Whenever conformation judges gather to discuss how dog shows have changed over the decades, it doesn’t take long before the subject of “today’s overgroomed dogs” takes center stage. Flip through the magazines of the 1960s and ’70s, and the show photos speak volumes: Whatever the breed, we see sparser head and leg furnishings, a less tailored look and little evidence of the “P” word (product).
So what’s happened? Are exhibitors and handlers feeling less constrained by the individual edicts of breed standards and eager to put their artistry on display? Are judges more accepting of a generic (big coat, big movement, big everything) show dog? Is it the smorgasbord of shampoos, lotions and potions available for purchase at dog-show vendors and online? Probably a combination of all three.
In this series, we ask breeders, judges, professional handlers and owner-exhibitors for their take on the grooming changes they’ve witnessed firsthand. Below are some of the changes that have occurred in the Herding Group.
Terry Miller, the highly successful breeder-owner of the Déjà Vu Briards with hundreds of homebred American champions to her credit, views the evolution of Briard coat development “as a multi-faceted road map. Like any change, it seemed to happen both serendipitously and deliberately around the world, reflecting human events.
“In Briards, and probably in other breeds as well, coat development over the decades was to be equally about genetics and coat care: technology in breeding and technology in hair management.
“In Europe more so than in the US, dog breeders’ single-mindedness of purpose selecting for coat quality, rapid coat growth and coats which could be groomed less frequently yet grow with tremendous profusion, successfully created Briards with the hair we all dream of. I remember a story a few years ago of a show dog whose coat had not been groomed by his German owner for almost a year. This woman decided to take him as a veteran to a club show, and in two hours’ time had him groomed and ready to compete in full glorious coat. My own dogs would have required shaving to the skin with a 40 blade. The German dog won the club dog show.
“When one looks at Briard photos over time, one can see the impact technology has had on coats,” Miller continues. “Here we learned from the cleverness of dog handlers to bathe weekly, use coat oils and pour on fancy conditioners, utilizing the most sophisticated of grooming tools like blow dryers, flat irons, scissors, shears, knives and new-fangled brushes and combs. US fanciers tended to focus more on the ‘science’ of coat care, no doubt influenced by our very lively professional handler community and our ambition to be the first kid on the block to ‘have it.’
“Over time the path of coat change reflects both genetic selection and human invention around the world. We have coats which genuinely grow faster and can be groomed more easily with less deleterious effects on the hair through genetic choice, but the coat traits are aided by our increased sophistication in the technology to care for them.”
Author and AKC multi-Group judge Charlotte McGowan started showing her Rorralore Shelties in the late 1950s. “At that time,” she recalls, “as a young person, I was told by adults to use a wet sponge to moisten the coat and then brush it out when I got to the dog show. We also chalked the white parts to make them sparkle. But you had to be careful to brush it all out because a cloud of white if the dog shook got you excused. Prior to the show, my show dog got a bath, but not everyone did this. The beauty of Shetland Sheepdog to me was that it was a lovely, natural breed.
“When I campaigned my Shetland Sheepdog ‘Chance’ to No. 1, he always got a bath before the show, and I spent hours brushing every hair to the skin. His feet and whiskers were neatly trimmed. I used cornstarch to whiten and carefully brushed it out before going into the ring. I used a dog-whitening shampoo. The dog had a beautiful shape all by himself, and I made no effort to enhance. But body trimming was starting back then in the ’80s. Plus attempts to breed natural-tipped ears began going south. There was the use of metal filings to tip ears, artfully done, and much taping of ears from puppyhood.”
McGowan contends that “in recent times, the Sheltie has become a grooming nightmare in my humble opinion. He is chalked with colored chalk, and all manner of hair products are used. I have even seen people using eyeliner to cover lack of pigment. He is sculpted into ridiculous shapes with lion ruffs around the neck going above the ears. Instead of concentrating on breeding the natural shapeliness of the dog, we have dog handlers trying to trim the shape in. Are there any natural ears? I hope so, but it’s hard to tell since so many are taped. Call me old fashioned, but I wish the Sheltie could go back to being a beautiful, natural, graceful show dog.”
AKC Cardigan Welsh Corgi breeder-judge Jonathan Jeffrey Kimes notes that, “up until the late 1990s, Corgi show grooming had a subtle but distinct difference between the professional handler and the owner-handler. At that time, hair dryers were nearly all heat dryers, and most owner-handlers used a less expensive, handheld model while the professional handler often used a stand dryer. The difference was because the dense undercoat of the Corgi often was not thoroughly dried by the owner-handler, and so by the morning of the dog show, their dogs might have rising coat toward the tailset, giving a distinct non-level topline in the dog show ring. To avoid this, many owner-handlers simply bathed their dogs well in advance of the show, in which case their coats were often rather dirty.
“At the turn of the last century the high-volume forced-air dryers which had been employed for some time in the livestock trade, began appearing at dog shows,” explains Kimes. “This dryer somewhat balanced the difference in grooming between owner-handlers and professionals; it was readily available and a much more effective method for thoroughly drying the coat so the unwelcome lumps, bumps and flips were rarely seen. I was surprised how quickly this was adopted, and today it is de rigueur to use forced-air dryers at the shows. The occasional downside I have seen, from a judging perspective, is a tendency to sometimes use noticeable hair product in the coat to remove dips or try to give the appearance of more bone. I consider it a red flag when examining a show dog to run into some obvious stiffening product in the coat. Although perhaps unnoticed, the custom of removing whiskers has fallen by the wayside in most instances, and most exhibits sport a natural face.”