“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man,” Friedrich Nietzsche.
This was a particularly hot Montgomery. After torrential rains made a ruin out of the Hatboro show grounds, and we’d heard the dog show rumors of standing water at the other venues, we packed rain gear and cool weather clothing. I could be seen standing in flip-flops, shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt outside in our back yard early in the morning practicing for the cold and wet conditions that surely awaited us on our annual trek to Montgomery. I had prepared myself for bad weather and mud. Lots of mud. Just like the mud year of 1999. Still we hoped for cool and dry weather.
Our dog and handler had arrived at our hotel the day before we had. The long drive from Colorado had served to increase her pain and his energy level. When we met up at the Hatboro show site on Wednesday afternoon, it was impossible not to notice her pale face and his nearly out of control behavior. It was impossible not to hope we’d get more than just a look, even though we knew better. These were not judges we’d show to at our local shows, but here we all were. 1800 miles from home, happy and excited to be in the covered shed where our breed shows for the first two days of the weekend. Looking around we knew everybody. Dogs we’d competed against all season and dogs known only through ads and online bragging. Some were disappointing, but most were not. Their owners were as proud of them as we were of our dog and at least as hopeful. These three preliminary shows, Hatboro I and II and the hell-hole that is Devon, serve as warm ups in grooming and showmanship to the marquee event: Montgomery County. The hope and tension build over the first three days and by Montgomery Sunday dogs and handlers are ready to show full-out.
It’s doubtful all but the most novice exhibitor actually thinks they will win at the National. So many of the judges’ decisions seem based less on the standard and more on what their colleagues think about their choices. This year we all knew who the eventual winner would be. An imported bitch, with the most beautiful coat in the entry, shown by the best known handler in our breed, backed by enough money to crush all the other competition. For several years the fancy has longed to see this man show a really wonderful terrier. While she is not without faults visible from ringside, she is decent enough for judges to pick the handler and feel good about it. With Best of Breed decided every day there was still enough placements left for most of us to hope we’d be in the money. All year people talk to each other about holding out their class dog to die for until the National where he or she will certainly finish their championship with a major. This attitude transcends mere hope to rest firmly on the conceit of the owners. Fortunately, most of us who will see these owner proclaimed wunderkinder ringside, will finish the weekend alive. And so it was this year. Standing around the ring enjoying the company of old friends and acquaintences, we watched the judging. Day one: a provisional judge who had judged our breed less than a dozen times in his career. Day two: a woman with a reputation for “doing what she wants” which translated to “doing what was expected”, and day three: the judge of most hope for most people. After completing her assignment it was clear she probably won’t be showing up on many panels stateside for a while. That left the last day. The most important day. The litmus test for our breed.
Momentum in sports is a curious thing, seeming to outrun hope in the minds of some. Dog showing is viewed as a team sport, handler and dog. But momentum in our sport is created by the number of judges picking a given dog in a short span of time and how fast the news can be disceminated to the fancy. As the weekend wore on in Pennsylvania, the same dogs were in the money nearly every day. Confidence and big ribbons could be expected on the last day from these dogs. But everything was errased for everyone on Sunday. Just like the playoffs. It’s a whole new game in the post season and Montgomery is the Kerry Blue post season. All the wins and losses seem to matter only if the judge reads the magazines and follows the stats. What matters to most is the opinion of friends and detractors ringside and of course, the pointing of the judge’s finger in the end. Every dog in the ring represents the hope of the owners and breeders from around the country. In no other show is the entry as diverse as on this day. In the specials ring, the dogs and bitches represent the ranked dogs from different regions. With hometown advantage going to the dogs from the East it’s tough for winners from other regions to break through. Our dog, the #49 dog, was in the lineup. Playing all year in and out of our Western division, winning and losing and building a reputation. The handler was hopful of some award, we were less so.
For nearly two hours the judge stood in the eighty-four degree heat judging dogs. Her picks in the classes were the obvious choices. This year the class dogs were mostly tall, rangey and lacking in breed type. Most were very dark. The class bitches were smaller and exhibitied more breed type. Most of them, of the cute variety, were pretty standing but none with the ground covering movement that is a hallmark of our breed. A few of the class entries traded places in the ribbons from the previous days, but a passerby knowing little about our breed could have made the same picks as were made on this day. The judge seemed to be looking at moderate dogs with the best movement. Hope again for some. Then the specials entered the ring. The dogs and bitches filling the eyes of the spectators. Most looked tired and hot. Dogs and handlers. Round and round each dog went. Separated into smaller and smaller groups. With each cut, dogs and bitches left the ring. Hope trailing behind them. The tension under the tent where the dogs surviving the cuts waited was palpable. Hope was a presence there.
Near the end of the judging, we invited Hope to sit with us. As the judge made her final picks our torment was over. Watching the handler and our dog get the photo for his AOM we were more than satisfied. A win, in front of friends from home and people we see only here, once a year. Dogs we show are still competitive, after more than forty years. Winning at home and on the road during the show season is gratifying, but getting an award at the National is affirming. Among the winners of the past, listed in the Kerry Blue section of the Montgomery catalog is the name of our Sunshine. Best of Breed here over fifteen years ago. Showing dogs is not what it has been. The mediocrity of this entry evidence of the impatience so prevalent in our breed. Later, we watched the group judging. The Kerry bitch was group three. The handler and owner had probably hoped for more. The crowd was smaller this year than any I can remember, including the mud year. Many of the dogs in the group looked tired and uninterested. The Skye Terrier, the perceived front runner, was one of these, turning in one of the worse performances of his career. This time it mattered. He left the ring unrewarded. A Sealyham, handled by a perennial East Coast handler won the show. Her large, leering face a characture of those who make their living in this game.
Our handler was nearly loaded up for the three days drive home by the time I reached our setup. She was more beaten up than when she came, and had probably hoped for more at these shows. But in this arena, we got more than we hoped for but what we should have expected. It was never about the quality of the dogs, afterall.
There will be more shows next season and a new start for us with another dog. In a different ring with judges less predictable than the ones we know so well. I will be the handler, learning and trying, tormenting myself with hope.