The decision to go to a fun dog show is often a spontaneous one made a few days beforehand, or even on the day itself. But if you think you're likely to attend a few events during the months ahead, a little advance preparation won't go amiss.
As well as increasing your chances of success in the ring, it will help make your day out together run a little more smoothly and ensure that it is - as intended - fun for you both.
Back to school
Your dog doesn't need to be trained to an advanced level to succeed at a fun dog show, but he will need to be able to walk nicely on a slack lead rather than dragging you after him - or vice versa. He'll also need to be able to wait his turn to be inspected reasonably calmly, rather than playing rowdy games with the dog next in line to him. When it's his turn, he'll need to contain his enthusiasm instead of launching himself at the judge in excitement.
Practise your lead walking - in a flat collar or non-tightening harness, and with a fixed-length lead - in as many different places as possible, so that when faced with the exciting atmosphere and presence of lots of other dogs at a show, yours doesn't struggle to maintain his composure and good manners. If this is something you struggle with (or which has become a little rusty perhaps, or if undesirable habits such as jumping up in greeting have crept in), it can be helpful to go back to school together, joining a suitable class at your local training club. If your dog normally has limited opportunities for socialising and meeting with other dogs or for interacting appropriately with strangers, a training class will also be good preparation for him.
If your dog has definite issues about being in close proximity to other dogs, or about strangers approaching and touching him, you may, however, need more specialised help. Eventually you may be able to resolve these difficulties, but it might be best to put any ideas about showing him on hold for the moment. He won't be happy about being placed in such a situation, and if his response is to show signs of aggression you certainly won't get placed, and may be asked to leave the ring.
If you're considering entering some pedigree classes, although those at fun shows are generally more relaxed and informal than those at breed shows, you may find it helpful to take your dog to a few ringcraft classes in your area. There you will learn what's expected of you in terms of running your dog out and standing him up for the judge.
What the judge looks for
The person judging you and your dog may be a local trainer, a vet, or perhaps a celebrity - but even if not an expert, it's generally someone who has a love of dogs. Some classes are easier to judge than others - such as ‘Waggiest tail' or ‘Fastest sausage eater' - but often it's pretty subjective, so you may find yourself top of the line-up at one show, and bottom at another. Tellington TTouch instructor Sarah Fisher and her actor partner Anthony Head are popular judges at fun shows. Sarah commented: "We really enjoy judging ‘Companion dog' and ‘Best rescue' classes, although they're often the hardest to decide as they all have such great stories. We like to make a point of meeting and greeting all the dogs in each class, and look for those who are friendly but not over-excited, and who are obviously enjoying the whole experience - not all dogs do.
Only put your dog into a class if he really enjoys being in a group situation and isn't nervous about being touched and handled by other people. We also look to see that a dog isn't overweight - if he is, we won't place him unless it's due to a medical condition.
"Your dog should also walk happily on a loose lead with a flat collar or a non-tightening harness, not a half check or choke chain. All the dogs we meet are lovely, but there are often a few that have that little bit of extra sparkle that makes them really stand out. For me and Tony, it's usually those dogs that not only look as if they're having fun but obviously have a great rapport with their owners too."
Catch the judge's eye
Wearing matching bow ties, buying a beautiful collar, or dressing your dog in a colourful bandanna will help him to stand out, especially if he has a dark coat. If you own a sighthound you could attach a tassel to his collar too. You might also teach your dog to wave a paw at the judge as a way of introducing himself when the judge comes round to meet and greet him.
Image is everything
You don't need to be dressed up to the nines, but clean and tidy will reflect better on your dog. Choose an outfit that will be both practical and comfortable as you may be wearing it for several hours, and which also makes it easy for the judge to focus on your dog, rather than distracting attention away from him.
Trousers are the most popular choice for many people, but choose a colour that contrasts with your dog so he doesn't end up blending into your legs. Remember, too, that you may need to bend over your dog, so if you opt for a skirt don't pick one which may prove embarrassing - the same also applies to low-cut tops.
Sensible footwear is really important too - not just for comfort, but so you can walk your dog round the ring without danger of getting a heel caught in the grass and tripping over, or accidentally stepping on a paw and injuring him. If you're planning on entering your dog in a fancy dress class, you'll need to buy or make a costume for him, and then accustom him to wearing it so he doesn't take exception and spend all his time on the day trying to remove it.
Fancy dress can be fun, but not all dogs enjoy getting dressed up, and it can require a degree of patience too, so take his personality and temperament into account. Make sure his costume is quick and easy to put on and take off if it's a warm day.
Make sure your dog is looking his very best: well groomed, with his eyes wiped, ears clean, nails clipped, and bottom wiped. Some dogs have a naturally scruffy appearance which can look wonderfully endearing, and is of course perfect for ‘Scruffiest dog' classes - but it shouldn't be a look which has been acquired because his coat is unkempt and matted or dirty. As well as a thorough beauty treatment the day before (including a bath if he's a little pungent), give your dog another quick session on the morning of the show. Remember to pack a brush if he has a long coat so you can give him a last quick tidy up before you go in the ring - or if he's short coated, a chamois leather to wipe over him to remove any dust.
Strut your stuff
What you have to do in the ring depends on how big the class is and the judge. You may simply be asked to walk as a group around the edge of the ring in single file, and then to wait while the judge comes round and inspects each of the dogs individually. Once he's done this, you may be asked to all parade around again while he makes up his mind about the final placings. Sometimes each competitor is asked to trot their dog out individually, either around the edge of the ring or moving in a line away from the judge and back again - the steward or the judge will tell you what they want you to do, so don't panic.
It's worth practising at home for this eventuality. Learn to match your stride to that of your dog, so he doesn't break out of a trot into a headlong gallop to keep up with you. If it's something he's never done before, he might also think it's all a bit of a game and start tugging at the lead, jumping up in excitement, or maybe hanging back anxiously - neither of which will give the best impression. If you're planning on entering a ‘Best trick' class, polish up your dog's talent so he produces it faultlessly and on the first time of asking. Practise both indoors and outdoors at home. Progress to the garden and then the park, so that he learns to focus on what you're asking him to do in situations where there are distractions. Then, when asked to do it in the competition, he won't be too busy looking at everything else to concentrate.
When trying to decide which trick to showcase, don't forget that a simple trick well executed will look far better than something complicated which is poorly done - so play to your dog's strengths.
Talking up your dog
This is the bit everyone forgets to prepare for. It's surprisingly easy to get completely tongue-tied when the judge comes round. Think ahead about what makes your dog so wonderful as well as all the relevant facts, so you don't forget any details, or end up talking at such length that the judge's eyes start to glaze over. The information you give may vary according to the class, and the judge might ask you specific questions, but it helps if you're ready with the answers, rather than ending up trying to work out on your fingers exactly how old your dog is or how long you've had him. The judge won't have time to listen to your dog's entire life history, so keep the details that you think are of interest brief and relevant. Remember, it's supposed to be fun - so smile!