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How Important Is Showmanship?
Posted on 06/04/2012 in Ringside Conversations.

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How Important Is Showmanship?
Richard (Rick) Beauchamp

There are some dogs that live for the weekend when they join their owners to become the center of attention at the local dog show. Others, it appears, love the time with their owners but find something severely intimidating about walking through those ring ropes. The at-home extrovert suddenly becomes a shrinking violet.

Instead of Rover flying around the ring with head held high and tail awag like the other dogs, he gives you the bare minimum. It’s a case of, “Okay, I’ll go along with this but I want you to know it’s not because I want to!” It’s certainly a disappointment when Rover, the best dog in the class, goes second to a not-so- good extrovert.

Believe me, I fully understand what it feels like to have a dog whose performance doesn’t add up to his quality. I once owned a truly great dog that had a fine temperament for all intents and purposes, but he just hated the show ring and made no effort to conceal it. He finished undefeated, but, believe me, every show was a nail-biter as every other dog he was shown against showed his heart out and mine slogged around the rink like he was doing me a favor just to walk.

He won on his quality, but I was fortunate enough to have judges who knew the breed and forgave his attitude for his outstanding quality. We aren’t always so lucky!

Some Breeds Are Non-Charismatic
Then too, there are those breeds that on their best days simply walk down to the end of the ring and walk back. For instance, a Frenchie or a Beagle is not going to win the Mr. or Ms. Personality contest. They do what they do. There’s nothing about what they do that is the least bit eye-catching or glamorous, but it is as it is supposed to be.

Certainly there’s nothing that exemplifies the show part of dog shows more than the dramatic performance of say an Afghan Hound, Poodle or Boxer. We expect nothing less of these breeds. Charisma, power and a degree of speed are all part of what is correct.

The performances of breeds such as these are so highly admired, and have such great crowd appeal, that they have, unfortunately, influenced other breeds which, by merit of their standards, call for movement that is significantly different. The latter are breeds that, by the very essence of their standards, tell us extroverted movement of this kind is entirely incorrect.

Although it may come as new news to some, a dog can be showing poorly but moving correctly. On the other hand, another dog may be showing very well, but moving incorrectly for its breed. These may sound like contradictions until one stops to analyze what each actually means.

Showing Well Or Moving Well?

A dog is showing well if it appears to be totally at ease in the ring, that it doesn’t hesitate to move along, and does not appear to be unsound. A dog that is showing well moves out with appropriate speed and enthusiasm, and covers sufficient ground for the number of steps it takes.

Any mixed breed dog is able to show well, but it is not possible to say a dog of dubious heritage is moving correctly in that there is no standard by which to evaluate that movement. At best, we might say the dog is sound and happy.

Moving correctly, on the other hand, is the test of correct construction. The dog whose movement is correct is one whose length of stride, foot placement and speed (three distinctly different things), are governed by the anatomy described in a given breed’s standard.

Which is more important, showing well or moving correctly? The “after all, this is a dog show” pundits would have us believe the former is of greater consequence in that a show should be about performance. This is as if to say that it would be perfectly fine for the Prima Ballerina cast in Swan Lake to tap dance her way through the performance with the attitude of a comedienne.

If, in fact, we are to continue on in the tradition of evaluating dogs from the aspect of selecting breeding stock, there is no choice but to award dogs whose movement attends to the correctness of their construction.

The movement of the more charismatic dog (i.e., faster, more ground covering, and animated) does have greater eye-appeal. But that said, it is only of consequence when appropriate to a given breed.

The fact that one judges at a dog show does not eliminate the responsibility he or she has to choose dogs that are made correctly. Awarding dogs that move incorrectly, but in a more generally acceptable or attractive manner, is an insidious situation that leads to the generic landslide so often spoken and written about by today’s breeder.

An Over-Used Term

The word athletic has become a popular term used to describe dogs. That is all well and good for the breeds intended to be canine athletes, but there are many of our breeds whose essence calls for anything but athleticism. The high-stepping action of the Italian Greyhound, the hackney of the Miniature Pinscher, the roll of the Bulldog, the unhurried and dignified gait of the Peke are all examples of the non-athlete. There is nothing efficient about their movement whatsoever, nor was it ever intended that there should be. The manner in which they move is as much a part of their type as their heads, their silhouettes and their coats.

In dogs, it is important for judges to understand that their responsibility to a breed extends far beyond familiarity with the breed standard. Some breed standards describe correct movement well; other standards leave the reader to deduce what is correct from a description of the breed’s anatomy. In still other breeds, function itself will determine appropriate movement. Even breeds that do not seem to have much logical explanation for why they should move in a certain way have tradition and heritage that must be honored. In cases like these, having the breed move about the ring with the dynamic attitude of the glam- our breeds confirms nothing more than incorrect structure.

What has been dealt with in the foregoing describes extremes - the differences that exist in breeds of the opposite end of the spectrum - the Bulldog as opposed to the Afghan Hound, the Pekingese in contrast to the Irish Setter. Correct movement applies even more subtly. Although the Afghan and the Irish Setter are both entitled to be classified under the glamour breed heading, they do not move alike. Even closer - the Golden Retriever’s gait differs substantially from that of his cousin, the Labrador. And albeit seldom considered, there is a difference in how the well- made Irish and Gordon Setters move.

The Irishman moves as it does because of its origin and purpose. Ireland, with its huge areas of open meadow, wanted its Setter to move freely and at good speed. The sleek whipcord construction of the breed allowed it to do so.

The Scots offered their version of the Setter a rocky, frequently inhospitable terrain. Care and deliberation in movement were important to their Gordon Setter. Racing headlong across the highlands could prove extremely dangerous to the feet and legs of the breed, to say nothing of the poor hunter’s inability to keep up with the dog. Thus was developed a shorter-coupled, heavier-bodied dog with a more deliberate pace.

This is not to say the Scotsman is a plodder but neither should one expect the lightness of being that is typical of his Irish cousin. There is a difference in the way the two breeds are made, and a characteristic difference in the way they perform. Recognizing and rewarding these differences are what allow the two breeds and all other breeds to remain separate, distinct and in a word - typey.

Breeding for the hyperactive showman when it is in conflict with breed character can also create unintended problems. Let us take tail carriage as an example. The more aggressive and hyperactive a dog is inclined to be - particularly with males - the more apt he is to carry that tail in an erect manner.

Same Calls, Different Reasons

Both the Labrador Retriever and the American Pit Bull Terrier call for a tail set and carriage that in movement should be no higher than on a line with the back. The reasons for requiring this carriage are different. The Lab is a water retriever that uses its tail as a rudder when swimming. Tails that stick straight up in the air or over the back would be useless in that respect.

On the other hand, the correct Pit Bull tail carriage is one tracing back to his original purpose as a fighter in the pit. High tail carriage would be an obvious target for an opponent for his adversary to grab hold of.

Although the more aggressive dog in these two breeds may perform in a more charismatic manner, it should be easy to see why the resulting tail carriage would be in direct opposition to the origin and purpose of the two breeds. Certainly, very serious flaws in an otherwise quality dog.

So, in summary, it is important to understand when a dog is moving correctly. He may not always be the flashiest dog in the ring, but he may well be the one that is moving as his standard and heritage dictate.

Richard G. (Rick) Beauchamp has been successfully involved in practically every facet of purebred dogs: breeding, exhibiting, publishing, writing. He is the author of numerous breed and all breed books including the best-selling Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type and Breeding Dogs for Dummies. He has judged all breeds throughout the world and was one of the United Kennel Club’s first all breed judges.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of BLOODLINES Dog Event News.