Standing ringside in Belton, Texas, on the second day of the weekend, her words shocked me. I had no idea how to respond to her friendly, open face with bright, inquisitive eyes. Surely we were kindred spirits, agreeing on her assessment of the dog show experience. Why had she singled me out to offer an initiation into her club? Had one of our competitors sent her? What had I done to appear as she obviously saw me? I stared at her blankly, head swimming. I glanced at the people standing near me, searching for some back up. Somebody I could pull into the conversation to set her straight. I saw nobody. A cold clamminess enveloped me. I looked at my dog. He was watching me and I noticed he had shifted to stand between me and my tormentor. Breathe, damn it! Think, engage! All I could think about was the blinding rage that filled my head in Portland at the start of this season. This horrible season, now nearly over. Emotions I had pushed down after that first weekend to keep showing our dogs. In order to be in this building, standing outside this ring, trying to fight for what we wanted and believed should be ours.
Seconds stretched by. I had to respond if only to regain control. She was only a human, not a gorgon turning me to stone. My words seemed hollow and far away, but I continued. A forced smile on my face, eyes neutral, trying to sound kind. “No”, I began, “we don’t lose more than we win. If that were the case we would have quit years ago.” I was less numb. ” You have to believe in your dog and your ability to know how well he fits the standard. You have to project your faith in all that onto the judge. To win you must be honest about the dogs in the ring with you and the process, even if it seems the judge is not. And above all you have to see yourself as a winner. Always. Whether you walk out with a ribbon, or the right ribbon, or not.”
Somehow, I was conscious again. The room seemed warmer, I saw my partner, my mom, looking at the dog and me from her seat at the ring, smiling. Not a loving motherly smile, but the strong confident smile of somebody who is probably the most competitive person I know. I don’t know who that woman was or where she went. I wouldn’t have recognized her if she approached me again. Still struggling with why the event had occurred, I tried to focus on the show. We were not leaving this weekend like so many others, like the day before had gone. Like almost every weekend had gone for two and a half years. Clinging to our belief in ourselves and the quality of our dog, and the words of our breeders telling us our dog would be ready to win when he turned three, we had once again journeyed to the German Pinscher National. Trying to salvage something good out of this season.
Over the three years we’ve owned our German Pinscher we have been aware of how much we don’t know. In the words of our handler: I do nothing to make him stand out. Winning in dogs often comes down to what in other sports are called the intangibles. The one with the shiniest coat or the best expression often beats out the ones with more breed type and better movement. In some breeds color is a big deal. From one year to the next judges seem to like different colors. You won two years ago with a black dog, now only reds get the pick. Height, like a pendulum, swings back and forth. All that’s missing is a clear interpretation of the written standard. With intangibles, you either feel really good about them or hopeless. In German Pinschers, where it’s difficult to define breed type, or find two or three dogs alike, wins are more often in the hands of those holding the lead than most of the working breeds. But there’s opportunity in that scenario, too. If a judge is waiting to be told which dog to pick, why not attempt to point them your way?
The first day of the National, we were summarily dismissed. Easy to pick the three handlers and fill in with dogs that bore some resemblance to theirs. Not knowing the working judges, we spent the night in the hotel full of depression and trying to think of a way to be a good sport and salvage some fun out of the weekend. Our life in dogs has not been a losing one. Doggedly, we hold onto the belief in what we have and how it’s shown. If working can get you there, we will do what it takes. But with our black and red dog none of the old formulas had worked. A solid year of losing to a very nice dog, shown by a self-aggrandizing, fast talker, was sloughed off as our dog not being ready. Probably true. Toward the end of 2013, and the beginning of the 2014 show season, this fine dog was put away. It was time. We still lost on the rare occasion he was shown. By this time he was fat and bored,and we still could not make up any ground. Our handler gave me some ideas that helped, and I worked him in some classes. A little progress, but not enough. Now the first day in Texas had ended. So familiar, so expected.
I was never bullied in school. But I could spot the kids that were at risk on the first day. Demeanor, expression, clothing, body type. It was all there. Of course the bullied kids never saw themselves for what they were. It just got worse, year after year. They must have wondered, in their beds at night, why them. Now here I was. Some stranger spotting something that pegged me as a loser. A chronic failure. Accepting on some level, my position in the German Pinscher ring, at the end of the line. Always the one with the good-natured handshake for the winners. It had to stop. And it had to stop that second day, in that ring. Unaware of my pending mental crisis, my mom approached me. She had watched the class judging, seeing with her lifetime of experience what could be done. She whispered emphatically, referring to our most powerful intangible, “Give her the Carol Basler. You can get this.” I entered the ring amid all the dog specials. The breed and best opposite winners from the day before looked good. Momentum and the fact they were from Texas on their sides. There were a few others deserving of wins, I thought. But why not us? This was German Pinschers. The most level playing field we’d ever shown in. Do it!
I applied a little pressure to make the cut. It felt good. I stacked our dog to show off what he had many of the others didn’t. Nearly all the dogs from the day before made the cut again. But so did we. She seemed to like our style of dog. We watched the bitch specials and tried to see what she was picking. The cut dogs and bitches re-entered the ring again. I got a thumbs up from ringside and a couple of hand gestures known only to us. The judge was one who takes her time. Looking at the dogs again and again. Moving them. Mentally sorting them. If you show your dogs often, or spend time ringside watching judges at work, you can see when things change. When the focus is narrowed to the few who will stay in the ring as everyone else files out. I saw the judge’s eyes swing from someone down the line then back to my vicinity. Who was it down the line: dog or bitch. I moved my dog toward the center of the ring slightly and snuck a look. It was a bitch. The red bitch that had been Best of Opposite the day before. It was an opening. Now who was the dog? My God, it was us! Back and forth we worked the judge. Both of us slightly aggressive, very emphatic, without saying a word, that our dog was the best. The bitch’s handler working the beautiful neck and breed type, I worked the topline and square proportions. With a gesture, it was over. We were Best Of Opposite Sex.
Tough and strong, we worked together, building momentum through the rest of the weekend. We made the cut the following day and took home Best of Breed on the last day of the weekend. All the same dogs were there. To say I worked the judge on that last day was an understatement. We went on to a group three and some very lukewarm congratulations from the other members of the working group. While I have mixed feelings about our group placement, it was the two awards at the breed level that will stay with me always. I’d like to write that we went on to repeated success in our next shows. But we didn’t. We lost to two bitches, one with a dislocating elbow and the other that was fat and scared. But our dog was thin and I wasn’t the handler I had been in Texas. We will show on in 2015. Working on our dogs and on ourselves. Never losing. Either winning or learning. It’s the best we can do.