On the road to Best in Show

Calgary-based handler Carolyne Cybulsky prepares Merlin, a standard poodle, for competition during the Prince Albert Kennel and Obedience Club Dog Show on Saturday. The show regularly draws top dogs like Merlin, the top ranked standard poodle in Canada. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Pat Lanctot has been on her feet almost all day, with a few more hours of standing still left to come.

Despite her fatigue, she’s graciously agreed to sacrifice one of her rare breaks to sit down for an interview. It’s all part of her mantra as a dog show judge: be pleasant.

“You have to be consistent and you have to be fair and you have to be pleasant,” Lanctot says. “At the end of the day, you’ve been standing up for seven or eight hours. The dog who came into the ring last, it’s not his fault he’s scheduled to be last. You have to have the same amount of patience and friendliness with that dog as you did with the dog that came in at 8:30 in the morning.”

Patience is a word to describe Lanctot’s career as a dog show judge. It started 23 years ago, with her husband back in Cornwall, Ont. They bred Labrador Retrievers, and won so many competitions people kept coming to them for advice. With they’re track record of success, they stepped out of the competitors booth and into the judges circle.

“One thing led to another and we judged a sanctioned match, which is where puppies practice and judges practice,” Lanctot remembers. “We enjoyed it, so we decided to jump through the hoops that the Canadian Kennel Club has … and the rest is history.”

Most judges follow a similar path. In Canada, the Canadian Dog Judges Association and Canadian Kennel Club specify that applicants must have 15 years of documented dog show experience. What’s more, they also must have won a certain amount of championships during their years of competition.

Dog shows are unique in that desire and a willingness to learn aren’t the only necessary qualifications for becoming a judge. It’s like if the NHL refused to hire referees who hadn’t won a certain amount of Stanley Cups.

As a former handler herself, Lanctot has strong opinions on what constitutes a good dog. She’s rarely surprised by what she sees, but when she does see something she likes, it’s more than worth the wait.

“There aren’t a lot of wow dogs,” she explains. “There are a lot of dogs where you say, ‘oh this is really nice,’ but when you hit that dog where you say ‘wow,’ then that whole time was worth it.”

Judging dog shows is fairly straightforward. Each dog is judged against what’s considered the standard for the breed. It’s a 100-point checklist that includes everything from the condition of their coat to the shape of their shoulders.

However, there are a few extra aspects that can decide close contests: training, presentation, showmanship and of course personal taste.

Sometimes the competition can get intense.

“You want to make sure the judges see the best of your dog, and some people have little tricks,” says Liana Maloney, a handler from the Prince Albert Kennel and Obedience Club and organizer of their recent three-day show. “They’ll step in front of you or make noises or do things to put your dog off. That’s a little bit of the underhanded part of the dog show world, but you learn to go with it, right.”

Fortunately, underhanded tricks are few and far between. Maloney said the community is incredibly tight-knit, and as much as everyone wants to win, nobody wants to see a deserving dog go home without a championship.

“You’re always hoping the best dog wins,” Maloney explains. “ At the end of the day, most of us can go for dinner, have a glass of wine and say, ‘wow, that was a fund time,’ but it gets really intense there.”

“The dog show world is very competitive,” Lanctot agrees. “Everyone wants to win. That’s why they’re here. It’s good for their breeding program. It’s good for the breed that they’re representing … but when something happens in the dog show world, it’s a very tight knit family. Everybody is there to support everybody.”

@kerr_jas • jason.kerr@paherald.sk.ca