As I mentally prepare to be part of the panel judging this year’s Futurity I study the breed standard, the history of our breed and our books on dog structure and movement. I am searching for a visual clarity about our breed I can take with me to this assignment. Although I am not twenty-two, my mind seems to function as much as I need it to and I enjoy the challenge of applying the knowledge I have about our breed in the ring. I will strive to put out of my mind’s eye what I know about the lines behind the young dogs presented to our panel. It will not be hard to set aside my personal opinions about someone’s breeding practices or personalities as I let the standard, and any insight into our breed, guide me.
Walking in the yard, watching our old dog gait up the fence line, I realize that any visual clarity I may have has been shaped by the old dogs we have shared our lives with. In fact, every time I have lived with a dog until its final days, it always seems shocking they are no longer the young dog whose ribbons reside in boxes in our storage unit. Ch. Casey’s Love Me Tender, Elvis, is now our oldest dog. He has just turned fourteen and for the first time we have noticed he is elderly. He is still a big dog, with a firm topline and easy-going gait, but he is thinner and sometimes will miss a step or two as he makes his rounds. The gate in our yard is heavy metal and makes a loud clinking sound when we come and go. The young dogs always raise a din when they hear the tongue fall, but Elvis’ world is quieter now. His companion, Maggie, must tell him when we are calling him to come inside and he has even slept through the thunderstorms that used to terrify him. He still loves to ride in the car and accompany us on Sunday mornings to get bagels or donuts. He gets his own breakfast treat that he devours like a puppy, standing on quivering legs in the kitchen. If he could speak the words, he would tell you he prefers the donuts. Elvis still has strength and still annoys us as he has always done. And while he is sometime more trouble than we would like, when the time comes for him to leave his home for the last time, we will miss him.
Elvis is a living time-line in our house. He was born here when both my parents were alive. His mother was one of our biggest winners, our Sunshine, and his father was my troubled Desmond. He was one in a four boy litter, disappointing to say the least. What can any breeder do with an all male litter? One of his brothers went to an aspiring young handler who had piloted his tough-guy father into the top ten. Two more went to families who promised to keep each one all his life. Each brother has lived out his life in his original family. Elvis drifted between two homes only to end up where he was born. He is a reminder of a breeder’s lifelong responsibility for the puppies they bring into the world.
Our elder statesman is also a reminder of what our breed used to be. In his day in the ring, length in a dog was not considered the worst sin. Faulty movement was. In those days, dogs were expected to have reach and drive and the freedom of movement described in the standard. This dog has shoulder layback not seen today. His correct bend of stifle and angled rear a match to his front. But looking at him now, with his coat cut short, neck extended sniffing the late summer air I can see he is not what our handler calls, “current”. That is our younger dog, Danny. Elvis has never been used by anybody, including us, in any breeding program. Another “current” phrase. In the past we just bred dogs, now everybody has a program. How self agrandizing. This old dog is longer than the standard describes with a head almost as good as we’d like, but not quite. He is also taller than would be tolerated in the ring today. In years past the breed swung between the winning dogs being over the standard and those just barely within the upper limits for height. Still, we are proud of this dog. I suspect many breeders hold a special place in their hearts for the representatives of their lines living past twelve. Maybe because in the evaluation of the aging dogs from any given line you can see the strength and the progress, or lack of it, within the breed in general.
When a dog lives to fourteen, he has seen his family in their best and worst lights. He has witnessed many tears and more laughter. He was likely there when his teenaged human brother tried to sneak into the house drunk and barked to alert the parents of the misdeed. He sat just inside the front door when his human sister kissed her forbidden boyfriend in his car at the curb. The old dog seems to embody a wisdom about his life and surroundings that is enviable. He has learned the difference between the doorbell on the pizza delivery commercial and the ring when somebody comes to visit. He knows food comes twice a day without fail and his people return every night after work. Every old dog has a large vocabulary and is capable of learning these words in every language. Dogs in Russia or Sweden understand the words, “good dog” just as dogs in the US do.
This year we will again attend our national specialty at Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. There is always a veterans’ class offered in both dogs and bitches. Sometimes the dogs entered have names familiar to everyone, sometimes they are famous only to their owners. Either way it is heartwarming to see them. Many are barely eligible for the class, but sometimes they are elderly. Dogs from the era when our Elvis was in the ring, fighting for his last major. They gait around the ring maybe a bit less sure, but nearly all look happy to be there with their people. Last year, in 2009, we were set up by the owner/handlers of a bitch who had been prominent in our breed fully eight years before. For three days we watched them groom her, exercise her and seem to evaluate her. Finally, on the Sunday of our specialty, I approached them to ask if this was the bitch I recalled. The woman told me it was indeed the very bitch. I asked if she was entered in the show and was surprised to learn the woman was deciding whether to show her or not. The decision seemed easy. The bitch looked wonderful with very little trace of age. But, the woman confided, she was afraid people would laugh at the old dog. She looked at me with tears filling her eyes. I tried to reasure her that everyone would appreciate seeing her champion again and found myself crying for Elvis’ mother. We had shown her as a veteran at this same show in 2000, six years after she has won the breed over the biggest entry our club has ever fielded at our specialty. I remembered, too, how my mom and I had scattered her hair and ashes in that same ring the next year after the judging was finished and everyone else was packing for the long trip home.
The woman showed her bitch that day and everyone applauded as she lifted her head and her legs stretched to find the stride she had used years before. She gave a good account of herself and received an award of merit. We all cried. Our tears as much for our own old dogs as for the one before us.
Soon, Elvis will join his mother and our other dogs who have gone before him. Our vision of him will be clear. Not so much how well he did or did not fit the standard but as the dog who was part of our line and part of our times. A living reminder of our dreams and our mortality.