We met an old rival at the shows we have just attended. Seeing him makes us cry and not mind the losing so much. We are probably overly sentimental about him due to a number of factors, not the least being our intimate acquaintance with our breed. People who don’t know his story, or the few details we do know, despise him and see only his behavior ringside. But this is a little dog lost. Lost in a world of big money handlers, unrealistic expectations and greed.
It is only natural in the dog show game to want to own a winner. Many of us do what it takes to put our dog on top. Most of us stop short of cheating and most of us are slightly unseeing as to the faults of our dogs. But deep down, we all love them. Especially the puppies. The pure good of puppies can save your life, or at least your humanity. The potential we see in our litters makes us forget disappointing seasons and failures on all levels. Puppies are there for loving and it is the one thing that unites us all. Therefore, I have no choice but to assume that the dog we saw in the ring was a much-loved puppy. Were his spiky hair and clumsy steps a delight to his owners who imported him from a fine kennel in the UK? I’m sure they gazed upon his little face with the beady eyes and wagging tail the same as everyone in every breed gazes upon their puppies. You dream of hearing his number called over the PA at Westminster, of winning our National at Montgomery, of getting a call from his chosen handler saying he’s won his first Best in Show. You see all that in a puppy’s face. But the unseen darkness that has come to shroud this little dog could never have been foreseen by his owners. I have to hope that.
When Odebt was making the rounds with Honour through Oklahoma and Texas in 2006, we first learned about him. There was a handler carrying two Kerry males through the same area. One was a dog that he had done some winning with and the other was a class male just starting out. Odebt liked the younger of the two males better and mentioned he had a nice head and descent conformation. As this particular weekend wore on, she also reported that the handler was beating the little dog because he wouldn’t show the way he was expected to. Though it was reported, nothing came of this. It was a self-curing problem as the handler eventually went to prison on another matter. The beatings stopped, but the die had been cast for this dog.
He stayed home for a while. Our breed needs its people. They need to be with those who love them and will let them be a part of everything going on around them. We hope that was the case for this young dog. We hope he wasn’t relegated to a kennel run with concrete walls on three sides, cut off from his people. Left to run the small area and literally bounce off the walls. I make myself believe he sat on a couch by his owners and was petted by the same people who had smiled down into his face as a puppy.
We were at some shows the next year and saw him in the ring with a different handler. An up and comer who had been working with one of the top terrier handlers in the country. This man was skeptical about his charge and told me the owner thought the dog could win five Bests in Show and to pick out those shows and go win them. Nobody was sure how he’d arrived at that number, or even how he had evaluated the dog and determined he was of that caliber, but nevertheless those were the dictates that followed this dog. We watched him and admired some things about him. He was a fiery dog, but also a slightly apprehensive and scared one. This handler’s girlfriend was piloting a beautiful Whippet bitch to a national ranking and the Kerry would have necessarily been isolated from the string of dogs traveling in the truck. The handler did his best with him for part of that show season, but failed to win the requisite five shows. The dog when home again and re-appeared with another handler.
We heard the owner wanted more winning from this dog and had contracted with a big name, big face, to show him in what was left of that season and the next one. When we saw him again, we noticed he had changed. It was as if a darkness had come over his face. He seemed somehow confused and nervous. He was quicker to fire up, and harder to control. His trim was impeccable and he did, in fact, do quite a bit of winning. Enough to battle his way into the top ten breed/all breed that year. There was no joy on the face of the handler as he showed him. A resigned expression of someone doing his job on the assembly line.
The following year, with the same handler, he won our National. He looked to be perfection in the ring, but was more clouded and angry around other dogs. He ranked higher in the top ten than before but looked road-weary. The handler seemed to be disinterested in him as a dog and although did an outstanding job fulfilling the owners’ wishes, still fell short of the five Bests in Show. By now the dog was leaving his feet in the spar and gagging up foam. His handler masked this as best he could. This little dog’s uncle had been the darling of our breed some years before. You could feel the mutual love and admiration every time this same man showed the more famous dog. Nobody at the shows seemed to admire this one.
When a falling out between handler and owner brought the dog home again, the rumor went around he was home to stay. Maybe, we hoped, the life would come back to his eyes and he would find himself loved. But, he showed up on the circuits again. This time with another handler better known for his huge success with a Toy breed and some low legged Terriers. This man is not unkind but does not seem to enjoy being in the ring with him either. You can see it in the tentative way he goes about his job.
At the AKC’s 125th anniversary show this past December, the dog, now five years old, suffered what appeared to competitors and ringside observers to be a seizure brought on by the typical confrontation outside the ring our breed is famous for. He foamed at the mouth, urinated uncontrollably and went down. He was tended to by his handler and then shown. Game as he was, he walked out of the ring unrewarded. His fate remains a futile, repetitive task: showing on and on.
On this past weekend Danny and I faced him for four days. He won three times and we beat him once. We enjoyed our win, but it’s hard to feel good beating a dog so lost. We wish this Kerry boy the best this season and hope he can finally do enough to find his place back home.