Etherial and serene they came. The Borzoi. The early morning sun barely finding them. By the time they reached the field in the walnut grove, on the far side of the ring, they were perfectly backlit. Their white and red coats translucent. In the ring my black and red dog waited his turn to meet the judge. Around us, other dogs watched their handlers’ faces, waiting for the subtle cues and movements that make up the dance between them. My dog is young. Not quite a puppy, but not nearly what he will be next year, or the year after, at this time. He lacks body, ring experience, a great handler and for at least these shows, a stag red coat, but what he has is a little ring presence and his father’s signature pose: the Moltaz.
This was the fourth day of the five-day event at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, California. It is also called the Del Valle shows or the Harvest Moon Cluster, but to those of us who made the trip this year it was our showcase event: The German Pinscher National. A gathering of nearly fifty of our breed, mostly owner handled, all vying for a handful of placements. This is one of the most level playing fields in the working group. German Pinschers rank 137th on the AKC list of breeds by popularity. Grouped in the bottom twenty percent of the AKC recognized breeds, they are the smallest of the dogs in the working group. Only about three professional handlers consistently take on this breed and they are usually rewarded. The dogs are easily trainable, but hopelessly impulse ridden and usually ignored by group judges.
I stepped slightly forward, edging up the line. The wet grass and October air almost cold. The sun began warming the ring and our smooth-coated dogs. How different this ring full of dogs than any other I have stood in before. Usually, the specials ring at our more familiar National is fraught with tension. Dogs and handlers jockeying for position. Amateur versus professional. Dog versus bitch. Haves versus the have-nots. Old rivalries rekindled and intensified in the holding area and among those sitting ringside watching. Hundreds of years of breed experience making notes in their catalogs and judging from the front row. Not so in this ring new to us. German PInschers have only been recognized 10 years in the AKC. These breeders are new to the breed and to breeding in general. The lack of experience is readily apparent, but some are making progress. Fewer rolling toplines and wide fronts. Better temperaments, more uniformity in size. But plenty of room to improve.
My young dog shifted his stance and looked toward the far side of the ring. I shift my eyes from him to watch the dog three in front of us move. He was powerful and confident but bounced as he moved. His handler baited his head up too far, exposing his straight shoulders but highlighting his wonderful expression. He was black and red like us. Black was at a premium this year. Less than one-third of the entry wore the lustrous, dark coats that are so striking. I watched the judge’s hands as he evaluated the two dogs ahead of us. I could tell he was careful and tried to do his best. I wondered if he re-read the standard in his motel room, as I did, the night before. If he studied the breed from ringside at previous shows in preparation for this assignment. Does he care. Will his picks for the ribbons be dogs that all match either in color or style, or would he take a chance on an unknown, a black dog, maybe a young dog, maybe my young dog.
The German Pinscher standard is very nearly the same as the Doberman Pinscher standard. And some dogs have the look of a small Doberman. In the five days of these shows our dogs had their mouths examined four different ways. The standard has undergone a revision mostly to clarify the topline. Some judges on the weekend clearly used the old standard with its description of the topline as having a dip behind the withers and a slight rise over the loin. The revised standard, since 2007, describes the topline as slightly sloping from the withers to the rear, extending through the well-muscled loin to the faintly curved croup. Would this judge know this. My young dog has a dead level topline moving and though he has a slightly shorter than ideal upper arm he still has good side-gait. His head has great length, but lacks a little fill. The red dog directly ahead of us was smaller and seemed nervous. His handler at least as new to this ring as I am. It is their turn now.
The sun rose higher but hung somewhere in the lower branches of the walnut trees. The Borzoi were lost in the glare. The judge allowed all the specials to enter the ring together, but excused the bitches. There were two professional handlers in the dog specials ring. They don’t have the best dogs, but they get the most out of them. We are near the end of the dog line up. Behind us the dogs are waiting for the judge to finish this preliminary assessment. He will make his cut and move on to the bitches. I am a competent handler in the Kerry ring. Sometimes too aggressive, and I have been known to push a judge a little too far. There is always excitement in the terrier rings. Control is at a minimum. It takes three to four times longer to get these dogs ready for the ring than to show them. Tradition is important. Easily half the 38 Terrier breeds hold their Nationals in a field in Montgomery County, PA every October. In mud, blistering heat and cool, crisp fall weather as many as 3000 Terriers assemble. While it’s true everybody is a neophyte at least once, it quickly becomes apparent you need to bring your A-game or don’t bother to come. I know every rill in the rings at Montgomery. It is our family reunion. In this ring in Del Valle, I feel as if I have married into a strange and foreign family. I am attending somebody else’s reunion and the few words of the new language I have learned are not enough.
It is our turn. As the dog in front of us gaited away from the judge, we moved up. I stacked my boy, guiding him into the position that we have decided is best for him. He is steady on the exam, enduring the stranger pulling back his lips and opening his mouth when I whisper, “teeth”, to him. This trick taught to him by my mom. The judge smiles. Watching the other handlers, I determined the best route away from the judge and back again. I know to focus on a spot in the distance and not watch the dog as I move. This will help him move straight. I know the speed by feel. We lack the finesse to make the slight turn and perfect stack as we stop in front of the judge for the final moments before we are dismissed and circle the ring on our own. The dog judging finished and the judge surveyed his lineup .We were one of two or three black dogs before him. Now was our chance to stand out.
Every dog was stacked. The judge walked down the line pointing to dogs in front of us and behind us. The sun was bright in the grove outside the ring. One black dog was pulled. The remaining dogs are told to move around the ring together. This was our last chance to catch his eye. Loose lead, perfect speed, keep his head up, soft knees for me. We do our best. I got a thumbs up from ringside from our one woman fan club. Another day in the ring was over for us. But in dog shows it’s never really over until you walk out of the ring. The chosen ones were already relaxing, the steward gathered papers for the judge. Some judges, confident with their choices, never take that one last look at the dogs not pointed out. They go through the motions, but it is just that. This judge seemed different. He scrutinized those of us remaining as if searching for the one or two he might have missed. The sun was clearing the trees and the reflection off the white coated dogs was blinding. Shimmering. The light in the grove caught my dog’s eye. He turned toward the open field, leaning over his front, squaring himself. His neck elongated and his eyes narrowed into an intense stare. Scenting the air, strong and confident, like his sire: He was doing the Moltaz. I could not move the dog. All I could do was step behind him, holding the lead with a slight tension. The judge had looked past us. He would never see what I was seeing. Then he turned. For a few seconds the judge followed the gaze of the dog out into the open field beyond the grove. The Borzoi had turned and moved off toward the main show grounds. The judge nodded at us and we joined the lineup of cut dogs.
We did not survive the second cut. No black dogs did. In the end the judge picked all red dogs and only one black bitch for his final placements. All were the same style, save the black bitch. The skies poured rain the last day of the cluster and we finished out the weekend with a judge in an indoor ring who could barely be bothered to look at the dogs. It didn’t matter. The magic of the previous day never reappeared for us. But on that one good day, I like to think I caught a glimpse of what we could be.