(Or, How I Forgot About the Points & Learned to Enjoy Being a Team with My Dogs)
Many judges and exhibitors think that identical–looking dogs are the requirement for brace. If mirror-image was the only goal then every BIS brace award should go to any Schipperke team. (My apology to that breed…)
An ideal brace team need not be identical per se. The description of brace in AKC Rules Applying to Dog Shows is brief and specifically states that a brace team must be “similar in appearance, performing in unison.” There is no requirement for identical dogs despite the common misconception. A brace team must share at least one common owner. There is no rule specifying who may handle a brace team except that the dogs are to be presented by a maximum of two handlers. While this does not preclude someone other than the owner showing brace, there are no points towards any title and practice is required for good brace performance. Fortunately that leaves brace as an opportunity for the owner-handler and the dogs to have fun!
In brace, two dogs conforming to breed standard are shown together highlighting that they can look and move as one. A visual “in sync” appearance is the goal of brace and something distinctively noticeable to the audience. Dogs of an ideal brace team should be of similar height, weight and length as they will more naturally move together with similar stride length, speed and angles of conformation. In an ideal Cairn team, the dogs might be related such as litter mates or parent-offspring. Color matching might also be easier if the dogs are related.
A brace team performs in close proximity while gaiting, so the dogs must get along well. A typical team might be a male-female combination. The dogs may be of different ages or even of the same sex if they are comfortable around each other and have no dominance issues. In FCI shows, brace is termed a “breeding couple” event and the team must be a male and female. However the AKC makes no comment on the sex of the two dogs.
One of the two dogs will be the more “alpha” and this pack structure should be used to build a good team. In my personal experience, the more dominant animal should be walked in the outside position away from the handler, similar to the “lead” in a horse team. A pair of dogs walked together but who are hopping over each other and switching positions are either unpracticed or are contesting each other for the dominant position. They will not move smoothly. If the handler has poor control of the lead and coupler, the team will be poorly controlled. Signals from the arm of the handler to the dogs come down through the lead and coupler and let the dogs know what is asked of them. Control is essential to synchronize human and dogs into one movement.
While the Cairn breed standard states that a Cairn should move freely and easily on a loose lead for general conformation, a brace team benefits from a moderate
tension on the lead and coupler. I have found that the handler should extend his left arm outward and away from the body, so that the lead is perpendicular to the ground above the dogs. By positioning the dogs out and away from the handler, the dogs can move freely without risk of running into each other or into the handler. The dogs should experience an equal and moderate pull to move forward as a unit. The lead should apply just enough tension on the dogs for them to move together smoothly while leaving enough slack for them to be comfortable. Brace leads, couplers and collars are not standard and they must be designed to fit the dimensions appropriate for each breed. I custom-fitted the collar and coupler to the neck and head sizes of my Cairns to create the best fit over wide heads but with enough tightness over the necks. My team can stand side by side easily but without extra play in the lead.
Gaiting of a brace should be at a speed to make the team look good. The handler must move faster or slower, whatever it takes, to make the dogs move as one and to bring out the best appearance of the dogs. Remember that in all-breed brace competitions, the short-legged dogs follow the bigger and faster dogs. The big dogs will get around the ring quickly and can walk into a stack in front of the judge. The handler of a Cairn team must pace the team quickly but should not run. He should not travel too fast but not dawdle either. The team should walk at a correct speed for short-legged terriers and hopefully the judge will notice the effect even if he is examining the stacked floor dogs long before your team makes it around the ring.
Practice is the cornerstone of preparation as the following critical steps will show balance and control of a brace team, or the lack of these:
1. Initiating movement as one. The dogs should commence gaiting simultaneously. Dogs that do not start together will be out of sync for a period of time and lose an opportunity to impress the judge.
2. Stopping together and going into free-stack. Dog should be practiced to expect to stop together into as nice a free-stack as possible and require minimal
correction or hard-stacking by the handler. A smooth and even stop into a free-stack looks good for the judge.
3. Turning corners while gaiting around the ring. The outside dog will move faster than the inside dog when making the counter clock-wise turn around the ring. Pay attention to the speed and position of the outside dog to keep the team and yourself moving in unison.
4. Stacking the team up on table for the judge’s examination. Stacking two dogs quickly and in front of an impatient judge requires practice, practice, practice! A pitfall in all-breed brace competition is that the table may not be set out for the smaller dogs. Make sure the steward has the table ready as soon as you need it so you do not make the judge wait.
Table dogs are at a distinct disadvantage in all-breed brace competition as the floor dogs may be walked into a stack position quickly. The table-dog handler will have much less time than in a normal breed ring to table-stack a brace team. No extra credit is given for the degree of difficulty for table dogs! A single dog may be table-stacked quickly enough while the judge is looking away at the prior dog’s down-and-back. To table-stack a brace team in what seems less than thirty seconds requires practice.
Remember that two dogs weigh twice as much as one. The handler must be strong enough to lift two dogs up to the table quickly while maintaining control. First, stop the dogs side by side on the floor. You must keep control of the lead and coupler as you do this. Then with one hand around each dog on their outer sides, pick up both dogs simultaneously, one dog in each hand. Place both dogs on the table while regaining tension on the lead/coupler. Move the dogs into position to table-stack with their heads under control. Remember that if you control the heads, you control the dogs. With the lead and coupler in your left hand, use your right hand to arrange front feet positions so that the two dogs are in alignment from the judge’s viewpoint. Transfer the lead back to your right hand while maintaining an appropriate tension. Then reach around carefully with your left hand to position the back legs. The judge will more likely notice the positioning of the outside dog so that appearance is more critical. Once the back legs are in the best position possible, stroke the tails with the flat of your left palm to show the nice tail set. Keep tension on the lead and coupler while the judge examines the team so that the dogs do not move much out of position. If the judge asks you to show him their teeth, transfer the lead back to your left hand and do the best you can!
5. Getting dogs off the table and back to the floor. Picking up two dogs and transferring them down to the floor can look awkward and is an opportunity to lose control of the team. Once the judge has completed the table examination, transfer the lead back into your left hand. Place your hands alongside the dogs and lift them up simultaneously. As you lift up, step backwards and away from the table. Then bend to set the dogs down together onto the floor between you and the table. Again, maintain tension on the lead and coupler so that the dogs are still in position and you are in control. The table may also hide any awkwardness from the judge’s view. Stretch out the lead with a comfortable tension and move the dogs forward in unison.
6. Performing the down and back. Turning on the down and back is another opportunity for a brace team to show awkward movement. The inside dog makes a sharper turn. The outside dog must travel farther due to the geometry of the turn. By swinging the team slightly wide a graceful turn can be made. This will help the dogs maintain synchronous movement as they begin their return toward the judge.
Brace competition allows an exhibitor to demonstrate unified movement in two similar dogs that are shown together as a team. A synchronous visual appearance is created that is the distinctive attribute of brace. To achieve this effect the team of dogs and human must be practiced and are kept under the control by the handler.
Brace has requirements that are more stringent for table breeds than in regular conformation presentation, especially in all-breed brace competition. Practice is required to gait a team quickly enough while maintaining proper movement, followed by a rapid stack of two dogs onto the table and yet without keeping a tired judge waiting. Brace competition is often an add-on duty for the judge. Any delay or awkwardness might be an excuse to pass over a team. The ideal handler and team must be fast and precise. The dogs must cooperate with each other and be comfortable moving in an organized fashion in close proximity. This challenge is rewarded when the team performs flawlessly and the judge and audience see the unity in movement.
About the Author
Pat Joyce is a MD specialist in Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine who works for the CDC in Atlanta. She has owned Cairn Terriers since 1983 when she picked the breed after reading the AKC dog breed book in her local public library. She has an AKC Breeder of Merit and her dog Gordo won Best of Breed at Westminster Kennel Club in 2013.
BELOW: When a brace team is “in sync,” the dogs will lead with the same feet, wag their tails in the same direction and move in unison.
BELOW LEFT: The lead and coupler for brace should provide moderate upward tension to control the dogs while allowing them to move easily and be comfortable.
BELOW RIGHT: Dogs that are tethered together too closely will be uncomfortable and not be able to move smoothly. Photo © Phyllis Ensley 2013
BELOW: Litter mate brothers Gunny and Mack have seven All-breed Best In Show Brace wins and five Best In Specialty Show Brace wins at this time.
BELOW: Table-stacking of two dogs for an examination requires practice. The task must be done much faster than is allowed for single-dog showing.