Lead By Example: Have Loose Leads Been Replaced by a ‘Tightness’ Trend?

  • April 23, 2018
  • Article and Photo by Dan Sayers

Have Loose Leads Been Replaced by a ‘Tightness’ Trend? From the April 2018 Issue of ShowSight. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE

An invitation to judge at your breed’s National Specialty is an honor bestowed on just a few lucky fanciers. Accepting that invitation, however, is not for the faint of heart. After all, stepping into the center of the ring under the watchful gaze of fellow club members can make or break a person. Your placements will likely raise your stock in the minds of a few, but a wayward point of the finger can also result in “D” grade on your judge’s report card. In the end, your winners will go into the record book and the memory of so many beautiful examples of the breed you love will last a lifetime. The secret to enjoying the assignment is to remain focused on the dogs, and not the handlers—or the handling.

In 2002, I was invited to judge Sweepstakes at the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America’s National, held in Jamestown, Virginia. The invitation came as a surprise, but I accepted without reservation since this is the breed that has held my attention since I first saw its likeness in a book about dogs. I’d been a member of the parent club for nearly 20 years at the time and worked on the Board in a variety of positions. I’d even bred a litter that produced five champions, with a couple of dogs that earned titles on both ends. I felt certain that I could do a good job evaluating the merits of the dogs brought to me by my peers. So, I studied the standard intensely to make sure I could distinguish its requirements from my personal preferences. I couldn’t wait for the day to arrive when I could get my hands on those promising puppies and enjoy a moment with each of the Veteran virtuosos that I’d watched grow 
to maturity.

Needless to say, the experience didn’t disappoint. Twenty-three puppies were entered on the day and each gave me the opportunity to appreciate the subtle differences that exist in the breed’s unique silhouette, head characteristics, coat texture and way-of-going. All of the exhibits were nicely groomed—though none excessively so—and each moved on a lead with just enough slack to allow for proper head and tail carriage. Assessing gait was especially satisfying. Though some youngsters did not particularly enjoy the hands–on exam, they all demonstrated that dashing Irish spirit when they 
went around the ring. Only one young dog had 
difficulty maintaining a trot, but even he managed to collect himself long enough to demonstrate his breed’s characteristic free and easy locomotion.

The Veterans provided a special thrill as they entered the ring. After having gone over so many underdeveloped 
puppies, the mature animals provided an opportunity to really put my understanding of the breed standard to the test. Four dogs and nine bitches were entered, including a few that had achieved many notable victories in both breed and all-breed competition. Since the Irish Water Spaniel matures slowly, most of the Veterans were in prime condition. Even a 12–year–old bitch was in remarkable shape considering her age. As might be expected of seasoned show dogs, the Veterans moved effortlessly both down–and–back and around the ring. Their freedom of movement was allowed thanks to the looseness of their show leads. My Best Veteran in Sweeps brought me so much pleasure that I had her handler take her around the ring again and again. When I later saw the lady limping through the hotel parking lot, I realized I hadn’t considered the exhibitors’ welfare. I’d been so entranced by the movement of the dogs that I’d failed to think of the handlers’ ability to keep up 
with them!

The experience of judging at a National Specialty did much to inform me about the important role judges play in the 
preservation of purebred dogs. The opportunity to judge comes with a tremendous responsibility to uphold the standard’s intention—to preserve the breed. So, when I was invited back to judge Sweepstakes at the 2016 National held in Chino, California, I looked forward to having another opportunity to increase my understanding of the judging process. I also anticipated how this entry might compare with the dogs I’d had in my ring 14 years earlier. Would I discover that overall quality had improved or regressed? Would I find that minor faults were corrected or had they become even more widespread? Had presentation stayed true to tradition or had it become uncharacteristic for 
the breed? Would the nine puppies and six Veterans entered at my second National assignment even offer a broad 
enough comparison?

Well, some of the differences I observed between the 2002 and 2016 entries involved subtleties of breed-specific characteristics. This would be expected since the time span represented the breeding of several generations. However, the greatest distinction I observed had more to do with the manner in which the dogs were shown. Whereas the earlier entry had largely been presented in a somewhat relaxed manner and shown on relatively loose leads, many of the dogs that made up the latter entry seemed to be overtly controlled during both the exam and while gaiting. To be fair, puppies of this breed can hardly be expected to stand still for long, much less show like superstars. (In fact, a little control can go a long way toward making the most of an excited—or anxious—moment.) But instead of allowing the dogs to stand and move on their own, many exhibitors had resorted to using extremely short and tight leads that restricted movement and did nothing to present a correct outline. Although this manner of presentation can provide some equilibrium, it does little to improve a judge’s ability to assess breed–specific structure and mobility in the majority 
of exhibits.

In my case, I found myself instructing exhibitors to step away from their dogs so that I could see how the animals stood on their own four feet. This request did much to inform my opinion, but it also served to relax the younger dogs. Puppies that were unnerved by the hands–on examination were permitted a moment to display their true character without undue pressure. Likewise, a tight lead did little to help with my assessment of the dogs’ movement. Only when in the hands of an experienced exhibitor did the dogs move well on a short lead. More often than not, they moved poorly and displayed faults that all but disappeared when the dogs were allowed to move freely on a loose lead and at a moderate pace. Some exhibitors seemed reluctant to give up control. Even when told repeatedly to “slow down” and “loosen the lead” many could not. This interaction, though frustrating, informed me that a judge’s instruction is given for the benefit of the dog and handler team. It is only because a judge wants to see your dog at its very best that he or she tells you what to do.

A tight lead may be perfectly correct for some Toy, Terrier and Non–Sporting breeds, but it’s an altogether bad idea for showing most Sporting, Hound or Working dogs. Herding dogs too are quite capable of moving on their own. It’s what they do. To show these breeds on a tight lead may provide a certain degree of control, but it sure can make it hard for a judge to evaluate 
the dog. 





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