was deafening. We all thought it was funny because dog people and hospital techs have strong stomachs

  9. Diana June 8, 2013 at 5:02 am #

    Watch your step! Particularly at breed shows.

    Also, the universe has a tendency to repay violators of rule #5 with literal interpretations of their sh*tty attitudes. If no one in your breed is sorry when a post-dump scratching dog launches something steamy at you, maybe you should consider it a wake up call.

  10. Myweims June 8, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    I think that we should welcome new comers that come to check out the breed they have their eyes set on. I too got the sharp end of the stick buying a pup from a breeder, little to my knowledge the breeder is not that great and I made a mistake, however, that’s the breeder not the owner.. Educate people if your a great breeder and competitor and give advice do ppl make the right choices and not fall for bad breeders that sound good.

    • Mom w/the Edge June 10, 2013 at 5:16 am #

      I’m a newbie!!! Just getting a nice show puppy was a lot of money and a B****!!! the second one I got cost a fortune. He promised she was going to be HOT in the ring. She hardly had any hair when I went to pick her up so I wasn’t going to get her. My coach talked to him by phone and convinced me to bring her home anyway. We were lead to believe that her parents were currently AKC champions..NOT… her sire just finished this year. Plus I told them what time my plane left, yet they got me to the airport late and I missed my flight. Then I was told I should offer her back to the breeder. That was a huge mistake!!! he bashed me to everyone on facebook with private messages. The best show girl I got was my third one and the cheapest. She isn’t very well liked cause she don’t have the blood of the current best of breed in our breed. she will finish soon I expect and is nearly 9 mos. now. So look for Jagged Edges and cheer her own. I didagree with how close some breeders are breeding these dogs. Oh and where are they? I heard they dispose of the ones that don’t turn out so good and that hurts my feeling!!! Please say it ain’t so.

  11. KD June 8, 2013 at 6:11 am #

    Love this! #10 doesn’t apply to lure coursing. At least not in the PNW. We all set up EZ ups, many crates, and ex-pens. Many will even have motor homes or trailers. And at least one person will have a grill. It’s like we create our own little town for the weekend. 🙂

  12. Kimm June 8, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Don’t forget to explain about the power of the Cone or even better…the power of the (caution) Tape! Don’t EVER move into someone’s staked out territory unless you want to be treated like some low life predator by some lioness protecting her personal piece of the Serengeti .

  13. Mary Mary June 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    I notice you didn’t rail on the judges which is smart since they are the Gods of the Rings but I love their outfits that weren’t even cool in the 80’s and their beyond sensible shoes. And don’t get me started on the average age of the conformation judges.

  14. Ruth Ann Ford June 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    more dog show do not do’s:
    If you are not going into the ring, DON’T stand in the middle of the path to the ring.
    Don’t allow your bored child to play with the rings fence, making it swing.
    Don’t sit ringside with your pets new squeak toy squeaking it non stop.

    • Cathy June 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      YES on all but especially #1 – I remember being at a large crowded show, trying to get into the ring while the steward is screaming my number. The guy and his family blocking the gate told me “we were here first” when I politely said “excuse me” So. I’m jumping up and down, waving my hand and yelling “I’m right here but they won’t let me in!” At that point the steward had to make them clear the gate. Some people just have no sense whatsovever!

  15. Honestly Kay June 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Tagging onto #5: don’t afraid to reach out and at least offer a hand to an obviously struggling newcomer. It took 1.5 years before someone offered to help & show me some tips/tricks when I was new in the breed. The others were perfectly content to allow me to struggle with grooming & handling (despite many handling lessons/classes & over the phone advice from my breeder who was in another state) and be ring fodder. And I’m in a friendly breed!

    You have to be careful & use some judgement, but it can go a long way into help keeping people in the breed.

  16. P K Paterson June 8, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    This was good to read. Some of it, I’ve observed as happening, when I had just visited a dog show, and wasn’t there to be competing. We were with the veterinary clinic that was on hand to provide their services, if needed. We were right across from a ring….& depending upon what breed was being presented, you saw a vast array of handlers, or handler/owners! That was an education in itself!!!!
    (Thanks Kim for sharing this article.)

  17. Jennifer June 9, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    This is a wonderful reinforcer, especially considering I have a mentor. It’s nice to hear some of the same stuff she’s been hammering me with said again.

    However, my experience the last two years is that dog shows (especially AKC shows) are ridiculously cliquey and very similar to high school – even though most of the people I walk into the ring with graduated at least 20 years ago. I’ve already done things I will probably never live down. I don’t know why I keep throwing myself at it – there’s just something so tantalizing about that big rosette.

    I actually can’t wait until my Vizsla puppy is six months so we can rock out the Atlanta show in July. I love the Exposition center venue.

  18. TRC June 9, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    I don’t think you near enough captured the exciting fashion choices that are “dog shows.” Especially without someone showing a short dog, who is bending over in their even shorter skirt, and displaying to the audience their very large undergarments. (hopefully very large!)

  19. Psychbucket June 9, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    Your advice and these comments are spot on. It’s been 10 years since I’ve been to a dog show as either a spectator or gofer for my breeder who was showing, and it’s kind of comforting in a weird way to see how little has changed in the collective dog showing psyche. I’m going to a lure coursing event in a couple of weeks and will be interested to see what the feel is there. Oh, and soooooo much of what’s been said transfers pretty neatly to the horse show world, too.

  20. Carrie Wehmeyer June 9, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    I learned early on not to let my (perfectly friendly and well-behaved) chow sit and watch the toy group after she was finished for the day. Apparently her smiling face was throwing dogs off and there was some s**t lost. Beginners!

  21. The ring steward June 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    I had a judge once send me to the corner market for cigarettes. Which he then lit up while judging.

  22. Janett Willis December 3, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    99.9% was spot on. I do try to be nice to spectators & esp new exhibitors since they’re the future of the sport. Used to steward quite a bit & a few judges commented on how they hate novice handlers. They should remember who’s going to be hiring them-or not- in the future. I’m just glad no “fashion” pics of me made it into the line-up.

  23. Wendy December 3, 2013 at 3:27 am #

    I see that Fang is a Pumi – I’ve helped train 4 of them. Fairly rare breed. Cool

  24. Janis June 9, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    As an owner/spectator..please dress as well or better than the handler you hired!!

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