Double Handling – And Other Attempts to Gain an Edge

In attempting to define “double-handling” it should be understood that there are various attitudes toward it, so you should understand the context when using the term. It has a different meaning or at least different importance to different groups. At its root, the term means that there is some influence from outside the ring over the appearance/behavior of a dog in the ring—a second (or doubled) handler. On one end of the spectrum is the extreme position where if someone at ringside blows his nose, the AKC rep is likely to give the judge hell for allowing such “interference.” At the other extreme it may appear that someone has let all the lunatics out of the local asylum. Example: at one GSD national specialty in the Orient, as the judge was looking at posed dogs several yards further down the line, I watched screaming owners jumping into the ring to get their dogs (being shown by paid handlers) “animated”—which means that the dogs are supposed to be looking especially alert. Balls, squeaky-toys, and the like were excitedly shown to the dogs—one double-handler even had a rabbit in a cage that he shook in front of his dog’s face!

Keep in mind that the suggestions and techniques I offer here should only be used in situations where they would be allowed, or at least unnoticeable.

After Mao died and dog ownership again became allowed, the sport of dog show competitions slowly reappeared. However, having been absent since the late 1940s, the sport in China was totally unknown until late in the 1980s. There was no culture of dog care, nor of “proper” behavior at shows. When I first started judging in China, I encountered some very strange situations. At one large show in the northeast, there was an exhibitor with a large number of Pekingese but very few of any quality. When he did not win big, he started yelling and (my translator told me) threatening me with bodily harm if I did not reverse my decisions and give him all the wins. Fortunately, almost all the other dogs had been judged already, and my hosts—club officials who had hired me—hustled me off the show grounds as the police started closing down the event. Such a thing never happened again, fortunately, as the sport very slowly began to be accepted as such, and the idea of sportsmanship-within-competitiveness evolved.

At another early show in post-Mao China, I judged a GSD specialty in a weekend of three assignments, the other two being an all-breed event and a Tibetan Mastiff specialty. Sportsmanship and friendly competitive effort apparently had not yet developed, as an argument had developed outside the ring (possibly between “doublers”) while I was still judging. Winners and “losers” of some previous class got so heated that people were running around knocking spectators over, throwing chairs at each other, fist-fighting, and more. The idea of competition as a polite sport had almost no history in China since the rise of Mao. Interestingly, though, the crudest form of double-handling had taken root in a small way by then, and in a few more years had grown to be a problem. Chinese copying of what they saw in Germany was often as imperfect as the many examples of copies in the fields of manufactured goods—an example: I bought a roll-on suitcase in China so I could have enough room for the tea and gifts I was to bring home after one judging trip. It broke in pieces before I could even clear customs at the first stop in the USA. Absence of government controls for public safety and product quality have been known to dog owners for many years, as witness the deaths of many hundreds of pets due to contaminated dog food and chew toys.

In Germany at the world’s largest specialty show (the Sieger Show), the problem of double handling has gone through cycles, and in that process it has often been both misunderstood and misapplied. Classes are very large—at least, they used to be before deteriorating world economics seriously ate away at the sport. Because of the ringside crowds at the 12-24-month classes and the lack of ringside access in the main adult (over 2 years) rings, there is sometimes some difficulty in getting your particular dog’s attention so it looks its best and stays lively. What started as an owner outside the ring making a sound his dog might respond to (a word, name, whistle) developed into a cacophony of unintelligible noise, and dogs responding as much to other people’s yelling, klaxon horns, bells, etc. as to their own owners’ signals to look alert. At one Sieger Show, it got so loud with compressed-air horns blasting your eardrums out, that the SV finally outlawed certain types of noisemakers. But still the screaming and running continues. The stupid thing is that the dogs don’t care who is making the noise, and usually pay no attention to it anyway.

In the smaller shows and at the under-24-month rings at the Sieger Show, doubling is usually ineffective as well, but for other reasons than just your voice getting lost in the deafening noise around you. More often it is simply because the doublers do not know what they are doing, and do not understand their dogs’ natures and needs. When the competition is varied and not numerous, it is easy for any judge to decide on the order in which dogs in a given class are to be given recognition. When the classes are full of dogs of very similar quality, there are some judges who might be swayed just a little, and that little bit might be all it takes for your dog to be in first place rather than second. And for most exhibitors, the name of the game is winning—more so than having fun. So, for those of you who put your emphasis on the ribbons more than the fun, here are some tips on increasing your effectiveness.

Most who read this will not pay attention. The reason I am certain of that is because for many decades I’ve been telling younger exhibitors (and almost everybody is younger than I am!) how to improve their double-handling effectiveness, but most act like they are deaf or stupid and keep on making the same ineffective errors. Actually, the real reason is that most dog owners do not understand dog psychology or sensory anatomy. The more noise around the ring, the less likely your dog will be able to pick out and echolocate that which is generated by you. In most competitive situations where there are many dogs and much noise, you should instead rely on visual rather than auditory stimulation. If your dog, handled by someone else, sees you across the ring, its interest will be stimulated. If you prefer handling your own dog, a family member can be the “point of interest” outside the ring.

To maximize attentiveness, alert your dog only at the critical times—when the judge is about to look at it. Same thing goes for posing—let the dog relax until you see that the judge is about to come back to look at it again. It’s like lifting a heavy weight—the longer you hold it up, the more tired you get. If you are a double-handler or use one, don’t waste your energy or the dog’s. The dog will look good if it feels good. Constant stimulation will backfire.

In the running portions of the competition—either the individual exam or group running—the best results are had if your dog enjoys it, is used to it, and appears eager to trot around the ring and pass or lead its competitors. It should present a picture of controlled power and assertiveness. Practice with different handlers, different dogs, and different orders of which dog is in front and which is following, catching up. After the dog learns how to trot at various speeds without breaking into a gallop or losing that desire to get ahead, you can employ double handlers in practice and in competition. Meanwhile, the handler should always create an enjoyable experience for the dog. If you lose that spark, you just plain lose.
It is very natural for dogs in a show ring to want to run with more energy in one certain direction. Usually it’s toward the gate or the break in the rope ring where it first entered. It’s very natural for a dog to “think” that since it came in there, it should slow down and exit there when it sees that place again. Without any use of double handlers, the exhibitor should be ready to move up next to or even slightly ahead of the dog at the moment that the team approaches the place they entered the ring. Once past that, he can let out the leash again and encourage the dog to pull ahead. If you use a doubler, have him appear some distance past the entrance/exit so that the dog keys on him instead of the gate.

The biggest mistake double handlers make is that they are too close to the dog. In the case of puppies and inexperienced dogs, or even somewhat experienced young dogs, this proximity will cause most dogs to pull too hard, break stride, even try to gallop instead of trot. With older dogs that look for the doubler, the tendency is to slow down because the guy running outside the ring is not able to go as fast as the pair inside the ring. I’ve seen many a good dog miss out on a better placing because that happens to be just when the judge is looking its way and does not get a picture of efficient, smooth trotting. If you are going to double by running around the ring ahead of the dog, you should be nearly half-way around the ring from where the dog is. Too close, and the dog may become too excited to trot its best; too far and the dog might be looking over its shoulder at you.

Since the handler and dog inside the ring are going to make the circle or oval much faster than a doubler who is running a much bigger route around the outside, the dog is going to catch up and want to slow down or look over its right shoulder. And of course, it’s quite likely that this will happen just when the judge is looking at your dog. The best way to keep such a dog focused on what’s well ahead of it is to have the first double handler disappear before the dog gets anywhere near him, and a second doubler suddenly get its attention from nearly halfway across the ring, so the dog continues forging ahead with power and drive. This can be done by arranging to duck behind a group of spectators and disappearing from the dog’s sight at the same time the next doubler gets the dog to focus on him instead. At some larger specialty shows, the club provides two or three Schutzhund blinds for such doublers to hide in, at strategic equidistant locations.

An even better method, especially if you don’t have extra doublers, and no blinds are set up, is for the double handler to suddenly reverse direction as the dog approaches him, so the effect is that the dog suddenly is past the doubler before it has a chance to slow down, and now must look over to its left instead. It sees its friend running toward a place it has already been and will shortly be again. Dogs quickly get the “idea” that they are both running toward a place where they will meet again. Of course, by the time the dog is about 180 degrees across the ring, the doubler will turn around again and be running in that original counter-clockwise direction that the dog is heading. If you know where the judge has made a habit of watching most of the group trotting, you are a step ahead of the game. Usually it will be where he will have the sun behind him, and looking at the long portion of the oval or rectangular ring.

So, now you know what double handling is, when you would not be able to get away with doing it, what the best techniques are under various conditions, and what size shows would be most likely amenable to its use. You know that you should not try it at any show where there is an AKC, UKC, or other all-breed organization rep observing, and that you should not carry it to extremes at shows where it is allowed or customary. If and where you do it, don’t be obnoxious, such as running into people or yelling in their ears if they happen to be standing between you and your target. If you think your dog needs it, do it right. Above all, remember that the original purposes of dog competitions are twofold: to improve breeding stock and to have fun. Make sure you don’t spoil that objective for others.

Fred Lanting is an internationally respected show judge, approved by many registries as an all-breed judge. He consults and presents seminars worldwide on such topics as Gait-&-Structure, HD & Other Orthopedic Disorders, and The GSD. 256-498-3319 or Mr.GSD @ Juno.com
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