Getting a Show Dog

My Rhodesian ridgeback, Colombo, is a show dog. Similar to my experience with bird hunting events, being involved in conformation shows was not something I thought I would be doing or enjoy doing.

When Colombo’s breeder first asked us if we would consider showing a puppy, I was hesitant. Showing looked kind of boring and I had heard that the judging could be political at times. But I agreed to give it a shot. Rather than hiring a professional handler to show him for me, I wanted to do it myself.

Unlike with Zara, I had the advantage of starting to train Colombo when he was a puppy. I started handling classes when he was five months old, after we had done a puppy kindergarten class that included some basic training and socialization. Despite the early start, Colombo was not a natural show dog. He was very shy and hated being touched by the teachers. He wasn’t a fan of being stacked by me, either. (Stacking is the process of positioning a show dog into a specific standing position so the judge can evaluate their structure.)

rhodesian ridgeback show puppy

Colombo in a conformation “stack” at four months old. His head is not in the correct position.

Challenges

For the next several months, we worked on stacking, gaiting (the process of moving a show dog around the ring in certain patterns) and continued socialization. When he was nine months old, we attended our first conformation show together in Richmond, Virginia. Much to my disbelief, I discovered that I had a great time. I enjoyed it all – dressing up, traveling, and spending time with my dog.

We attended several shows in 2018, working through Colombo’s nervousness. He often shied away from the judges and I discovered that he would not eat any type of food in the ring. Handlers are allowed to use food to motivate their dogs in the ring. It was frustrating watching all of the other ridgebacks intently focused on their handlers, eagerly eating treats. I tried everything – chicken, liverwurst, cheese, sausage, popcorn, dried fish, even kibble (Colombo eats a raw meat diet at home and is normally very interested in kibble because he rarely has access to it). He was so distracted that he wouldn’t touch any of it, which made my job harder.

He also looked like an awkward teenager from the time he was six months until almost two years old. It’s no wonder that we didn’t win anything the first year.

Colombo and I at his first show

Colombo and I at our first conformation show. He placed second out of two dogs.

Finally Winning

In April 2019, Colombo and I won his first point together at a show in Lumberton, North Carolina. I was thrilled. He had finally filled out enough to be competitive, gotten over his nervousness, and I had a better idea of what I was doing as a handler.

We won two more points in May and then a three point major in June. (A “major” is any win that is three, four, or five points. Five points is the max you can earn in the show ring.) I was ecstatic.

Colombo's first major win

The official photo from Colombo’s first major win.

What’s Next

Colombo has six points now and he needs fifteen (including one more major) to complete his championship. After taking some time off this winter, I plan on showing him twice in March.

Showing him has not been an easy road. He has definitely not been an easy dog to learn with. I always joke and say that Zara would actually be a perfect show dog, because she is very obedient, loves people, doesn’t mind crowds or noises, and is obsessed with food. Colombo is at the other end of the spectrum. While he is well-behaved, he is much less likely to just do something because I tell him to.

While I could hire a professional handler, that is not an option I’m interested in doing at this point. At his last show, I got feedback on some things to work on. I’m hoping that improving these things increases our chances of winning.

But of course winning is not everything. If I was only interested in the wins, I would have sent him off with a professional handler a long time ago and he probably would already have his championship. Even though it’s been challenging to show as an owner handler with a less-than-enthusiastic show dog, I never regret the time I’ve spent with Colombo, training or showing or just hanging out. I’m sure he will earn his championship in time, it just may take us a little longer than others. And that’s okay.

Showing Colombo

Presenting Colombo to the judge after the “down and back” movement sequence.

Leave a Reply