We come like pilgrims to Lourdes and we are seeking a healing of sorts ourselves. The names of the sacred places beckon us each year and bring ripples of excitement that flutter our hearts. Doylestown, Willow Grove, Hatboro, Devon, and the most sacred of all, Montgomery County. The journey is 1800 miles one way and takes us two and a half days. We drive our van loaded with every dog show item we own, and at least one dog, across six states to reach the hallowed ground. We arrive road weary and edgy, rushing to the first show sight to claim our space for two days. There will be two more moves and more rushing and hauling and the constant grooming. The fear of falling in the ring or dog fights ringside and always the joy. The constant, thrill and sheer happiness of being a part of this wonderful place for four days.
Many years we are pelted by rain and blown raw by cold winds that whip the show grounds making grooming difficult. There was one fateful year, 1999, that many of the faithful refer to as “Mudgomery” due to the ankle deep mud exhibitors had to slog through to present their dogs. More than a few shoes were left in the rings that year. Those of us who made the trip wear our memories like a badge of honor. The annual pilgrimage is more than a dog show, more than a trip to the National Specialty, more than a chance to win the biggest breed prize in terrierdom: it is a family reunion.
This one weekend, out of the many dog show weekends, is not all together about winning. Oh, for some I’m sure it is. We’ve won the big prize, once, in the biggest entry in our breed’s history. 153 dogs and our bitch that wouldn’t quit showing. In the heat that was that Montgomery, in the open ring, she made cut after cut. Every time she re-entered the ring, she showed like it was her first of that day. The handler, sweating in the sun, working, taking no chances and wearing his lucky pink sport coat, asked more of his charge than at any time he had shown her. She responded every time. This was an audience with a semi-deity, the judge, at the most sacred place we know. On this day their performance was enough, but it could just as easily not have been. The bitch made the cut in the group ring, but there was no room for her in the final placements. But no matter. We have not won, on this scale, at the sacred place since, but we return year after year, because it is what true terrier people do every October. An important place to be when you have dedicated yourself to your breed or if you are just beginning.
This weekend is about the affirmation of what it means to be a terrier person. To stand in the presence of other terrier people. To trace the name of your dog on the trophies and share the stories of other dogs and other wins that are dear to the hearts of your extended family members. The trip to the shrine heals the soul jaded and angered by a season’s worth of politics, losses and disappointments. You are imbued with a new resolve and pride in being a terrier person. In being a member of the family of your breed. You are proud of where you’ve come from and excited about how far you have to go.
If you look around the rings that weekend you will be in the presence of quite possibly 1000 years of combined terrier experience and knowledge. The faces of the old breeders who have given their breeds so much of themselves sit watching the rings. The old revered ones have made this trip many times. You stand in their presence and feel small. They are pointed out to the new pilgrims sotto voce and with much respect. “There’s Quinn O’Grady’s breeder”. Have you met Corky Capers people?” “She bred the grand-sire of your new puppy.”
There are a very few left who remember that first Montgomery in 1929 in Ft. Washington, PA., on October 20th. The show was moved in 1934 to the Frazier estate in Gwynedd Valley, PA and remained there for thirty-one years. It moved to the Penllyn Polo grounds then subsequently to the Ambler Campus of Temple University. Only a few years ago it moved to the current location at the Montgomery County Community College. My personal history dates back to the Ambler site, but my parents go back to the Polo grounds. From generation to generation we carry our lines forward. I visit with other second generation travelers from Michigan and St. Louis. We are like cousins in this reunion.
For every person who has seen the show shift locations there is usually one more sacred than any other. For us it is the Ambler campus. Our Montgomery winner’s hair and ashes were scattered and trampled into the breed ring by my mother and I in 2003. We walked the length of the show grounds, from the grooming tent to the ring, late in that afternoon. Everyone was gone, but the ring remained just as it had that day and every year the show was at Ambler. We stood by the Best of Breed marker and cried and released the remains of our Sunshine and a part of our souls, and our history, to the wind. We stomped it all into the ground where she gaited round and round nine years before, supremely happy in her job.
We will always come here and stand shoulder to shoulder with our family. To see and be seen and talk hour after hour about dogs. Differences are put aside for these four days and we appreciate all the dogs and exhibitors and the love we all put into our hobby/sport . We have received the healing waters of the shrine, even if it came in the form of a driving rain, and hope has been reborn.
It is important that new people understand the history of the place and listen to the stories of the old timers. They will write their own histories eventually and pass that on to others newer than themselves, but this setting is for listening and learning when you are new. You earn your place here and not quickly. Money will buy you some wins, big name handlers and ad campaigns, but it won’t buy you respect or lasting friends on this pilgrimage. Only those selling relics outside the tents will want to know you. But there is room for all at the sacred places who make the journey with an open heart and love of their breed.