I entered my first hamster show with some trepidation, but secretly hoping my hamster would be the best. I read the standard and couldn’t see much difference between that and my little Sparky. She was bottom of the show with 62.5 points and a ‘please see judge’ on her pen label! The judge gave me some good, kind advice. Sparky got 1st place in the dwarf novice class (as she was the only entrant) and this encouraged me too. I still have that first trophy and rosette!

How long did it take to win?

Recently I got my first hamster notebook out. It was interesting to look back on those early show results. After that first show, I waited 14 months to come first in a main class. My first Best in Show came after 16 months.  Back then, I really struggled to get a good idea of what the show standards meant ‘in the fur’.

How did I learn?

It was a big learning curve as I’d never shown or bred any animal. I looked at the judging sheets and the judge’s comments. Then I looked at my hamster to see if I could see what they meant. I also looked at the other comments. If one said ‘nice head’ I’d have a peer in that show pen. I mentally compared that hamster’s head with my hamster’s to see if I could spot the differences.

As well as reading, I asked lots of questions. I found it daunting to approach established exhibitors, but other people would introduce me. They encouraged me by pointing out when was a good time to chat to them. Everyone always looked so busy that it was hard for me to guess when was a less busy time. Sometimes they were too busy, but I was happy to wait until a later time that day or a different show.

I often found I was standing around at shows like a spare part not knowing quite what to do. I felt like I was in the way as everyone else seemed to know what to do, so I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Soon I got involved in different areas such as helping on sales, tombola and in the kitchen. It didn’t seem directly involved in the business of hamster showing, but it was another good way of getting to know people and being part of the Fancy.

Getting close to the judging

Quite early on in showing I started stewarding for the judges. At one show there was no-one to pen steward and I was standing around. I was told I would like to steward, wouldn’t I? There’s nothing like being volunteered for something! I really enjoyed it, even if I did manage to put all the dwarf show pens back on the table in the wrong order. Someone came and helped me sort them out so everything worked out OK. It was a great way of getting to know experienced exhibitors who were judging. I found it less intimidating than having to hunt them down in a hall

It’s a hard discipline to keep quiet when someone’s judging. When you steward, you shouldn’t pass comment on any hamster, whether it’s your own or not. Sometimes a judge might ask what you think about something, and it’s OK to say then. But you shouldn’t point things out even if you think they’re obvious and the judge has missed it. They may not have said they’ve seen it, but they most likely have taken it into account. It was also interesting to see the judging of species that I, at that time, had no experience of keeping and no intention of breeding. I discovered a fondness for Campbell hamsters (and learned to tell them apart from winter whites)!

Learning the standards

Stewarding helped me see the standards in action. I got to listen to the comments as the hamsters were judged and see the hamsters up close. Gradually I began to understand what was meant. I would focus on just a couple of things at each show I stewarded. One day, I would look at heads and get straight what a good head looks like.

It took a while to work out in my mind what the ideal colour for a normal Chinese hamster should be. I don’t think I fully grasped what was meant by a hamster needing more richness or depth to the colour until I saw a girl with amazing colour. Lightbulb moment! That’s what it should be! Compared to that yes the others have pale colour which lacks richness and depth.

Next steps

Offering to help led to me leaning the ropes of the show secretary role. With a bit of persuasion, I then became a show manager for a time. I started judge training. Now I’m National Hamster Council Secretary and a qualified dwarf hamster judge. I’ve had some lovely hammies who’ve done me proud over the years, including little Sparky who started it all off. Just look what volunteering and being volunteered for things got me into!

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2016. It has been updated for clarity in May 2019.