The First One

Like water dripping on a rock, day after day, month after month the show season has gone on for Peyton. The water wears a small depression into the face of the rock and with the help of freezing and thawing it widens. Eventually, the water cracks the rock and splits it, running free. Finally, Peyton has broken through and become a Grand Champion. It happened far from home, in a state we have never seen. He finished surrounded by three girls from his Harem, his Kerry Blue brother, Danny, and his patient and caring handler, Odebt. Peyton finished the title by defeating dogs in different parts of the country and at home, not so many dogs, but enough. Certainly those he did beat were from more diverse lines than those defeated by some Grand Champions on the AKC list. Peyton showed as one of one. No supporting cast of kennel mates or contrived filler dogs to bolster the numbers and increase the point count. Often he was the only Bedlington in the show and he met many people who had never seen one of his kind outside their television screens. He won a couple of group placements. He will be one of the first ten Bedlingtons to earn the new title, and it will strike more than us as just a little ironic.

It took Peyton nearly the whole show season to become a show dog. Early on, we nearly brought him home as he seemed incapable of doing anything more than pouting and grinding his teeth in the ring. He turned the corner at some shows in Kansas City in the spring and gave his handler enough hope that she kept him on. There was probably more failure, in terms of points lost, than points won, friendships strained and some broken. Achieving this title was an afterthought for all connected to his showing. So far from our minds that we never bothered to learn the rules. Now that he has won the right to be called GCh Velvety Quarterback Sneak, we are in awe of how far he has come. He is happy in the ring and on the road. He gaits with his head up and looks proud to be a Bedlington. He has learned to like people and feel comfortable around those of his breed. We will see Peyton show for the last time in just two weeks and take him home with us. A long season with at least a little to celebrate.

What is behind this new title? In May of this year the AKC rolled out their latest program to encourage people to continue to enter dog shows and drum up support for the purebred dog. Following on the heels of the Amateur Owner Handler class, where the “little people” could win a ribbon without the fear of professional handlers beating them with better dogs and more skill, was something that struck many of us long-time exhibitors as nothing more than patronizing. Here was a title you could earn by never going Best of Breed. A chance to win by merely showing up. Rumor had it the higher-ups of the AKC modeled the program after the Agility MACH title. They saw that agility competitors keep entering their dogs, even after they won titles, to pursue the Master Agility Champion title. The qualifications are rigorous and you can do it more than once. Somebody has a dog that is a MACH25! The AKC Board no doubt drooled over the fees that person racked up. But Agility competitors and conformation people are very different. Conformation people know there is ever just one winner and no matter how close you were you either take home the purple and gold or you take home a memory. Winning and losing, is determined by the point of a finger from a person you don’t know personally and is often based on an impression and always an interpretation. Success in Agility is based on the dog and handler being faster than the clock and the other guy. Nobody’s opinion.

Here we are at the end of October. The first season of the Grand Champion title is nearly over. There has been time to at least make a preliminary evaluation of how the new program contributed to the dog show experience and if there is any point of it. I’ll admit I sometimes think it has become too easy to title a dog. Many people complain about the lack of majors, but really it’s the quality of the dogs they should be complaining about. But to keep the sport going you have to encourage people to show and this program just might have succeeded in this.

Once a dog has attained its championship, what do you do. As humans seem to be goal driven, there must be a point to exhibiting a dog. Since there is no prize money in shows, for the most part, and the trophies aren’t what they used to be, there seems to be very little purpose to continue. You either decide to special your champion or you take the dog home. The AKC’s fervent wish for the Grand Champion title was that people would bring these retired show dogs back out to win this new title. Who would do that, I scoffed? Well it seems cynics like myself were in the minority this time. People have come back to the ring in droves. Well maybe not droves, but enough that there is a good mix of dogs staying on to work toward the title and retired dogs brought off the couch and back into the ring.

There is a sense of excitement when a dog nears the title. Another milestone to be reached. The requirements are just difficult enough that it seems a legit title, and easy enough that if you consistently show the dog, you may be able to title him in one show season. To sweeten the pot, the AKC offers medallions for the first ten people to finish dogs with this title. Most breeds have reached this mark by now, and many will do so by the end of the calendar year. A friend of mine likened being awarded Select Dog/Bitch, the designation given to the dog chosen to receive the Grand Champion points in the breed entry, to getting points for making the cut. A sort of tangible way for the judge to let you know you were close, still not the winner, but close. A way to dangle the dog show carrot in front of us to keep us going around the pole hoping some day we’ll actually catch it. A way to reward the perpetual runner up spot: Best of Opposite Sex.

But all cynicism aside, the Grand Champion title might be the best of the harebrained ideas the AKC has trotted out this year. It may actually have a value to the fancy. As the top echelons of the sport continue to be dominated by big money, big handlers and judges too unsure, unskilled or just plain lazy to honestly evaluate the entry before them, we all get a chance to go back and finish our dogs again. The new title is attainable by most people who care to show their champion a few weekends a year. It provides a purpose for getting the dog out where people ringside can see him. It gives people without the time or money to actually special a dog the means to keep showing and getting something for their trouble.

By the end of the 2010 show season we hope to have two Grand Champions. The completion of Peyton’s newest title strangely seems to confirm his worth as a show dog and prove that the hard work Odebt put into him wasn’t completely wasted. He overcame nasty politics, a less than kind owner and his own faults and peculiarities to finish his time in the ring among his breed’s first Grands. It was worth every penny.

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