Westminster to West Tisbury

Judging the four-legged competitors at the Ag Fair dog show.

The Canine Stars show featured former rescue dogs performing a variety of athletic tricks. —Michael Cummo

Training a dog and working with a dog are two different things. While training is teaching the dog, working with a dog is listening to, respecting, and cooperating with what the trained dog is telling you. I trained and worked with search and rescue dogs (SAR) for 25 years, and when my dog and I were looking for a missing person, I basically did what my dog suggested. The concept in SAR is “trust the dog,” because there is no comparison between a dog’s nose and the human nose. My 5 million olfactory cells did not compare to my dog Michelle’s 250 million. Even if I was absolutely convinced that we should go to the right, if she said go left, we went left.

Show dogs are no different. Given enough ring experience, they need very little direction, as their attitude becomes, “Don’t worry, I know what you want. I got this.” My experience with show dogs is not nearly as extensive as with SAR dogs. I’ve probably served as a dog show judge close to a dozen times, and only shown a dog once. But what a once it was — like quarterbacking in the Super Bowl, or competing for the gold in the Olympics.

It was the late ’70s. My neighbor knocked on my door and told me she didn’t have the nerve to handle Pepper, her silky terrier, in the middle of Madison Square Garden in front of a million eyes, and asked, “Would you do this for me? I just can’t do it!” It was the Westminster Dog Show, and she was slated to be in the ring with Pepper at 11 am the next day. I had trained Pepper to be a cooperative companion, but at that point I had never been in a show ring in my life. So, of course I said, “Sure!” Pepper and I didn’t win anything after I pranced around the ring in my purple paisley velvet suit, imitating the other handlers, but it does look great on a résumé.

Having judged several dog shows at the Agricultural Fair, I can say with assurance that Madison Square Garden “ain’t nothin like” the Agricultural Society fairgrounds of West Tisbury. For one thing, you’re not standing in the broiling sun, nor are there 6-year-olds showing at Westminster. The formal attire worn by the handlers at the Garden is a far cry from the casual New England summer styles seen at the Ag Fair. None the less, be it at Westminster or the Ag Fair, the competition is taken seriously by competitors and judges alike, so seriously that the Best in Show judge for this Martha’s Vineyard’s dog show is always brought in from off-Island to avoid even the slightest hint of favoritism.

As a judge, I’m not just comparing dogs to one another, but also viewing the dog in relation to the ideal standards of the particular breed. Judges being mere humans, sometimes we can’t help being influenced by personality. I remember being enamored with a 200-pound mastiff being shown by a 60-pound, 7-year-old girl. Not only was the mastiff totally cooperative with the little girl, he was also smiling with a wonderful slack-jaw grin. He treated me with charming, confident deference, telling me he was happy to meet me, and happy to be there. When a dog gives off that type of vibe, it’s hard to just think in terms of “ideal conformation for each breed.” Nonetheless, we judges do the best we can at a great event, the Martha’s Vineyard Dog Show.

Tom Shelby is an expert dog trainer with a specialty in search and rescue dogs. He is the author ofDog Training Diaries — Proven Expert Tips & Tricks to Live in Harmony with Your Dog,” and the “Ask the Dogcharmer” column in The Martha’s Vineyard Times. Follow Tom on Instagram @DogTrainerDiaries and Twitter @DogTrainerDiary.