Disclaimer: most of these tips are specific to Siberians, although they apply to a lot of other breeds as well.
So I am far from the best handler in the world, but I am always striving to improve, and I’m pretty good at observing and imitating others, so I thought I’d share some of my handling tips as well as pet peeves. A few months ago, I was taking a win photo with a friendly judge who loved my puppy but was also very insistent that I was doing her a disservice by showing like an “amateur”, in his words. It was a little harsh, but it was great constructive feedback. You do have to have thick skin in this world! I put a positive spin on it in my head…logically, it followed that he was saying I wasn’t an amateur. Just that I was showing like one. Lol. Anyway, his point was that I was standing way too far back from the dog while stacking. And he was right — it did make me stand out, and not in a good way.
I started out showing a dog that I didn’t start show training until he was 6 months old, and by that time he didn’t like to be hand stacked. He was a very balanced and showy dog, though, and he excelled at free stacking. So I free stacked him 100% of the way to his championship. The problem was that I never really learned to hand stack well. Eventually, I got to the point where I was pretty good at hand stacking the dog quickly, but my own posture was not the best. It’s my natural inclination to put some space between myself and the dog, just so I can see and double-check my work, and because it feels like the dog has more room to show off. As opposed to being right next to the dog and your legs getting in the way of his silhouette. The way I was doing it though, by leaning over super awkwardly, wasn’t it. The dog looked good, but I looked amateur. And the worst thing you can do as a handler is carry yourself in a way that distracts or detracts from the dog.
When you are stacking your dog for the lineup, you have a few different options. You can kneel next to the dog, which is the easiest, because you can easily have good posture but also lean back and take peeks at the dog and make quick adjustments as needed. You can easily bait the dog’s head downwards, which is how most dogs look their best. You give the dog a lot of support with your body language, and they usually stay put better, especially when they are young, wiggly puppies. I’ve always felt awkward kneeling, though, and I know some pros and judges have strong opinions on never kneeling. You rarely see the top handlers on their knees, but then again, they are mostly showing polished specials. I never kneel with boys, even puppies, but sometimes I kneel with female puppies. It doesn’t bother me when other handlers do it, but it obviously doesn’t look as good or polished as staying upright. Sometimes, though, I think it’s a necessary evil.
That being said, I really hate option #2 and always have, which is why I kind of refused to do it. Option #2 is you stand right next to the dog’s head and start doing the splits. The degree of the splits depends on how short the dog is and how tall you are, as well as how long your arms are. So you just kind of start doing the splits and leaning towards one side to get your hands down lower, to the level of the dog, while keeping your upper body upright. It’s my personal pet peeve, but I hate the look of this. You do stay upright, but you don’t look confident or elegant, and the “dancing” feet to me are really distracting from the silhouette of the dog. Plus you are typically not low enough to bait the dog’s head downwards.
Unfortunately, those two options are the only realistic ones you have until or unless you have a well trained and structurally stable dog who has the physical and mental strength to hold himself in position. Once you do have that, though, you can do fancier things. Option #3 you switch the hand holding the collar from the left to right hand, and you stand next to but behind the head of the dog, in line with the body. This is a totally hands off position, you can’t bait the dog unless you toss food, and you can’t reach down and fix anything either. An advanced variation of this is when you hold the lead taut and high over the dog’s head and you stand even farther back, towards the rear. From here you can’t fix the front, but you can fix the rear.
Option #4 you stand directly in front of the dog and free bait the dog. One variation is you hold the lead tight and high over his head, which gives you a little more control and helps him stand a bit more upright, and you can use a visual bait downwards at your side. I prefer a really subtle hand motion here — I absolutely hate it when handlers use this forceful motion like they are gesturing to slash someone’s throat. The other variation is you stand very far away and you use a completely slack lead, but from this position you can only bait upwards, and most dogs do not look their best when they are looking up. I would recommend to use this variation sparingly. Only attempt if you have a dog with a perfect free stack, nice long neck, and strong topline. The shorter you are and the farther away you stand, the better and more natural this will look.
My personal advice is: whatever you do while stacking, do not lean over and do not spread your legs more than shoulder’s width apart. In general, stand with your shoulders square and both feet pointing forwards. My personal preference is if you can’t accomplish that without your dog falling apart, then kneel. Also, working in front of a mirror is amazing to help you trust your feel and your dog. One last tip: make sure the dog’s head is pointing slightly downwards and straight (perpendicular to the judge) as much as possible. Especially in young dogs, if the head is turned away from the judge or twisting to get to bait, it really messes up the whole stack.
In Part Two, we will discuss posing for win photos, both dog and human, and how to avoid looking like an amateur handler in a win photo.