The Seven Secrets to Show Success


  • June 26, 2018
  • by Michael and Cathy Dugan

From the June 2018 Issue of ShowSight. Click To Subscribe!

The Seven Secrets to Show Success

Have a Lot of Money or Know Where to Find It

I remember a few years ago watching a cute dog win his group at Westminster and was particularly interested because I admired the Hollywood celebrity who owned the handsome gent. I casually asked, “What does it cost to show a dog and win that many Best in Shows?” The reply stunned me. The answer was a reputed three-quarters of a million dollars. “How could that be?” I continued. The old hand, a long time friend of Cathy’s, looked at me with kindness as though I was his somewhat dim-witted nephew and explained to me about shows attended across the country every weekend, huge handler contracts, advertising and incidentals including photos, entries and bonuses.

But then a dog named “Ladybug” came along and we pondered the unthinkable: campaigning Ladybug to go to the next level. We had watched our dogs compete at Westminster and the AKC Nationals, not to mention our breed Regional’s and Nationals and we had always done well; sometimes winning major prizes. We also watched dogs actually win Groups and Best in Shows and realized we weren’t quite there yet.

We talked about what it meant to make a large financial and time commitment and explored what it really takes to compete at a whole different level. We knew enough successful owners and professional handlers to develop a plan and goals for Ladybug and decided to try it for a year. After all, it was only money; a lot of money. Fellow fanciers finished a dog with over 100 Best in Shows and intimated that he only spent about half a million for that result. We knew we were not in that league and decided to campaign on the “cheap”.

“Cheap” is a relative term

Ladybug’s first year was on the east coast with a competent breeder/handler and she started winning group placements almost immediately. Within six months she was grabbing group ones and then finally popped a “Best in Show” under Judge Ken McDermott in Chester Valley, PA. We read the email from the handler and Cathy cried in joy at Ladybug’s first BIS. Cathy had won a Best in Show with a Dalmatian in Alaska several years before but this was a real BIS at a big show on the east coast. The hook had been set and off 
we went.

In her first year of major competition, Ladybug finished as the number two Portuguese Water Dog in the country. The number one PWD, CH Pouchcove’s Monkey See Monkey Do, “Digit”, beat Ladybug on the last day of the year at the last show of the year, winning by only 24 breed points for the number one spot. We had also enjoyed a friendly competition with Milan Lint and Peggy Helming, Digit’s owners and dined with them in New York at Westminster laughing about how hard we tried to beat each other. Ladybug had a great year we thought with 88 Best of Breeds, 41 group wins, a Best in Show and Best of Opposite at Westminster. The price tag for this fun? Only eighty grand for the year.

That year really was “cheap”

By now we were still relative rookies at this level of showing but we were learning from our mistakes. Now we knew it was going to take a much more detailed and comprehensive campaign that would include the professional handler, better bonuses, entries, photos, vet expenses, travel and lodging, postage and most important advertising. We’ll talk about each of these areas.

Advertising? For what?

In Ladybug’s first year, we spent $17,000 for 19 ads in major dog publications only to discover we were just learning about how important this program was for successful dog careers. There are national dog magazines, group publications and breed magazines. All of these are focused on different markets and you need to be in all of them to market your dog. The national magazines include ShowSight, Dogs in Review, Dog News, and the Canine Chronicle. For the Working Group we worked with The Working Dog Digest and for our breed, we looked to The Courier. We also learned how important it is to find a really creative ad designer who can create a theme and build a brand around your dog. We found Derek Glas after the first year and our ads really stood out in the magazines as he developed the Ladybug theme.

Many of these magazines are distributed at dog shows around the country, mailed to subscribers and, most important, mailed to AKC judges. At the average dog show, it’s nearly impossible for dog judges to know which dogs belong to what owner or kennel, nor are they supposed to think about that. Over the course of several years, we tracked 350 judges who judged PWDs and found to our relief that AKC judges are generally competent, fair-minded and impartial. Are there some who have some bias about curly versus wavy hair or lion cut versus retriever cut? Sure, but very few.

Finding a good dog

To campaign a dog, however, requires that you create a “buzz” among judges and the fancy. In sports of all kinds, including pooches, everyone likes to root for a winner (your direct competition excluded). We discovered that the more Ladybug won, the better known she became and judges and show participants looked for her in the ring. Judges talk to each other (no surprise there), and when they find an outstanding example of a breed they often pass that information along. By the time Ladybug finished her career with 20 BIS, 88 group ones, 170 groups placements, 300 Best of Breeds and multiple wins at big shows and specialties, there were few judges who had not seen her in the ring. In addition to that, we ramped up our advertising to well over 
$70,000 a year.

Finally, it’s important to meet and build a relationship with editors. They have incredible experience and judgment about the dog world and can be invaluable with generous advice. In almost every case, these editors have been in the dog fancy for decades, often with their own dogs, and are committed to excellence in shows and breeds. Ladybug ended up on six covers of major magazines and these can cost as much as $6,000 for a single cover. Covers are often reserved months in advance, but getting one is worth 
every penny.

The Professional Handler; your best friend

Our handlers have shown our dogs for years and they take their craft to a higher level with Ladybug. A great dog has to have a great handler who has created that special bond that delivers bravado performances in the ring. When we campaigned a dog like Ladybug, where we competed became as important as the competition itself. We looked for big shows with lots of points and hopefully with veteran judges who knew the breed inside and out.

The buzz about Ladybug grew quickly as she won 80% of her best of breed appearances and got a group placement 60% of the time after that. Once the Best in Show wins started coming, people expected her to win and the fancy started rooting for her. No PWD had ever won at her pace and PWD owners were delighted to see our breed highlighted by a great dog. When people watched her compete on TV it just added to the program. It could not have happened without our handlers showing Ladybug like a thoroughbred. With fees, bonuses, and travel costs we learned that reasonable costs will exceed $80,000 
a year.

Photos and more

After we covered advertising and our handler, we found that things like photos, entry fees and vet costs were also substantial. As part of our campaign, we always had a photo taken when Ladybug won and sent a copy of that photo with a Ladybug thank you card. It was a genuine gesture on our part; we really appreciate good judges. Like editors, the photographers have spent their lives and careers with dog shows. They too can become valuable resources and friends. Yes, part of the definition of a “good judge” is one who puts up one of our dogs, but we know how hard it is to become a judge and 
get assignments.

Of the 3,000 plus AKC judges, only a few hundred get any regular work. As Cathy began her training to become an AKC judge, I often attended the seminars and training with her. I discovered that the requirements and hurdles demanded by the AKC to become a judge were a lot worse than law school; that was easy! While individual photos and entry fees don’t sound like much, they add up when you consider that Ladybug competed in 400 dog shows over three years. Do the math.

Finding partners, the critical component

By the end of our first year, it became obvious to us that if we were going to take Ladybug’s competition to a high level we were going to have to have partners. At first, we talked to fellow breeders to join us in “Team Ladybug” to promote her show career and sell some puppy futures for her future litters. Paul and Judy Archambeau of Bela Vista Kennel in Santa Rosa, California, and Matthew Davis and Bill Waters of Asta PWDs in Reno, Nevada became our first partners and helped a lot both financially and as cheerleaders 
for Ladybug.

Even with their help and our own resources we knew we needed more. We didn’t take vacations anymore (Hello Pomona, Goodbye Paris) because we didn’t have the time or the discretionary money. We turned to our handlers to help us recruit a major partner. In the dog business, it’s the role of the professional handler to find a major backer. After all, it’s to their benefit to fund a serious campaign and they know people in the business better than anyone.

Ultimately, we were introduced to Victor Malzoni and the game changed. Victor is a very successful real estate developer in San Paulo, Brazil who has been a dog enthusiast his whole life. Primarily a terrier breeder and backer, Victor has successfully campaigned numerous terriers for years. During the time he helped with Ladybug, he also campaigned several top winning terriers with his fellow breeder Jerson Valle. Victor became a close friend, advisor and financial backer for us and Ladybug. We found that Victor is a true dog lover and one of the classiest persons we have ever met. If everyone in the dog world was like Victor they’d have to remake “Best In Show”. His vast experience was critical to Ladybug’s success as well as splitting the costs of competition with us. One of the reasons he was delighted to work with us with Ladybug was the absence of PWDs in Brazil, a Portuguese 
speaking country.

Do you have a plan?

Even with all of the pieces in place that we’ve mentioned none of it would have worked without a comprehensive business strategy. First with Team Ladybug and then with Victor Malzoni, we started each year with very specific goals about shows, goals and measuring increasing success. We put together an advertising campaign based on when various magazines were published so that Ladybug was in the fancy’s eye constantly. We tracked shows nine months in the future to see where the largest entry and best judges were going to be so we could plan our travel schedule. We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming article about “Understanding 
the Game”.

Is it worth it?

In the last three years of her competition, the combined costs approached $200,000 each year. Was it worth it? Looking back we have made terrific connections and friendships with some of the best people in the world of dogs. Ladybug’s success has elevated awareness and acceptance of Portuguese Water Dogs to a level never enjoyed before. It’s not unusual anymore for a PWD to pop a group win as it was for many decades. In fact, after Ladybug a great champion PWD named “Matisse”, owned by our old friends Milan Lint and Peggy Helming, went on to win 238 Best In Shows! Judges had begun to look for PWDs in the ring. While we still compete with our dogs and have had seven #1 PWDs in the last decade, we know we won’t do the campaign again, even if we found a dog as great as Ladybug which is highly unlikely. But, what a ride it was! 

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