The first rule in handling: Always keep your dog on your left side.
Handling is dominated by the left. Your number, rubber-banded to your left arm, will be checked by the ring steward, who stands to the left of the entrance to the conformation ring, regulating the order and spacing of the competitors. The ring itself is in the shape of a square, marked off with thin white ropes looped through copper posts staked into the grass. When it is your turn to enter the ring, you must keep the leash in your left hand and the dog on your left side. You walk around the ring counterclockwise, turning smoothly to the left at each corner. Once you complete a lap, you stop and stand your dog, taking care to ensure she is stacked nicely and on alert.
One by one, each dog is examined by the judge. When it is your turn, you walk your dog to the center of the ring, where the judge will be kneeling on his/her left knee. The judge will be looking to see how well your dog maps to breed standards: inspecting her bite, spanning her chest, comparing leg flexibility, and running a hand through her coat, creating Mohawk-like ridges in the fur along her spine. After the judge finishes the physical examination of your dog, he/she will often have you walk your dog in a straight line out and back, or perhaps in a triangle, or maybe even a figure eight.
Once the judge has seen every dog, each handler-dog pair takes another lap, after which the judge lines up the dogs in the order of their placement. First place goes to the far left, sixth place goes to the far right. If there’s a tie, there will be a walk-off.
By this point, the judge will already have an opinion on the physicality of the dogs. What makes a difference now is how well the dog moves. The judge looks at the dog’s grace, power, and rhythm, and everything else fades away. Your heart pounds, blood roars in your ears and you don’t even notice the whispers of the crowd, or the heads turned in your direction. All that matters is your dog, and the sound of her paws swishing through the grass in a two-count cadence. Where you stand—on the left or the right—depends on this final walk.
Handling rule number two: When doing the walk-out, always keep your dog between you and the judge.
My parents got Deegan as a wedding present. He was predominantly white, like all Jack Russells, with chestnut-brown ears and matching spots above his tail. Deegan was my parents’ first child, and they took him everywhere: to work; on weekend hikes; and once, even into the movie theater. On a whim, they brought him to a dog show in Suffolk County and loved it so much that within six months, they were members of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA).
Mom, Dad and Deegan were a little family of three for several years, until three more additions came along: Annie and Duffy, a mother-son Jack Russell duo, and me. Deegan took to his role as big brother like a fish to water. He allowed Annie and Duffy to share his chew toys, he never snapped at them when they stole his treats, and he taught them the best way to jump onto the counter. He allowed me to dress him up in doll clothes, he never snapped when I tugged too hard on his leash, and he slept at the foot of my bed every night from the day I was born to the day he died.
Deegan was my protector and my playmate, but even his patience had its limits. One day, I was eating dinner, my plate filled with carrots, applesauce and dinosaur (aka chicken) nuggets. Deegan was at my feet and I was under strict instructions never to feed him from the table. But I was a bored and curious three-year-old, so I decided to see what would happen if I pretended to give him part of my meal. I picked up a chicken nugget and moved it up and down, side to side, near Deegan’s face; his eyes followed the nugget’s every move. Then I got more daring in my movements, adding zig-zags, stars and figure-eights to my repertoire. I was able to react fast enough to save the nugget from two close calls, but then my luck ran out. On Deegan’s third attempt, he captured the chicken nugget as well as part of my finger. My shrieks pierced the air as I stared at the bright red blood bubbling from the puncture marks, staining my skin and swirling down my finger.
Handling rule number three: Never bait your dog.