Brains Over Brawn
"Can you help us show a dog?"
Sure, I thought, what could go wrong?
Let me count the ways.
1) He wasn't a table dog. Actually, he sort of was, in that he was as big as a table.
2) He had halfway swallowed a jellyfish. No, I was not that lucky. It was drool. And he was doing the opposite of swallowing.
3) He did not notice me. Whether I pulled or tugged or cajoled or pushed, he went where he wanted and didn’t move his feet where I wanted. In fact, he stood on my foot and leaned on my body until I had to grab him for balance. I am pretty sure he did it on purpose. Right before he shook his head. And engulfed me in slime.
4) As I walked into the ring, I was given this last-minute advice: “Don’t let them get near one another. They’re hard to break up once they start fighting.” What the OMG?
5) And one more last-second tip while in the ring: “Don’t wrap his lead around your finger like that. He could rip them off if he lunges ...”
I offered bait. He swallowed my hand. I showed the bite. Or tried, but his lips were everywhere. Did I mentioned the drool? I tried the courtesy turn. You know, for momentum. He was not inclined to be courteous. Why didn't he stand this still when I tried to stack him? Finally moving – OMG, now he's lunging! We are all going to die! Oh, it was for an atom-sized piece of bait on the ground. My shoulder is now dislocated. Somehow, we won BOS.
Thankfully, they did not get a picture. I needed a paramedic, not a photographer. I was covered in slime and sweat, and looked like I'd been in a street fight. And hadn’t won.
At least I still had all my fingers. And I had a newfound admiration for Molosser wranglers.
I decided maybe I should consult the pros in case I was ever hoodwinked into doing this again. Fortunately, several answered my questions.
Ashley Cuzzolino has been handling dogs since she was eight years old. Though she has shown breeds as diminutive as Toy Fox Terriers, she has shown numerous Molossers breeds, and is a staple in the Cane Corso ring.
Richard W. Eichhorn is the owner and founder of Drakyi Tibetan Mastiffs, established in 1978. He is a breeder, owner-handler and AKC/ARBA/IABCA/ASCA judge.
Holley Eldred started showing Rottweilers in the early 1990s and instantly fell in love with their intelligence, devotion and “at times, to my dismay, their ability to make their own decisions."
Giuseppe “Pino” Renzulli has been involved with dogs for more than 30 years. “I love dogs that show their beauty through their strength and size,” he says.
Sweetie Kay has been showing large-breed dogs for more than 30 years. She began as an owner-handler with Rottweilers in the 1980s. She’s specialed a Mastiff, but is known for Rottweilers, Bullmastiffs and Cane Corsi, having bred and owned the number-one Rottweiler, shown Top 25 Bullmastiffs and shown the number one Cane Corso in America. She was also instrumental is gaining AKC recognition for the Boerboel.
Norma Smith has been showing dogs for 42 years. She’s won more than 300 Bests in Show, many of them with Molossers. She has finished more than 150 Mastiffs alone! In recent years, she’s taken over George Alston’s handling seminars.
Terry Smith is well known in Molosser circles as a talented handler of top-winning Mastiffs.
What were some of your funniest moments handling a Molosser breed?
Ashley Cuzzolino: I was in the group ring and my dog shook his head. Before I knew it a huge glob of drool had landed in my hair, and a stream was even hanging from my eyelashes! The handlers alongside me laughed and called it my lifestyle. Then there was the time one of my Corsos stepped on my shoe as we started around ... Off came my shoe with my first step and I ended up lurching around like a dinosaur!
Richard Eichhorn: Tibetan Mastiffs would rather stay home and oversee the property than ever go to a dog show. In the Best of Breed ring at an ARBA show in Atlanta years ago, my big male Simba was determined to court a ready-to-breed champion female right behind him. Three times he stopped and rolled over in the ring so that she would catch up with him. Still, the judge gave him the Best of Breed that day.
On another occasion, a friend needed an extra handler for their big male special in the group ring. I stepped in at the last minute. The dog had that look in his eye like, "You aren't my dad and you can't make me to anything." Between him trying to pee on my leg, and then hump it, we did manage a group placement. Took my entire bag of tricks with bait, distraction, moving with him to keep his focus on performing.
Holley Eldred: While I tend to be known for different things, discipline is not one of them. I pride myself in having happy, healthy dogs. That being said, I’ve had more than one near misses in the "wardrobe malfunction" department, due to dogs jumping on me ... I've had a Mastiff stop, drop and roll on his back several times in the breed and group rings, once in Best in Show. I've had a Bullmastiff decide my dress belt was a pull toy, a Rottweiler grab a judge’s tie ...
Giuseppe “Pino” Renzulli: One time with a Bullmastiff, I was waiting to enter the ring and in the ring there were Standard Poodles showing. My Bullmastiff jumped on me and broke every single button on my jacket! Of course I was furious, told the dog "No!" and gave him a tap of the head to settle down. A lady next to me, showing a Poodle, complained about the dog's behavior, and the more I told him to relax the more he thought it was a game. Ultimately, the lady with the Poodle thought Bullmastiffs were horrible!
Norma Smith: Not exactly funny, but my most painful experience was when showing a giant breed and I fell on the last go around. I managed to collect my ribbon – but with a broken jaw
Terry Smith: In the middle of showing a Mastiff in the group, right when the group judge was walking the last walk to pick my dog dropped to the ground and started rolling on his back. The judge walked over and pointed – he won the group!
Sweetie Kay and her Boerboel at the 2011 AKC National Championship.
Any scary moments? And how could they have been prevented?
Ashley Cuzzolino: Scary moments for me happen when a judge is scared of the big Working dog breeds. This could easily be avoided by not having certain judges who don’t trust these breeds judge them. Sometimes the way they come off can be scary for both the dog and handler.
Richard Eichhorn: With the large/giant breeds, there can always be conflicts, especially when big males are required to stand next to each other in an orderly fashion during examination and while moving around the ring together. They can take any opportunity to go at each other. Proper leashes, show collars and skilled/experienced handlers are a must.
Holley Eldred: Recently, I was walking a Bullmastiff on a walking lead at the hotel and I heard something. I turned to see four Goldens, all off leash, running straight at us, with the owner running behind screaming, “Don't worry – they're all friendly!” Thank goodness my dog has an exceptionally good temperament, or that could have ended really badly. It could've been avoided by the woman having her dogs on leashes like the rest of us do. Can you imagine if the tables have been turned? If my four Bullmastiffs ran off lead at a Golden on a leash? I'm certain everyone at the show would've heard about it!
Sweetie Kay: Handling a dog of that size you have to be aware of your surroundings at every moment. I recently handled a Cane Corso that is the sweetest, most docile dog I have ever had. He had never attempted to be anything other than sweet, sweet, sweet … Until one day I was standing outside the ring talking and a terrier was standing behind me staring him down. The Corso went for the terrier and we would’ve had a bloodbath but I had a very short leash on him and stopped him in mid-launch. When you have a breed with the potential to do extreme damage, no matter how sweet, you have to be prepared. I don’t blame the Corso for that incident, by the way.
Giuseppe "Pino" Renzulli: I have a few scary moments ... however, the worst one in my opinion was when a alpha male dog tried to bite me after being "trained" right before entering the ring. Showing this dog was a favor for someone I knew and there I learned that the best way to prevent accidents is to be sure that you train correctly whatever dog you’re handling. With these breeds, sometimes it’s better to not do favors.
Norma Smith: Generally I don't have bad experiences in the ring because I don't show dogs that aren’t trustworthy. I did have a bad experience but with an Akita: I tripped and fell backward, and before I hit the ground he was coming for my throat! Fortunately, another handler saw it happening and jumped in and grabbed the dog's lead before he could get me. I did not show him again.
I did once show a Rottie who wasn’t trustworthy. But at least she was very vocal and transparent about her intentions! We were in the ring and she started giving signs she was going into protection mode, so I tightened up the lead and left the ring.
And I recall a Mastiff bitch that came to my house for me to meet. She came at me – she had to leave. You just don’t deal with dangerous dogs.
What are the best tips you have learned along the way when it comes to handling a Molosser breed?
Ashley Cuzzolino: Always know that you are showing a big breed and these breeds might not be for everyone. They should have great training as the size can be powerful. More control in obedience is better. Always, always have plenty of water and cooling techniques to keep the larger breeds cool in warmer climates.
Richard Eichhorn: Extra-durable show leads and collars. Handler shoes and attire meant for moving. Fashion with function in mind. Experience with giant breeds and a respected rapport with the dog being handled.
Holley Eldred: I think the best advice I was given, that I try to give to anyone that will listen is … have respect for the dogs. Their sheer size, natural protective nature and their determination are all things that need your attention. If the dogs are in your care, be mindful of your situation; don’t set them up to fail.
Giuseppe "Pino" Renzulli: Enjoy and show the dog with its natural strength and size; changing that will not allow the dog to feel comfortable. So, let the dog be a big dog.
Norma Smith: The biggest thing about Molosser breeds is that you have to get into their head, figure out what they are thinking. You can’t manhandle them, because they will win in a battle of strength. Every big dog is like a man; as long as they think they are getting their way, they'll go along! So you have to watch, figure out what they want. It’s not a situation for instant gratification.
Terry Smith: Don’t try to make them settle down; go with it, use that personality! They may be big, but they are very soft. They need lots of loving. They perform best when they know you love them.
Sweetie Kay: I see a lot of novice handlers go in the show ring unprepared. When you have a small dog, it’s not so bad, but when you have a dog of 100-plus pounds and no control, it can be dangerous for the other exhibitors and very, very frustrating for the judge. I cannot stress enough the importance of going to dog class. And try to find an instructor who is familiar with showing large breeds. The other people in class are always willing to help and some will even go to your ring to support you.
It is impossible for a judge to award your dog a win when they can’t properly see them! You will be doing the right thing for the other exhibitors, the judge and especially for you and your dog!
Rick Eicchorn, in 1994 (left) and 2009.
How do you deal with drool?
Ashley Cuzzolino: There is no easy way to deal with drool. It comes in all different textures: slimy, water drool, sticky drool and foamy drool. I make the best of it and always carry extra drool rags. In a fix the skirt always works, but I advise only machine-washable clothes when showing a big dog, because the cleaning bill can get high!
Richard Eichhorn: With the drool factor, with a small cloth in my pocket, or if necessary, I recycle it back into the coat with my hand like a mousse.
Holley Eldred: Ahhh, the drool. While I've joked about all the free hair gel, it is an issue in most of my breeds. I choose to embrace it and go shopping so my drool rags coordinate well with my suits.
Giuseppe "Pino" Renzulli: Well, the drool ... a lot of towels!
Sweetie Kay: Dealing with drool is the worst part of handling many of the Molosser breeds. For the ring I have two drool rags in my grooming bag and one tucked in the back of my pants. At my house I have a drool rag strategically placed in every room.
Norma Smith: Drool is just part of showing some breeds. I’ve put my dry cleaner’s son through college! But keep in mind that nervous dogs drool more, so sometimes you can help by just working on your dog’s nerves. My worst drool experience was actually showing a Black and Tan coonhound; it shook its head, and this long strand of goo got stuck in the immaculate judge’s mink coat!
Terry Smith: Drool – well, that is part of the job! Just make sure they stay drool free so you don’t get it on the judge.
How do you deal with the sheer size or temperament issues inside and outside the ring?
Ashley Cuzzolino: Temperament in the Cane Corso is key. Proper early socializing and show training are a plus, although temperaments vary. We love to see the happy-go-lucky dog, but this is not always the case when the standard calls for temperament. But the dog should never put anyone in harm’s way, and it’s best to show the dogs that can handle the dog-show life as a whole.
Richard Eichhorn: With good common sense as to the surroundings, bitches in heat, combative males, finding the best place outside the ring to wait until being called in. If a bitch I am showing is in heat, common courtesy notifying other exhibitors and judges, and keeping her a safe distance away outside the ring.
Giuseppe “Pino” Renzulli: Temperament is easy when there's respect between you and the dog. It will listen only when not forced.
Norma Smith handled frequently for the Happy Legs Bullmastiff kennel in Michigan for breeders Alan Kalter and Chris Lezotte.
Norma Smith: Bullmastiffs are sweet, they love people but they don’t love other dogs. Too many people think they can out-tough them, but you can’t force a dog with that much drive to do anything. They have to want to do it for you, out of respect. You have to gain their trust, so no matter what you ask of them they trust you and do it. It’s not about strength; it’s more about communication and mutual respect.
Terry Smith: As for size, I love the big guys. But you have to be strong, and early training is best while they are smaller. Big guys are actually sweet. And temperament is soft as I said.
Giuseppe "Pino" Renzulli and an armful of potential.
Any collar or lead caveats or recommendations?
Ashley Cuzzolino: Use proper walking leashes, as some may snap if they are not thick enough.
Richard Eichhorn: Something very sturdy, woven, and not easily snapped with a single bite or lunging mishap. Durable metal choke collars. Always have a spare of each at ringside, as I have had both break unexpectedly in and out of the ring.
Holley Eldred: Most of my dogs respond better to leather choke collars or nylon. If you use a chain, they can hear the correction coming and can tighten neck muscles enough to make it difficult to make a correction.
Giuseppe “Pino” Renzulli: I personally only use metal collars. In combination with voice commands.
Norma Smith: A lot of people think you need a massive chain choke and big clunky leashes, but you don’t. I prefer to use a nylon choke, especially with a dog that needs to use its ears. It’s plenty strong so you won't be wondering if it’s going to break, and the dog will use its ears better since there’s no sound of a chain around them. The nylon is easier on the dog than a chain; they’ll still pull, but the nylon is plenty effective. Leather is also nice, but it’s not as strong.
Terry Smith: Make sure the collar fits well. Use a shorter lead for better control.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Richard Eichhorn: Tibetan Mastiffs are territorial guardians who are not impressed with the show ring, and are not always thrilled about strangers and judges approaching them, petting them, opening their mouths, doing a physical exam, etc. This guardian tendency can be amplified if the dog is protecting the owner/handler, especially if that owner is a well-intended novice. Offer to show the judge the bite, and then keep the head forward and in control as the judge goes over the body. Don’t feed the day before, and only offer that favorite treat when you need the dog to focus and show some animation or expression.
Holley Eldred: I think the one thing I’d like to say about Rottweilers, which are my passion, it would be that if you respect them, they will respect you. If you’re apprehensive about them, they will certainly figure it out. They’re smarter than you think. I’ve found out they are much better judges of character than I am.
Giuseppe “Pino” Renzulli: I would love for ALL breed judges to better appreciate the beauty in the size and muscular strength of these breeds. As for handling: I see many novice handlers treat dogs as if they were kids or babies. They are not. Secondly, they excuse bad behavior with the typical “it’s a puppy” phrase or “He doesn’t deal well with men, only women.” All these things and letting the dog have its way are not proper training.
Norma Smith: My main tip isn’t about what to do in the ring. It’s about learning animal husbandry from the roots up. It doesn’t do you any good to know how to trot in a circle if you don’t know how to care for your dog, especially on the road. Everyone should carry a bloat kit, for example – and know how to use it. Too many people are missing the fundamental steps of dog care and only learning about what goes on in the ring – and that’s the sort of thing that's killing our sport.
Terry Smith: The big guys are my love. They don’t live long enough, and they get into your heart. Every one I’ve shown has had a different personality, but all have a special spot in my heart.
Okay, so I think I've got it. Rely on trust and respect, not brute force. Train. Learn to read your dog. Be aware of those who can’t read their dog. Or are oblivious. Wear washable, water-proof clothing. Work out. Have reliable equipment. Have back up for reliable equipment. Have a sense of humor. A sense of humor as big as your dog.
Or hire someone who does.