We Never Lose. We Either Win Or We Learn.

Axel 2014 National 2014 BOS a  Standing ringside in Belton, Texas, on the second day of the weekend, her words shocked me. I had no idea how to respond to her friendly, open face with bright, inquisitive eyes. Surely we were kindred spirits, agreeing on her assessment of the dog show experience. Why had she singled me out to offer an initiation into her club? Had one of our competitors sent her? What had I done to appear as she obviously saw me? I stared at her blankly, head swimming. I glanced at the people standing near me, searching for some back up. Somebody I could pull into the conversation to set her straight. I saw nobody. A cold clamminess enveloped me. I looked at my dog. He was watching me and I noticed he had shifted to stand between me and my tormentor. Breathe, damn it! Think, engage! All I could think about was the blinding rage that filled my head in Portland at the start of this season. This horrible season, now nearly over. Emotions I had pushed down after that first weekend to keep showing our dogs. In order to be in this building, standing outside this ring, trying to fight for what we wanted and believed should be ours.

Portland 2014 6  Seconds stretched by. I had to respond if only to regain control. She was only a human, not a gorgon turning me to stone. My words seemed hollow and far away, but I continued. A forced smile on my face, eyes neutral, trying to sound kind. “No”, I began,  “we don’t lose more than we win. If that were the case we would have quit years ago.” I was less numb. ” You have to believe in your dog and your ability to know how well he fits the standard. You have to project your faith in all that onto the judge. To win you must be honest about the dogs in the ring with you and the process, even if it seems the judge is not. And above all you have to see yourself as a winner. Always. Whether you walk out with a ribbon, or the right ribbon, or not.”  Portland 2014 26

Somehow, I was conscious again. The room seemed warmer, I saw my partner, my mom, looking at the dog and me from her seat at the ring, smiling. Not a loving motherly smile, but the strong confident smile of somebody who is probably the most competitive person I know.  I don’t know who that woman was or where she went. I wouldn’t have recognized her if she approached me again. Still struggling with why the event had occurred, I tried to focus on the show. We were not leaving this weekend like so many others, like the day before had gone. Like almost every weekend had gone for two and a half years. Clinging to our belief in ourselves and the quality of our dog, and the words of our breeders telling us our dog would be ready to win when he turned three, we had once again journeyed to the German Pinscher National. Trying to salvage something good out of this season.

Over the three years we’ve owned our German Pinscher we have been aware of how much we don’t know. In the words of our handler: I do nothing to make him stand out. Winning in dogs often comes down to what in other sports are called the intangibles.  The one with the shiniest coat or the best expression often beats out the ones with more breed type and better movement. In some breeds color is a big deal. From one year to the next judges seem to like different colors. You won two years ago with a black dog, now only reds get the pick. Height, like a pendulum, swings back and forth. All that’s missing is a clear interpretation of the written standard. With intangibles, you either feel really good about them or hopeless. In German Pinschers, where it’s difficult to define breed type, or find two or three dogs alike, wins are more often in the hands of those holding the lead than most of the working breeds. But there’s opportunity in that scenario, too. If a judge is waiting to be told which dog to pick, why not attempt to point them your way?  Axel 2014 National BOB

The first day of the National, we were summarily dismissed. Easy to pick the three handlers and fill in with dogs that bore some resemblance to theirs. Not knowing the working judges, we spent the night in the hotel full of depression and trying to think of a way to be a good sport and salvage some fun out of the weekend. Our life in dogs has not been a losing one. Doggedly, we hold onto the belief in what we have and how it’s shown. If working can get you there, we will do what it takes. But with our black and red dog none of the old formulas had worked.  A solid year of losing to a very nice dog, shown by a self-aggrandizing, fast talker, was sloughed off as our dog not being ready. Probably true. Toward the end of 2013, and the beginning of the 2014 show season, this fine dog was put away. It was time. We still lost on the rare occasion he was shown. By this time he was fat and bored,and we still could not make up any ground. Our handler gave me some ideas that helped, and I worked him in some classes. A little progress, but not enough. Now the first day in Texas had ended. So familiar, so expected.

DSC_9179a  I was never bullied in school. But I could spot the kids that were at risk on the first day. Demeanor, expression, clothing, body type. It was all there. Of course the bullied kids never saw themselves for what they were. It just got worse, year after year. They must have wondered, in their beds at night, why them. Now here I was. Some stranger spotting something that pegged me as a loser. A chronic failure. Accepting on some level, my position in the German Pinscher ring, at the end of the line. Always the one with the good-natured handshake for the winners. It had to stop. And it had to stop that second day, in that ring. Unaware of my pending mental crisis, my mom approached me. She had watched the class judging, seeing with her lifetime of experience what could be done. She whispered emphatically, referring to our most powerful intangible, “Give her the Carol Basler. You can get this.”  I entered the ring amid all the dog specials. The breed and best opposite winners from the day before looked good. Momentum and the fact they were from Texas on their sides. There were a few others deserving of wins, I thought. But why not us? This was German Pinschers. The most level playing field we’d ever shown in. Do it!

I applied a little pressure to make the cut. It felt good. I stacked our dog to show off what he had many of the others   DSC_9333adidn’t. Nearly all the dogs from the day before made the cut again. But so did we. She seemed to like our style of dog. We watched the bitch specials and tried to see what she was picking. The cut dogs and bitches re-entered the ring again.  I got a thumbs up from ringside and a couple of hand gestures known only to us. The judge was one who takes her time. Looking at the dogs again and again. Moving them. Mentally sorting them.   If you show your dogs often, or spend time ringside watching judges at work, you can see when things change. When the focus is narrowed to the few who will stay in the ring as everyone else files out.  I saw the judge’s eyes swing from someone down the line then back to my vicinity.  Who was it down the line: dog or bitch. I moved my dog toward the center of the ring slightly and snuck a look. It was a bitch. The red bitch that had been Best of Opposite the day before. It was an opening. Now who was the dog? My God, it was us! Back and forth we worked the judge. Both of us slightly aggressive, very emphatic, without saying a word, that our dog was the best. The bitch’s handler working the beautiful neck and breed type, I worked the topline and square proportions. With a gesture, it was over. We were Best Of Opposite Sex.  DSCN1058

Tough and strong, we worked together, building momentum through the rest of the weekend. We made the cut the following day and took home Best of Breed on the last day of the weekend. All the same dogs were there. To say I worked the judge on that last day was an understatement.  We went on to a group three and some very lukewarm congratulations from the other members of the working group. While I have mixed feelings about our group placement, it was the two awards at the breed level that will stay with me always.  I’d like to write that we went on to repeated success in our next shows. But we didn’t. We lost to two bitches, one with a dislocating elbow and the other that was fat and scared. But our dog was thin and I wasn’t the handler I had been in Texas. We will show on in 2015. Working on our dogs and on ourselves. Never losing. Either winning or learning. It’s the best we can do.  GCH Nevars Polaris Temerity Portland 2014

Like A Pine Forest

DSC_9221a I never saw Honour as an old dog. Staring out at the world from behind milky, clouded eyes. Walking slowly and unsteadily on her always tender feet,  would not suit her at any age. Even after she turned ten this year she remained young in my mind’s eye. Ten was just a number, a way to mark time in the life of a living thing. Never sick and always self-centered, Honour chose to live with Odebt. And she usually got her way.

DSC_8164a Honour was held out for color one whole show season.  But we continued to bring her along while we showed the other dogs. She barked and raved in her crate and spun and barked and raved some more. As bad as she was at DSC_9384ashows, she was inconsolable when we left her home.  On a whim, at the shows in Denver in February 2004, we paid a visit with her to the Dog Whisperer. What happened in the quiet, little booth made us mostly laugh not quite believing animals could communicate in such a way. After a few preliminaries the Whisperer asked Honour, without saying a word, a question we had long asked ourselves. Why she hated to be left home. Sitting smugly, we waited to hear the predictable answer of how she loved us and couldn’t stand to be away from us. What we heard brought us to tears.  The Whisperer told us Honour hated to stay at home because the dogs that stayed home went away and never came back.  It was true, though the Whisperer would have had no idea that it was. Dogs we no longer showed remained at home while we travelled to the next shows. They were eventually moved on to other homes. Better homes for them, where they could be the only dogs and have a family that would love them for themselves, not for what they won or how good a breeder they would become.  It was all a positive to us, but to Honour it meant the end of showing, the most important thing to her.  We never left her again. DSCN1225

When Honour became Odebt’s dog, with all her quirks and indomitable spirit, she was home.  Living at the little DSCN1271farm she had her dog friend, Satie, and the only person who ever mattered to her. That was all she required. She developed a whole repertoire of new behaviors. Strange things making sense only to her.  The morning after Thanksgiving Honour refused to come out of her crate. She lay still and curled up, seemingly cozy and happy and dead to the world. Sometime in the night her spirit left. She would never be old and sick and unable to bark madly, expressing her displeasure. She left us with the memories of a driven show dog, happy and unique. Honour’s death was convenient only to her.

DSCN1221 Entering the yard in a van full of dogs in mid-December, the burned out hulk of the box truck stood sentinel. Its blackened cab with the two seats and twisted steering wheel pointed across the field in the direction of the dirt road. The demise of the box truck was hastened by an onslaught of tumbleweeds of biblical proportion. Piling up against fences and buildings, choking roadside ditches and spilling over, blocking roads, the weeds blew in for several days. Whatever goes on underneath trucks and cars is a mystery to me. But I know a significant amount of heat is the result of the processes. Add brittle, oil-filled weeds and the combustible inevitability cannot be controlled.  Staring at the front passenger seat I could almost feel the vibration of the engine on our trip to Dallas last year. That last trip of the season had brought us points on our puppies and great memories to carry us through the winter until our new show season would DSCN1274begin.  Dallas was our season-ender this year, too. We jammed ourselves, gear and six dogs into the red mini-van this year. Without the box truck we were limited on space and left a few comforts at home. Weathering the worse ice storm Dallas had experienced since Super Bowl Sunday, 2007, we drove back and forth from the motel to the show every one of the four days of the circuit. The friends and dogs inside the venue helped us forget the weather and turn our energy to the competition. The loss of the truck altered our plans but not our purpose. DSCN1218

Loss is a part of showing dogs. Loss of dogs, people, reputation and motivation. Any one of these can be so devastating that moving on seems impossible.  Loss stifles creativity, a key element in breeding and training new dogs. In our time in dogs we have had many losses. We have had to compartmentalize these to continue in a sport we truly love. Beating back fear and dread with each breeding decision we continue to dream of producing dogs we are proud of, winning dogs that will live to contribute to our line or those of others. No dog or person passes out of our lives without making a mark. Sometimes the ones with the least obvious worth are the most affecting in death: Mr. Leonard, Honour, Tammi’s Blue and our three-day old puppy. Images you can’t shake, losses you can’t compartmentalize.

DSCN1209 Walking around the burned out truck, nestled in the choking tumbleweeds it was easy to recall all the failures of the past show season. How our breed seems to have changed into something farther from the written standard than at any time in my life. People breeding, showing and winning with dogs of a quality that would not have been competitive some years ago. We keep winning, too. As we always have. But each year we find it a little easier to not care who wins our National and a little harder to respect the judges. Each show season brings news of the deaths of old dog people. Skilled breeders, judges, club leaders and friends. You see their names in the front pages of dog show catalogs, but few will be remembered long. Partially because they were unwilling or unable to pass on their tremendous knowledge to enough people to make a difference.

A few miles from the burned out box truck is a pine forest that depends upon fire for the germination of its seeds. As the fire scorches each tree, the cones open, their seeds spilling onto the forest floor beneath them. DSCN1247 A new beginning from the devastation.  Every new show season is a chance to move ahead. We make the decision not to be defined by the disappointments and losses of the old season, even if they cannot be forgotten. It takes more courage to continue than to languish in grief or merely quit. We have reached a point of no return of sorts, with too much invested in our breed to not continue. The addition of our German Pinscher has helped us see shows through new eyes. While we mentor others in our breed, we in turn, are mentored by others. It is refreshing to be new in some aspect of showing. Always looking forward. Accepting the losses in the ring as DSCN1235learning experiences instead of evidence of something darker.

We never make a conscious decision to show dogs in the new season. It is something that just happens. A premium list comes in the mail, a dog friend calls excited about a new puppy to show and like all pain, the losses of the last season fade. And being Terrier people we never quit. And maybe, in the house just behind the burned out box truck, two dogs and a breeder make their own start to the new season in the best way of all.

You Ought To Be In Pictures … But Not This One

DSCN0321a  It’s been four weeks since you finally beat your cross-town rival.  You check the mail for a week for that large, cardboard mailer holding the only tangible evidence of the great event.  This will be a photo you’ll scan and post on Facebook probably at least twice a month for the foreseeable future.  You finally got the pattern on the dog just right and your lucky suit came through again.  Just when you are truly annoyed at the delay, the picture comes.  Eagerly you open the mailer and prepare to relive a great moment in dog show history.  With one look, all that fades.  The beautiful purebred you left the house with that morning looks like your neighbor’s pound puppy. Somewhere between the ring and the photographer’s stand he lost three inches of leg and gained four inches of body length. His coat looks like he was groomed in the dark in about twenty minutes.  And then there’s you.  All that Hagen Daz you passed up and trips to the gym were for naught.  You look thirty pounds fatter and slightly out of focus. Not enough to make you unrecognizable, but enough to actually make your double chin look tripled.  The one thing on your body that is in focus is that stain, shouting from the front of your jacket, you acquired during a lunch ten minutes before ring-time. There is no do-over, no way to Photoshop this nightmare into some semblance of acceptability, and this is your young dog’s only win in competition this show DSCN0083aseason!

We’ve all been there. We’ll all be there again. You have little recourse except to return the photo with a note to the photographer. But of course without even this pathetic rendering, you have no visible reminder of a nice win.  You buy the picture and hope for better next time.  To be fair, not all dogs are photogenic.  Just like some people, the camera loves some dogs.  Our current dog special has few pictures that are less than flattering, but our Bedlington never took a good picture. In the world of dog show photography there are two categories: Professional and amateur.  There are gifted practitioners in both camps, but they never seem to be around when your dog has his big moment. What can the exhibitor do to increase the odds of getting a better win DSCN0046aphoto? And what about the amateurs happily snapping away from the second or third rows ringside? They are enough to make you cringe. Recently, the top dog in our breed was a victim of a well-meaning fan with a digital camera. This over zealous shutterbug posted a photo on Facebook of the dog and her handler at a specialty show in the Mid-West. The photo was taken from a profile view with the judge’s hands measuring the dog’s loin. The dog appears long-cast in the extreme and no matter if you love this dog or not, none of her virtues were visible.  Whether to leave a more favorable impression of this animal in the minds of judges trolling the social media or mere coincidence, another photo of the same dog was posted a day later. This time the photo was professionally taken in more than three-quarter aspect and little of the dog was actually shown. But it was a beautiful photo of a blue dog against a shadowy green background. With the photo identified you almost breathed a sigh of relief for the owner.

DSCN0041b  Professional dog show photographers have a difficult job. Mind numbing, like shooting a high school graduation ceremony, and full of pressure, they must scurry ring to ring, slipping into the judging order to satisfy exhibitors and sometimes impatient judges. Dirt floor arenas are dimly lit and the lighting is often pinkish or yellowish wrecking havoc on the camera’s light meter. Nobody trains their dog to stand for a picture and most don’t win enough to get good at it.  Just when you get over caring that your rear end jiggles when you run full tilt around the ring you have to pose for a photo. You stand there sweating, trying to suck in your gut, lifting your head slightly and wishing you hadn’t worn that flora skirt. Why are you standing here again? Oh yeah, your dog just got a win. Some photographers with a modicum of care and professionalism will work with you, but only to a point. Sometimes they shout out orders before the shutter is depressed. “Front leg on my side back a little, rear leg on your side slightly forward, step back from the dog.” As the judge becomes annoyed, the dog refuses to cooperate and the hapless exhibitor seems to be having an out-of-body experience, the photographer takes the picture.  You just got that one in the mail.  I’m not convinced most dog show photographers even like dogs let alone working with dogs and people. I think some stumbled upon a niche market for their mediocre talents and are laughing all the way to the bank.DSCN0111a

Each show-giving club chooses the photographers they want to use. Usually the one they used the year before. Exhibitors seldom complain to the show committee about the photographers so nobody is aware of which ones are good and which are not.  After you’ve been showing about five years you learn which photographers give you a good picture and which can never seem to. There are some very good photographers who take the time to work with each exhibitor and seem to know something about their craft and about dogs. But you never seem to see them enough. We all spend a lot of money going to dog class. Maybe we should start requesting instruction on stacking our dogs for a win shot.

DSCN0311a  As bad as these professionals can be, worse are the legions of amateurs who think they are as good as the pros. While we seek out the professionals, hoping for the best, the amateurs are omnipresent. Armed with more technology than they can handle, they stalk us from ringside. Some of them are friends and family. In their attempts to document the specialty show they succeed in taking some of the most worthless photos of the dogs and handlers possible.  Amateurs have big hearts but have no technical know how. They carefully pick their spot outside the ring and earnestly click away taking enough shots to fill several 16gb cards. Most of us don’t mind being the subject of well taken pictures but nobody likes to see a shot of their dog’s head peeking out from behind the copious butt of the handler in front of you.  We all like to think our dogs are close to perfection and seeing a picture of our specialty winner with his rear leg touching his front leg as he waits in line for his individual exam shakes us to the core. The sad thing is these snapshot artists think they are doing a good job. We have all anxiously weeded through several hundred photos online, taken by a well-meaning club member, with no editing skills, to be sure our dog isn’t there too often or in some compromising pose.  Another annoyance,  the people’s faces in the photos are usually tagged but the name of the dogs are missing. People who did not attend the event ask the name of the dog over and over until somebody admits it’s theirs. Two years ago, I spent a few minutes laughing myself silly at a close up photo from our National of a poorly groomed dog and a handler with grotesquely large legs.  When my mother took a look and pointed out how I needed to clean my shoes next time. I quit laughing. How could the dog and I look so bad?  DSCN0099a

Taking a cue from celebrities on the red carpet, the only way to avoid seeing an unflattering picture of yourself and your dog online is to pick a spot in the ring and assume a stiff position with a well rehearsed smile on your face. it helps if you stand in a corner as it cuts down on the angles available  from which to photograph you.  As long as you remain standing with the dog perfectly stacked you are reasonably assured of not looking bad in the inevitable photos your friends and competitors are sure to take.

B48R8733 a  Anybody can sell photos taken from ringside. Seasoned exhibitors learn to deftly avoid these people. They run up to you as you leave the ring shouting that they have taken a wonderful picture of your dog. Since many time you didn’t get the purple and gold ribbon you become highly suspicious. As proof of their skill, they offer a look at the tiny screen on their camera of what might be you and your dog. You hopefully give them your email and when they forward the photo you can’t hit delete fast enough. There are however, exceptions. Someone barely able to speak English ran up to me after my German Pinscher and I finished showing one day in Scottsdale.  He excitedly shouted, “I have a good picture of your dog.” I thanked him, gave him my email and hurried away. Three days later I received the best picture of the dog I have ever had.  You never know.

Any psychologist will tell you intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind.  We all get just enough decent photos of our dogs and ourselves to keep us hopeful we’ll get more. This makes nearly all of us a sucker for anybody at a show with a camera.  DSC_8846a

What You Can Do

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, January 20, 1961

DSC_8444a  In January, 1961, I was six years old. My brother was not born, but would be born in July of that same year. We had, of course, a Kerry Blue Terrier named Bran. and we lived in a small house by what we refer to now as the old airport.  When President Elect, John Kennedy, spoke these words and ushered in Camelot, most of America was in what you might call a blissful innocence, and had not yet been rudely awakened to the tumultuousness that would be the sixties. Americans blindly trusted the media and government and the media was not intrusive in the lives of its celebrities and politicians. We moved later that year to the house my mother and I share today. Like many urban families, ours fled the city to take up residence in the suburbs. On a day in late November. a little more than two years later, I was playing baseball on the playground field of my elementary school when we were herded into the auditorium. Squinting from the far end of the gym at a black and white TV on an AV cart, I heard words I did not understand, but would remember for the rest of my life:  the President had been assassinated.

In 1961, the AKC was seventy seven years old. Women, although members of dog clubs across DSCN0820bthe country, were not allowed to serve as Delegates. HSUS was seven years old and PETA would not exist for another nineteen years. Since the early sixties, most dog clubs have struggled to remain viable. These all-volunteer organizations depend on the sweat of their members to put on dog shows, obedience and agility trials and more importantly, to spread the word that purebred dogs are great family pets. As the AKC is a club of clubs, it relies on the member clubs to finance their shared mission: Upholding the integrity of its Registry, promoting the sport of purebred dogs and breeding for type and function. Membership in any club is a privilege and it carries with it obligations and responsibilities. Dog clubs are especially demanding of time as well as mental and physical energy. Motivation to put on quality shows or trials must be self-DSCN0580sustaining. The AKC does not provide safety nets for failing clubs nor reward those that put on the better shows. Clubs succeed or fail on the strength of its membership. Retention of members is a concern to every club. What makes people stay involved in clubs and what causes them to drift away? The answer could lie in the five stages of group dynamics. These stages are nearly universal in any organization with members who must work together to advance a common goal. Any time in the life of a club when new projects are taken on, or a new Board is seated, these developmental stages begin again.

  • Forming.  This is an orientation period when members get to know each other and share expectations about the group. Members learn the purpose of the group as well as the rules to be followed. Trust and openness must be developed during this stage.  These feelings strengthen in later stages. Members are often confused during this stage because roles are not clear and there may not be a strong leader.
  • Storming. In this stage, a club is likely to see the highest  level of disagreement and conflict. Members often challenge group goals and struggle for power. Individuals often vie for the leadership position. This can be a positive experience for the club if members can become united through resolution. Members often voice concern and criticism in this phase. If members are not able to resolve the conflict, a club will often disband or continue but will remain ineffective and never advance to the otherDSCN1134a stages.
  • Norming. This stage is characterized by the recognition of  individual differences and shared expectations. In this stage, club members will begin to develop a feeling of group cohesion and identity.  Responsibilities are divided among members.
  • Performing. The club has matured and attains a feeling of cohesiveness. Individuals accept one another and conflict is resolved through group  discussion. Members make decisions through a rational  process, focused on goals, rather than emotional issues.
  • Adjourning. Not all groups experience this stage of development  because it is characterized by the disbandment of the group. Dog clubs strive to remain relatively permanent.  But this stage can occur at the end of a show or special project. In this stage, members may feel sadness that lingers.  DSCN0755a

If a club is successful in working through these stages, the membership remains healthy. Problems arise when a club becomes stuck In the Forming or Storming stage and the development of factions result.  Even if a club is decades old, when club members don’t feel valued or heard, they drop out or refuse to participate on any meaningful level.

Even in the healthiest clubs, members constantly ask themselves, “what’s in it for me”. What does the average member get out of belonging to a dog club.  In the case of a local club many are temporarily satisfied with priority parking at the annual show, member appreciation dinner, free grooming and club badges or plaques for their dogs’ achievements.  But these are seldom enough in the long run. Ultimately, the motivation to belong to a dog club must come from within every member.  Club leadership must foster a culture where the club and its members see themselves as a necessary part of promoting purebred dog ownership. Leaders with energy who are creative and set high standards and goals are the most successful in retaining members.  When a club puts on a great show, large or small, morale grows and members feel important. Sometimes assigning tasks to each active member, even small ones, goes a long way. Soliciting feedback from exhibitors at the club show, and passing along the positive comments makes everybody feel good.

DSCN0715   In the days of Camelot, before PETA and HSUS, dog clubs were social organizations that put on a show once a year and existed for the pleasure of their members. Today, the purebred dog is under attack. Breeders are vilified and the AKC has a whole department, and paid lobbyists, to monitor and fight anti-dog legislation. Many communities have limit laws and breed bans. Dog clubs are more important than ever. They represent grass roots organizations of people who love and have dedicated their lives to dogs and dog sport.  People who see showing and trialing dogs as a positive family activity with benefits that are long lasting.

It is time we who have joined dog clubs quit asking what the club has done for us lately, and ask how we can do more now.

Flustered With Clusters

DSCN0835aAKC Cluster shows began in the 1970s partially as a response to the gas crisis and partially in response to demands from the fancy. Shows had begun as one day affairs and people generally didn’t travel too far from home. As dog showing grew in popularity, kennel clubs realized there was growing support for two shows, one each day of the weekend. It was double the opportunity to finish a dog if there were two shows on the same weekend.  However, most of these two day events were held in two different locations.  As a child I have memories of our family showing in Lincoln on a Saturday then breaking down, loading everything into our car and driving to Omaha for the Sunday show.  Still, two shows were better than one. Twice the opportunity for points and group placements.

If two shows were good, four would be twice as good and the evolution of the cluster shows wasDSCN0862b complete. Now, if you have nothing to do in January of every year, you can go to Brooksville, Florida, and show in nine shows in ten days.  In August, in Topeka, Kansas, you can show in eight shows in ten days. These two clusters fill up and have great venues.  Enterprising all-breed clubs court specialty breed clubs and offer inducements if they will hold a specialty with the existing cluster. This can stretch out a cluster to five days for some breeds for a total of 10 shows.  This guarantees an influx of professional handlers and often quality dogs as they can charge clients more for a specialty weekend.  Sometimes these clusters benefit the rank and file exhibitor, sometimes not. It is not so easy to determine when the chief motivation to show a dog changed.  When patience to finish a dog was lost, and when finishing a dog in three years, instead of three months, was considered an indictment on the animal’s quality.

I am not one to say everything, or most things including dog shows, were better in the past. Many of the rule and procedural changes inDSCN0787a the sport today have improved the show experience.  Travelling eight to ten hours for a two-day event at the height of summer seems too much effort for too little payoff.  Especially when the humidity rivals the air temperature and the shows are held in outdoor rings.  If somebody tries to tell you how much they love doing this you are probably speaking to a local politician or an outright liar.  In our area we have a weekend show. The Terry-All Kennel Club. These shows are held at a fairgrounds in a semi-rural area just outside Denver in Brighton, Colorado.  These shows are the worst on the Eastern Slope.  Since most of the exhibitors are locals, most show here and most swear every year, after the event, that they will not return.  Of course everybody returns the next year.  The grooming for this show is either in a dark, dirt floor arena, several blocks from the  DSCN0850ashow building, where the floor is rutted and dusty or in horse stalls.  Having never owned horses I am less enamored than some with the smell of manure and old straw. You can also groom outside your vehicle in an adjacent space.  You can buy these spaces for the weekend. Savy exhibitors allow extra time upon arrival to find their spaces and persuade the person already in them to move.  The weather is either blistering or freezing, both accompanied by a driving wind and often precipitation.  Before the thrill of victory is overtaken by the agony of yet another lost major, we are exhausted just getting through the logistics of the venue.  If this show is spurned, and one is patient, there is another show about 600 miles away. The venue is clean with indoor heated water for bathing dogs and reserved grooming. Parking is plentiful and free.  Usually too early for tornados, rain and wind are a passing annoyance as you head inside the climate controlled building to the spacious rings close to your setup. Forgetting nearly anything is no problem since there are a variety of vendors. And did I mention this is a cluster!  The Sunflower Cluster. A four day event in Wichita, Kansas.

DSCN0837a  In more than ten years there has not been a major in any of the three breeds we own and have shown: Kerries, Bedlingtons and German PInschers. And in those ten years, only a few times have any points been available at the Terry-All Show. In Wichita however, there usually are points, if not majors, available in all three.  That is the beauty of clusters. That was the plan. That’s what we all wished for. More opportunities for points to finish dogs quickly. Four shows in good conditions bring out the exhibitors. There are enough clusters in most parts of the country to encourage handlers with their rafts of dogs to enter. Clients paying mileage are much more amenable to shelling out funds when there are four or five chances to win points. It all seems like such a better return on the dog show dollar. Locals with the same breeds can work together to build majors and points for each other. In a four or five day cluster two, maybe three, class dogs can finish. Clusters also provide opportunities for dog people to sit around and talk dogs. This is more pleasant because the conditions are usually better than horse stalls and dirt floors. At clusters there are amenities.  With two or more clubs splitting expenses, larger and better venues become possible. With many out-of-towners, and nothing much to do outside the show, talking to old and new friends takes on more importance. At two day shows most of the entries are locals and dog shows are sandwiched between home improvement projects and kids’ soccer games. People show their dogs then pack up and go home to salvage some part of the day.

I love cluster shows for the most part. Without them we would never have seen the Standard Poodle bitch, Brighton Minimoto,  the great Pointer bitch, Cookieland Seasyde Hollyberry, the number one dog all breeds 2011, Black Cocker Spaniel, Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction, the Kerry Blue Terrier, Torum’s Scarf Michael, the best pure show dog our breed has every known and sometimes our own dog in the Best in Show lineup along side some of these greats. Clusters bring opportunities to learn about other breeds and your own from people you don’t see at local two day events. Clubs frequently offer seminars and judges’ education opportunities at cluster shows.

DSCN0840a  With all the good about cluster shows, where’s the downside?  The downside stems from the very reason we are showing our dogs: honest competition. Pre-1970s, it could take two or three seasons to finish a dog. People had to show for the love of competition because finishing a dog could take some time. You and I, comparing our dogs and paying a third party to decide which was best. We’d square off against each other all over the state and maybe into a few others, several weekends a month, throughout the show season.  Sometimes other dogs showed against us and we both lost, or one of us won and sent the interloper packing!  Clusters changed all that.  With a fancy much more goal oriented than in the past, finishing dogs quickly, has become the most important measure of the animal’s quality. Wins and losses at clusters get lumped together.  “Look,” they crow, ” Fluffy finished in just three weekends!” You glance down at Fluffy and wonder how this happened. You’ve never finished a dog in just three weekends.  The gushing owner never mentions it was three, five day clusters and all the wins came against the same group of dogs. Without a cluster, their pet would have competed seven weekends, possibly in a different division against different dogs.  A truer measure of Fluffy’s quality.

DSCN0864a  Judging at clusters is as disappointing as anywhere. Sometimes it seems one judge follows the other and in traditionally low entry breeds judges appear confounded when confronted by a larger than average entry.  Judges with confidence, judging earlier in the cluster, set the tone for those who follow. A convenient  template for judges that either don’t care or lack the skill and confidence to apply the standard on their own.

Clusters are good for most of us. A kind of one stop shop for finishing class dogs.  If you show dogs long enough you will eventually DSCN0867abenefit from walking into an entry of class dogs not nearly as strong as your own and taking the points every day. Since clusters are bigger, you feel a lot of pride winning majors greater than the three pointers you sometimes find in just weekend shows. But, it doesn’t matter if the cluster is Bucks & Trenton, Del Valle, Scottsdale, Canfield or Brooksville, the winning dogs have only beaten the same dogs day after day.  Where is the pride in that. No one would brag if they found a rival with dogs easily beaten and followed them around the division weekend after weekend. But cluster wins take on more importance due to their size. Like that old diet strategy. Put a diet portion on a smaller plate and it will look bigger. Nobody’s fooled by that. Smaller plate or bigger venue, the quality or lack thereof is the same.  As the better dogs needing just a single or two to become champions finish and are moved up, subsequent judges are left with poorer and poorer specimens to chose from. But few owners perceive it this way. No need to compare a dog to the standard, just find another cluster.

DSCN0868a  Showing dogs at clusters requires perspective. If the exhibitor’s goal for his dog is to finish it young, breed it and start over, clusters are  the best bet. But, if you want to train your eye, test your dogs and yourself the cluster should be just one stop. Wins and loses in diverse competition, over time, are in the long run more meaningful and provide more insight into the quality of the dogs bred and shown.

One Good Day

DSC_8755aEtherial and serene they came. The Borzoi.  The early morning sun barely finding them.  By the time they reached the field in the walnut grove, on the far side of the ring, they were perfectly backlit.  Their white and red coats translucent. In the ring my black and red dog waited his turn to meet the judge.  Around us, other dogs watched their handlers’ faces, waiting for the subtle cues and movements that make up the dance between them.  My dog is young.  Not quite a puppy, but not nearly what he will be next year, or the year after, at this time.  He lacks body, ring experience, a great handler and for at least these shows, a stag red coat, but what he has is a little ring presence and his father’s signature pose: the Moltaz.

This was the fourth day of the five-day event at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, DSCN0255aCalifornia.  It is also called the Del Valle shows or the Harvest Moon Cluster, but to those of us who made the trip this year it was our showcase event:  The German Pinscher National.  A gathering of nearly fifty of our breed, mostly owner handled, all vying for a handful of placements.  This is one of the most level playing fields in the working group.  German Pinschers rank 137th on the AKC list of breeds by popularity.  Grouped in the bottom twenty percent of the AKC recognized breeds, they are the smallest of the dogs in the working group.  Only about three professional handlers consistently take on this breed and they are usually rewarded. The dogs are easily trainable, but hopelessly impulse ridden and usually ignored by group judges.

I stepped slightly forward, edging up the line. The wet grass and October air almost cold.  The sun began warming the ring and Rico grp 2our smooth-coated dogs.  How different this ring full of dogs than any other I have stood in before.  Usually, the specials ring at our more familiar National is fraught with tension.  Dogs and handlers jockeying for position. Amateur versus professional. Dog versus bitch. Haves versus the have-nots.  Old rivalries rekindled and intensified in the holding area and among those sitting ringside watching.  Hundreds of years of breed experience making notes in their catalogs and judging from the front row. Not so in this ring new to us. German PInschers have only been recognized 10 years in the AKC.  These breeders are new to the breed and to breeding in general. The lack of experience is readily apparent, but some are making progress. Fewer rolling toplines and wide fronts. Better temperaments, more uniformity in size. But plenty of room to improve.

DSC_8612a  My young dog shifted his stance and looked toward the far side of the ring. I shift my eyes from him to watch the dog three in front of us move.  He was powerful and confident but bounced as he moved.  His handler baited his head up too far, exposing his straight shoulders but highlighting his wonderful expression. He was black and red like us. Black was at a premium this year. Less than one-third of the entry wore the lustrous, dark coats that are so striking. I watched the judge’s hands as he evaluated the two dogs ahead of us. I could tell he was careful and tried to do his best.  I wondered if he re-read the standard in his motel room, as I did, the night before. If he studied the breed from ringside at previous shows in preparation for this assignment.  Does he care. Will his picks for the ribbons be dogs that all match either in color or style, or would he take a chance on an unknown, a black dog, maybe a young dog, maybe my young dog.

DSC_9040a  The German Pinscher standard is very nearly the same as the Doberman Pinscher standard. And some dogs have the look of a small Doberman. In the five days of these shows our dogs had their mouths examined four different ways. The standard has undergone a revision mostly to clarify the topline. Some judges on the weekend clearly used the old standard with its description of the topline as having a dip behind the withers and a slight rise over the loin.  The revised standard, since 2007, describes the topline as slightly sloping from the withers to the rear, extending through the well-muscled loin to the faintly curved croup. Would this judge know this.  My young dog has a dead level topline moving and though he has a slightly shorter than ideal upper arm he still has good side-gait. His head has great length, but lacks a little fill.  The red dog directly ahead of us was smaller and seemed nervous.  His handler at least as new to this ring as I am.  It is their turn now.

The sun rose higher but hung somewhere in the lower branches of the walnut trees.  The Borzoi were lost in the glare. The judge DSCN0187aallowed all the specials to enter the ring together, but excused the bitches. There were two professional handlers in the dog specials ring.  They don’t have the best dogs, but they get the most out of them. We are near the end of the dog line up. Behind us the dogs are waiting for the judge to finish this preliminary assessment. He will make his cut and move on to the bitches.  I am a competent handler in the Kerry ring. Sometimes too aggressive, and I have been known to push a judge a little too far. There is always excitement in the terrier rings. Control is at a minimum. It takes three to four times longer to get these dogs ready for the ring than to show them. Tradition is important. Easily half the 38 Terrier breeds hold their Nationals in a field in Montgomery County, PA every October. In mud, blistering heat and cool, crisp fall weather as many as 3000 Terriers assemble. While it’s true everybody is a neophyte at least once, it quickly becomes apparent you need to bring your A-game or don’t bother to come. I know every rill in the rings at Montgomery. It is our family reunion. In this ring in Del Valle, I feel as if I have married into a strange and foreign family. I am attending somebody else’s reunion and the few words of the new language I have learned are not enough.

Axel 2013 2 yrs  It is our turn. As the dog in front of us gaited away from the judge, we moved up. I stacked my boy, guiding him into the position that we have decided is best for him. He is steady on the exam, enduring the stranger pulling back his lips and opening his mouth when I whisper, “teeth”, to him. This trick taught to him by my mom. The judge smiles.  Watching the other handlers, I determined the best route away from the judge and back again.  I know to focus on a spot in the distance and not watch the dog as I move.  This will help him move straight.  I know the speed by feel. We lack the finesse to make the slight turn and perfect stack as we stop in front of the judge for the final moments before we are dismissed and circle the ring on our own.  The dog judging  finished and the judge surveyed his lineup .We were one of two or three black dogs before him. Now was our chance to stand out.

Every dog was stacked. The judge walked down the line pointing to dogs in front of us and behind us.  The sun was bright in the grove outside the ring. One black dog was pulled.  The remaining dogs are told to move around the ring together. This was our last chance to catch his eye. Loose lead, perfect speed, keep his head up, soft knees for me. We do our best. I got a thumbs up from ringside from our one woman fan club. Another day in the ring was over for us. But in dog shows it’s never really over until you walk out of the ring. The chosen ones were already relaxing, the steward gathered papers for the judge. Some judges, confident with their choices, never take that DSCN0051aone last look at the dogs not pointed out. They go through the motions, but it is just that. This judge seemed different. He scrutinized those of us remaining as if searching for the one or two he might have missed. The sun was clearing the trees and the reflection off theDSC_8687a white coated dogs was blinding. Shimmering.  The light in the grove caught my dog’s eye. He turned toward the open field, leaning over his front, squaring himself.  His neck elongated and his eyes narrowed into an intense stare. Scenting the air, strong and confident, like his sire:  He was doing the Moltaz.   I could not move the dog. All I could do was step behind him, holding the lead with a slight tension. The judge had looked past us. He would never see what I was seeing. Then he turned. For a few seconds the judge followed the gaze of the dog out into the open field beyond the grove.  The Borzoi had turned and moved off toward the main show grounds. The judge nodded at us and we joined the lineup of cut dogs.

DSCN0257a  We did not survive the second cut. No black dogs did. In the end the judge picked all red dogs and only one black bitch for his final placements. All were the same style, save the black bitch.  The skies poured rain the last day of the cluster and we finished out the weekend with a judge in an indoor ring who could barely be bothered to look at the dogs. It didn’t matter. The magic of the previous day never reappeared for us. But on that one good day, I like to think I caught a glimpse of what we could be.

One Third A Champion

  In the waning weekends of the 2012 show season we anxiously counted down the days.  Looking to salvage something from an abortive season fraught with disappointment and the lingering feelings that we no longer recognized our sport, we jumped at the chance to make one more show trip.  Enough clothing, food, bedding and hope for eight dogs outbound and eleven dogs inbound packed with prayers the dry weather would hold. While chatter on the social media sites centered around the upcoming Eukanuba show in Florida, our gypsy road show left Yoder, Colorado, on a Tuesday bound for Dallas.  We would go no further than those shows this season. Four shows in Florida held no interest for us this year. We knew the outcome already.  Instead, our destination held much more uncertainty.  The chance to be made a fool of in public in front of each other and our peers:  showing six month old puppies.  Six months and one day old.

  Only new owners, starry-eyed and giddy with the prospect of winning majors with raw recruits, show puppies this young.  Most reputable handlers discourage their clients from such folly and in fact, refuse to be seen in a sweepstakes ring at all.  Puppies and their hair-brained antics make them look bad.  Somebody might mistake them for amateurs.  Hooligan terrier puppies are probably the worst.  Fighting one minute with each other, the next with you and threatening to either bite or pee on the judge, most sane exhibitors leave them at home.  But, what fun would that be? Especially if the breeder/owner was a hander. Puppies level the playing field. Everybody is at a disadvantage.  A sort of gallows humor had descended upon both of us making this trip in the red box truck and its ironic Pawsatively Handling logo of a serene Pointer on the side. It was Pawsatively dog show suicide.  We could have hedged our bets by training our puppies.  A few handling classes or matches would have been prudent.  But, training in the ring has its own rewards, after all.

  This was my first trip in the box truck.  I liked the feel of riding in it immediately.  Sitting at the level of long haul truckers and FedEx drivers   initiated into a club known mostly from songs.  Sitting in my seat, fighting the arm rest for the seatbelt after every stop, I hoped the truckers thought I was capable of piloting this behemouth of a vehicle.  All the while being grateful I never actually had to work a shift behind the wheel. The red beast carried us across the plains of Colorado and Texas without incident. We stopped twice for a break for us and the dogs and three times to gas up. This was no quick event.  We set the Chihuahua pen up first. Buckie and Raisin handed out and placed inside their portable exercise yard.  The three puppies followed.  Each of us walking one at a time.  Hoping the third one would wait until one of us could get back for her.  The other dogs followed in an order based loosely on age and experience traveling in the truck and who would be faster than who.  We were on the road when we returned the last dog, usually Danny, to its crate.

  The Dallas Market Center is a big, clean, well-lit building.  We had 200 sq feet of grooming space and we barely fit.  The amazing thing about dog shows is that most people show as a hobby.  Hobbies should be calming, relaxing and generally easier than what most of us get paid to do during the week.  There was nothing easy about this weekend.  Three quarters of the first day we devoted to grooming the five Kerries we’d brought. Standing all day on the hard floor, the unloading, bathing, walking and more standing were taking their toll.  I could have entered a wet T-shirt contest by the time every dog was bathed.  My hair lacked any semblance of style and my pantyhose were wet to the knee. There was little time for personal rehab.  We had a deadline:  the North Dallas Terrier Club show and Sweepstakes, starting at 4:30.

  By the time the show started I was barely able to walk. We were all tired.  Too much work, too little food.  And finally the showing.  I was mainly responsible for one small bitch for this first show. Ultimately my mom’s pick from nine puppies, she looked almost benign sitting on her table.  All the dogs were ready and a pride and excitement replaced fatigue in the setup.  I was proud to be part of this machine.  At shows, you estimate when you will be in the ring.  The better an estimator you are, the less standing ringside you have to do.  Standing is a double-edged sword.  If you are young, are approaching middle age or even squarely middle-aged you can grab a ringside chair and sit, waiting for your turn.  But if you are on the back side of the best years of your life, ringside chairs are not your friend.  They look so pleasant.  Inviting almost.  They beckon you to linger on their curved DSCN0231a  metal seats and convince yourself you really aren’t that tired and you will be able to spring up and show your dog easily.  Well, as the rational part of your brain knows, you may never be able to get up. Your legs will cramp and the blood will pool in your calves and feet making it torture when you have to move again.  A crippling stiffness will invade your back and lower body.  I continue to learn this lesson every show season.  I have also learned that several Extra Strength Tylenol, taken about an hour before ring time, mitigates this somewhat.  But on this day it wasn’t enough. Looking wistfully at the chairs, I  remained standing.

  The steward called our breed to the ring. Shifting on my feet, I had managed to recirculate some of the pooling blood from my legs to the rest of my body and believed I might be able to hang in for a lap or two around the ring. I was too tired to care if our puppy made a fool of me.  If she raced around the ring on her hind legs or refused to stand for the judge.  One trip to training class does not a show dog make.  Sure, I was excited to show the little bitch. And there had been a little trash-talking in the box truck on the way out and in the set up about which of the three littermates would do the best.  Just good natured competition between friends and littermates. This first show weekend they would have to do it on their own. Training and real winning would come later.

We entered the ring and the puppy stood quietly where I stacked her. Standing was one thing moving was another.  In the dog show world, confidence is sometimes everything and that was the one thing our puppy had. She became the bitch we all fear.  Typee, cute and full of herself.  Many times we have stood behind such a phenom, graciously accepting our red, second place ribbon.  We have watched from ringside at our National while this same type of  puppy takes home the hardware. We have never owned that puppy and after such a long day I didn’t care who owned one. The judge asked us to go around. Our puppy took off like she was radio controlled, me racing after her. Reaching the end of the lead she never broke stride. I DSCN0080a  caught her midway down the far side of the ring, her front legs reaching, rear driving. My rear movement was not as smooth but I had no choice except to hold on and keep going. Maybe she had snuck out to training class by herself. Maybe she wanted to see me sweat as we returned to the ring for Winners Bitch comepetition, Best Of Breed competition and the Stud Dog class. The wait for the final competition of the day, Puppy Sweepstakes, seemed intentionally cruel. With no points at stake, why were we here.  Our puppies seemed ready to go another round even if we were dreaming of dinner so we stayed.  I’m sure more than just the puppy was laughing as I gasped my way through the Sweepstakes group. When we finished that first, interminable day, she had two points and a Puppy Sweepstakes  Group 2.

By the time we loaded the box truck for the trip home three days later, our puppy had a major and a total of five points.  She was one-third a champion and I knew we had a show dog.