As a child in elementary school, we read a variety of allegorical tales thinly disguised with clever drawings and talking animals. After reading each story, the teacher would attempt to engage our class in a discussion of what the story meant and what we could learn from it. There was always the implication that our lives would be on the right track if we did what the little stories told us to do and our teachers were there to keep tabs on our progress. My parents firmly placed in our heads that when somebody in authority, say a teacher, school nurse, the lunch lady or gym teacher started asking questions about how we lived and what we did at home or who our parents voted for in the latest elections, we were never to give too much away. These little fishing expeditions seemed harmless enough to us, but we heeded our parents’ pleas and didn’t reveal that we ate dinner at 8:00 at night, were solidly Democratic and had anywhere from six to nine dogs at any one time.
Part of the familial fabric was a staunch belief that the AKC knew what was best for our dog show lives and if you wanted to exhibit dogs there was only one place to do it: inside a dark, noisy and often dirty arena under the watchful eye of an AKC field rep. These shows played the same role as religion in more than just our family. From the middle of February to the end of November, our show season, we trekked on Sundays to the shows. Competing week after week against local rivals and out-of-towners all seeking the same thing: a red, white and blue ribbon. Just as none of us wanted to be the grasshopper, doomed to die in winter because he danced all summer instead of laying away stores of food, nobody would have dreamed of exhibiting dogs outside the auspices of the AKC.
One particular story that has stuck with me since those days as a young student was the story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse. In this charming tale fraught with danger and ambiguity, two mice visit each other and decide that where they each live is the best for them. Seemingly simple on the surface, I saw the interpretation as not so concrete. There was a real slant toward the more simple, country life. The city life was full of wonderful things but also a great deal of danger. After experiencing the urban life the Country Mouse returned to his home in the country and never left it. Why didn’t he stay on a little longer? Learn to avoid the danger and reap the benefits. Why return to his meager home and never grow or challenge himself?
All my life we have shown in AKC conformation shows only. Our dogs are registered with the AKC only. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of any other dog registries until about fifteen years ago. There are a little more than twenty registries in the United States. And just like our teachers interpreting the allegorical tales we read, the AKC has decided which of these registries are “legit” and which are not. In short, the AKC is the only registry that matters and all others are to varying degrees illegitimate. The possible exception is the United Kennel Club (UKC). This AKC rival, established in 1898, does mostly the same things the AKC does, just on a smaller, more down home scale. The UKC registers breeds found within the AKC and some that are found only in the backyards of the few people who own them. The UKC puts on hunt tests, coonhound events, weight pulling and conformation events. Wait a minute, conformation events? Like the City Mouse we decided one weekend to venture forth and see what the Country Mice knew about dog shows.
The first thing you notice at a UKC conformation event is less noise and far less fighting for grooming space. This may be the case because not as much grooming goes on at UKC events. This has never bothered us, but if you can win and spend a little less time on your feet how can it be a bad thing. Exhibitors may also enter their dog day of show in most cases, so there is a real element of surprise when you discover your arch rival has come to the show, too. Things have an order, but not with such precision as the events we are used to. The qualityof the dogs is also a little more spotty due to the many rarer breeds being shown. There has been a bump in quality as more and more AKC people migrate to the UKC shows. We saw many people at this show we would be seeing two weeks later in the Pueblo shows. By the time the Best in Show lineup has been chosen, the best dogs have been found. There are also usually two shows per day making it easier to finish a dog’s championship in a weekend. The ribbons are more beautiful, too.
What made these City Mice take notice was the absence of professional handlers and the unhurried atmosphere. It was all so strange and disquieting. Everybody wanted to win and it was clear not everybody was happy with the color of their ribbon, but it was amateur against amateur. Nobody had more face value than anybody else. There was a down home feel to the shows that made most people relaxed and forget their less than polished handling skills. It really was about the dogs. Judges talked to exhibitors and in an atmosphere where a free exchange of ideas and learning was taking place. It almost seemed too easy. We shook our heads as we packed up at the end of the weekend vowing we’d return next year.
A few weeks later we attended the last AKC show of the season in our area. The venue was one we’ve shown in for over thirty years. Dark, dirty and crowded with noisy dogs and people. The constant roar of blow driers and the occasional sharply barked command left little doubt we were in the midst of a typical AKC event. The usual suspects walked away with the biggest wins. Our grooming space was nearly in the same spot as it had been for the past five years. We visited our friends in their setups, where they set up every year, too. We talked about dogs and judges and their decisions and what we were planning for the new year just a few months away. This year we celebrated a small triumph in our handler’s set up with a cake, our friends and even people whose names we technically didn’t know but whose faces were familiar. There was a comfortable familiarity about the shows that made us feel at home.
Driving the two and a half hours home from these last shows I recalled of the tale I had read so long ago. Why did the Country Mouse return home with no regrets. I think I finally understand. Maybe it was that these shows were only two weeks apart that made the contrast between them unavoidable. It might have been all the talk around the AKC shows about how much the show scene has changed and is now dominated by money and connections that leave most of the owner/handlers out in the cold that caused us to leave our world and venture out. But as visitors to the UKC world, had having more than a little success in that venue, we just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just too easy and just slightly illegitimate. When faced with the ability to walk into a show with a nice dog and be rewarded for it every time, we still chose our more familiar world of the AKC show. No matter the easy victories at the UKC shows, we have always been proud of standing toe to toe with the best dogs in the country and sometimes coming away with a hard-fought win. We enjoy the drama and the struggle, the whole process, as much as the wins. We are City Mice through and through, even if we sometimes get our necks snapped in a trap.