You Ought To Be In Pictures … But Not This One

DSCN0321a  It’s been four weeks since you finally beat your cross-town rival.  You check the mail for a week for that large, cardboard mailer holding the only tangible evidence of the great event.  This will be a photo you’ll scan and post on Facebook probably at least twice a month for the foreseeable future.  You finally got the pattern on the dog just right and your lucky suit came through again.  Just when you are truly annoyed at the delay, the picture comes.  Eagerly you open the mailer and prepare to relive a great moment in dog show history.  With one look, all that fades.  The beautiful purebred you left the house with that morning looks like your neighbor’s pound puppy. Somewhere between the ring and the photographer’s stand he lost three inches of leg and gained four inches of body length. His coat looks like he was groomed in the dark in about twenty minutes.  And then there’s you.  All that Hagen Daz you passed up and trips to the gym were for naught.  You look thirty pounds fatter and slightly out of focus. Not enough to make you unrecognizable, but enough to actually make your double chin look tripled.  The one thing on your body that is in focus is that stain, shouting from the front of your jacket, you acquired during a lunch ten minutes before ring-time. There is no do-over, no way to Photoshop this nightmare into some semblance of acceptability, and this is your young dog’s only win in competition this show DSCN0083aseason!

We’ve all been there. We’ll all be there again. You have little recourse except to return the photo with a note to the photographer. But of course without even this pathetic rendering, you have no visible reminder of a nice win.  You buy the picture and hope for better next time.  To be fair, not all dogs are photogenic.  Just like some people, the camera loves some dogs.  Our current dog special has few pictures that are less than flattering, but our Bedlington never took a good picture. In the world of dog show photography there are two categories: Professional and amateur.  There are gifted practitioners in both camps, but they never seem to be around when your dog has his big moment. What can the exhibitor do to increase the odds of getting a better win DSCN0046aphoto? And what about the amateurs happily snapping away from the second or third rows ringside? They are enough to make you cringe. Recently, the top dog in our breed was a victim of a well-meaning fan with a digital camera. This over zealous shutterbug posted a photo on Facebook of the dog and her handler at a specialty show in the Mid-West. The photo was taken from a profile view with the judge’s hands measuring the dog’s loin. The dog appears long-cast in the extreme and no matter if you love this dog or not, none of her virtues were visible.  Whether to leave a more favorable impression of this animal in the minds of judges trolling the social media or mere coincidence, another photo of the same dog was posted a day later. This time the photo was professionally taken in more than three-quarter aspect and little of the dog was actually shown. But it was a beautiful photo of a blue dog against a shadowy green background. With the photo identified you almost breathed a sigh of relief for the owner.

DSCN0041b  Professional dog show photographers have a difficult job. Mind numbing, like shooting a high school graduation ceremony, and full of pressure, they must scurry ring to ring, slipping into the judging order to satisfy exhibitors and sometimes impatient judges. Dirt floor arenas are dimly lit and the lighting is often pinkish or yellowish wrecking havoc on the camera’s light meter. Nobody trains their dog to stand for a picture and most don’t win enough to get good at it.  Just when you get over caring that your rear end jiggles when you run full tilt around the ring you have to pose for a photo. You stand there sweating, trying to suck in your gut, lifting your head slightly and wishing you hadn’t worn that flora skirt. Why are you standing here again? Oh yeah, your dog just got a win. Some photographers with a modicum of care and professionalism will work with you, but only to a point. Sometimes they shout out orders before the shutter is depressed. “Front leg on my side back a little, rear leg on your side slightly forward, step back from the dog.” As the judge becomes annoyed, the dog refuses to cooperate and the hapless exhibitor seems to be having an out-of-body experience, the photographer takes the picture.  You just got that one in the mail.  I’m not convinced most dog show photographers even like dogs let alone working with dogs and people. I think some stumbled upon a niche market for their mediocre talents and are laughing all the way to the bank.DSCN0111a

Each show-giving club chooses the photographers they want to use. Usually the one they used the year before. Exhibitors seldom complain to the show committee about the photographers so nobody is aware of which ones are good and which are not.  After you’ve been showing about five years you learn which photographers give you a good picture and which can never seem to. There are some very good photographers who take the time to work with each exhibitor and seem to know something about their craft and about dogs. But you never seem to see them enough. We all spend a lot of money going to dog class. Maybe we should start requesting instruction on stacking our dogs for a win shot.

DSCN0311a  As bad as these professionals can be, worse are the legions of amateurs who think they are as good as the pros. While we seek out the professionals, hoping for the best, the amateurs are omnipresent. Armed with more technology than they can handle, they stalk us from ringside. Some of them are friends and family. In their attempts to document the specialty show they succeed in taking some of the most worthless photos of the dogs and handlers possible.  Amateurs have big hearts but have no technical know how. They carefully pick their spot outside the ring and earnestly click away taking enough shots to fill several 16gb cards. Most of us don’t mind being the subject of well taken pictures but nobody likes to see a shot of their dog’s head peeking out from behind the copious butt of the handler in front of you.  We all like to think our dogs are close to perfection and seeing a picture of our specialty winner with his rear leg touching his front leg as he waits in line for his individual exam shakes us to the core. The sad thing is these snapshot artists think they are doing a good job. We have all anxiously weeded through several hundred photos online, taken by a well-meaning club member, with no editing skills, to be sure our dog isn’t there too often or in some compromising pose.  Another annoyance,  the people’s faces in the photos are usually tagged but the name of the dogs are missing. People who did not attend the event ask the name of the dog over and over until somebody admits it’s theirs. Two years ago, I spent a few minutes laughing myself silly at a close up photo from our National of a poorly groomed dog and a handler with grotesquely large legs.  When my mother took a look and pointed out how I needed to clean my shoes next time. I quit laughing. How could the dog and I look so bad?  DSCN0099a

Taking a cue from celebrities on the red carpet, the only way to avoid seeing an unflattering picture of yourself and your dog online is to pick a spot in the ring and assume a stiff position with a well rehearsed smile on your face. it helps if you stand in a corner as it cuts down on the angles available  from which to photograph you.  As long as you remain standing with the dog perfectly stacked you are reasonably assured of not looking bad in the inevitable photos your friends and competitors are sure to take.

B48R8733 a  Anybody can sell photos taken from ringside. Seasoned exhibitors learn to deftly avoid these people. They run up to you as you leave the ring shouting that they have taken a wonderful picture of your dog. Since many time you didn’t get the purple and gold ribbon you become highly suspicious. As proof of their skill, they offer a look at the tiny screen on their camera of what might be you and your dog. You hopefully give them your email and when they forward the photo you can’t hit delete fast enough. There are however, exceptions. Someone barely able to speak English ran up to me after my German Pinscher and I finished showing one day in Scottsdale.  He excitedly shouted, “I have a good picture of your dog.” I thanked him, gave him my email and hurried away. Three days later I received the best picture of the dog I have ever had.  You never know.

Any psychologist will tell you intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind.  We all get just enough decent photos of our dogs and ourselves to keep us hopeful we’ll get more. This makes nearly all of us a sucker for anybody at a show with a camera.  DSC_8846a

His Favorite Season

The closer it gets to Halloween, the closer it gets to our first big snowfall of the year. This year our last snow, in the city, fell in mid-May. That means, five whole months without snow. Five months without running the snowblower in the yard, sliding to work in my far-from-green boat, the only vehicle on the road that is still rear wheel drive. And five months without wearing a heavy coat and waterproof shoes. Snow around here also signals the end to the dog show season. The Southern Colorado Kennel Club’s show will be held in November and that will be the last AKC event in our state. We will have a long wait until our show season starts again in February. We are approaching the one year anniversary of the departure of Mr. Leonard. And though it was a lighter winter in the city than some years, his passing seemed to spawn a cold wind that blew through our lives leaving a dreariness that lingered.

On the last Wednesday of October a not so gentle reminder of the change of season came calling. Heavy, wet snow, the kind usually reserved for the Wichita weekend in April, fell until nearly ten inches had piled up. Running the snowblower seems the acknowledgement of defeat. A last acquiescence that our most beautiful fall in many years has given up and the blacken trees of winter are only days away. If the monster who has slept in the leaky shed in one corner of the yard for five months, must now make an appearance, then winter is nearing. Dreading trudging around the yard with the dogs, we gird ourselves in boots, jackets and hats. First to exit the house is the puppy. His first snow. A great photo-op. One taken by every person who has ever owned a puppy and lived in a snowy climate. The puppy has no hair and didn’t appreciate the wonder of what had transformed his yard. He soldiered on, but couldn’t wait to re-enter the house and resume customizing each room. The rescue dog has seen this many times before in her nearly eleven years. Including the two winters she spent feral in rural Douglas County. She endured the spraying of her snow encrusted legs in the tub and the drying and returned to her place on the end of the couch. Only two more to go. Eva and Peyton. Both of the soft coated variety and both sure to take up a lot more time and effort getting the early winter out of their coats.

There was no way to put if off any longer. They had to go out and I was there to supervise. Already that morning I had shoveled the outside walks, front and back, and cleaned off the cars. Me on the outside, my mom on the inside. It used to be my father on the outside, plodding around with the dogs, shouting at them to quit eating snow and get on with the pooping. My mom has waited patiently to dry and de-snowball dogs in the morning for decades. Our family tradition. I opened the door and let Eva, the Kerry, out first. She ran to the door, stopped short and looked out. Gamely, she trotted outside and turned on the walk to wait for Peyton, her Bedlington friend. I noticed she stood just a little more to the side of the door than usual. What did she know that I didn’t?

The cold air was filling the kennel room and when I reached Peyton’s area I saw he was facing the door air-scenting into the breeze. His jewel tone eyes seemed to sparkle and if a dog could smile he was already grinning. I let him out and felt the wire door fly out of my hand, banging back on the side of his run. He was gone. Racing past Eva, exploding out into the yard at break neck speed. By the time he had reached the shed, and began a turn down the long back stretch of the yard he was running full-out. Tassels flying and tail like a rudder out behind him. He lapped the yard many times. Up over the rock wall, down the steps, around the cage faster and faster with each pass. The puppy seemed transfixed as he watched his mentor from the cage. Eva came to stand by me and I caught a glimpse of my mom watching too, from inside the house. It had been five long months of heat and rain and boredom. Snow was back and it was Peyton’s season. Maybe it’s his Swedish heritage or that he was born in late Winter in Pennsylvania where snow is a frequent visitor, too. But the little lamb dog ran in his yard on this first snow day until the balls of snow on his legs made it impossible for him to continue.

It took about 45 minutes to remove the snow and dry out his coat. He would have run again if we had let him. I fired up the snowblower later that afternoon and felt guilty that I was going to carve up the yard into tracks the dogs would stay on to make our lives easier. Peyton would run in the yard three more times that day and once again in the dead of night when he came into the house to spend time with us before his bedtime. In our state, the sun shines nearly 300 days a year on average. The temperature, though in the teens over night, had been warm before the snow and with the sun’s help would melt what had fallen in a couple of days. A last respite to rake up leaves, winterize the house and cars and enjoy a few more days outside wearing only sweaters.

We can wait for more snow and the numbing cold to come. I don’t know if Peyton can.

Graduation

On the eve of our trip to Hobbs, New Mexico, to see Danny show, the last night of our obedience class was held.  This was graduation night.  Snow had fallen all day and there was about four inches covering the ground.  We toyed with the idea of  not going to New Mexico and especially not going to the last class.  Over the nine weeks we had marched in formation, sort of, and practiced in the street.  The number of students had declined steadily.  Maybe because we were the terriers in the class, and our misplaced pride wouldn’t let us quit, we kept coming week after week.  One of the Berners dropped out, both Labs, and the large mixed breed dogs vanished about week six.  We remained.  Standing in line against the long wall, sandwiched between two German Shepherds, we doubted whether we’d be among those who would graduate.  Some weeks our progress was visible, some weeks it seemed as if we’d just begun.  As graduation night edged closer, we learned we would be running a rally style course consisting of twelve stations.  We’d be asked to do every exercise we’d learned and be in competition against each other.  We are no strangers to competition, but in the show ring.  This was really competing against yourself.  The outcome was up to each handler. 

I don’t know if it was the wish to postpone packing the van for the ten-hour plus drive to Hobbs or our need to finish what we’d started, but we brushed out Peyton and Eva and loaded them into the back of the van.  Somehow the week leading up to this finale had slipped by and not much practice had occurred.  We figured with the weather we’d be two of about four teams who’d show up.  The streets were slick, but we eased our way into the parking lot and saw the vans and SUVs of our fellow students.  Seven of us had braved the wintry weather and showed up to prove to ourselves and our instructors that we could bend our dogs’ wills to ours and graduate.  The teachers were finishing laying out the course in the big room.  We took our seats on benches as far away from the other four-legged students as we could.  Sitting there, staring blankly at the course I could feel my mouth begin to dry and sweat building up on my forehead.  My heart raced and I realized I was clutching Eva’s neck as tightly as I could.  I was firmly in the grip of anxiety.  The same anxiety I’d had every time I competed with Honour in Rally four years before. 

In everybody’s life there are seminal events that color the way you deal with stress.  Mine happened in seventh grade and involved a frog.  I am convinced our teacher was a sadist who enjoyed torturing junior high kids who for the most part led sheltered lives.  It didn’t help either that a few months before this classroom incident I had been grabbed and mauled by a man on a downtown street on my way to my father’s office from the public library.  I had been able to fight off my attacker while a crowd of pedestrians stood watching, ignoring my cries for help.  This taught me a lesson that shaped my personality:  Be your own hero. And the best way to deal with a stressful situation was to ignore it.  But some things you can’t forget and they surface when least expected.  So it was in seventh grade science class when our teacher took an Exacto knife and cut the still beating heart of a frog in half.  The spurting blood and pulsating muscle overwhelmed my adolescent mind and the room started to spin.  In this completely unguarded moment memories of the man on the street, the smell of his after shave and the smell of the blood ran together.  I awoke on the floor with the class staring at me.  My humiliation complete.  Ever after, in high stress situations, I recall this whole event and become nearly catatonic.  As I sat on the bench in our class, I was sweating, my mouth gaping, dizzy and hyper awareness of every sound and smell.  Here I was again.

Sitting beside me, my mom and Peyton looked calm and serene.  She turned and smiled, whispering, “this little bastard is going to embarrass me.”  Of course he was.  I could see it on his face, jaw set, hunched over, his eyes watching the other dogs.  In contrast, Eva was wound up.  It was as if she was drawing energy from my anxiety.   I knew I would never be able to control her in my state.  We sat on the bench waiting for our turns.  Both Shepherds did very well on the course.  One in particular seemed to be well on his way to being a trained dog.  The cute Havanese worked the course with the young daughter of his owner and then with his owner.  He is a happy little dog and had done well throughout our class.  The tall man with the Berner had been a standout the week before, but his owner was over-confident and forgot to give him the commands he still needed to do the exercises.  An older man with a tailed Rottweiler bitch clearly had put in a lot of time with his dog.  She was aggressive and didn’t care for other dogs and I suspect people weren’t high on her list either.  As he worked his way through the course with her, you could see his work was paying off.  She never quit looking at him and they turned in a very nice performance.  First in the class would be that dog or the Shepherd named Tango.  Peyton and Eva were the last two to go. 

My mom bravely approached the start of the course.  She helped Peyton to sit. They started forward, picking up speed and confidence as they completed each station.  Peyton was not an eager worker but he grudgingly gaited around by my mom’s side.  When they reached the last station, the whole class applauded.  He had risen to the occasion and my mom’s pride remained intact.  Now it was Eva and I who had to face the twelve stations.  My anxiety had subsided somewhat and I felt at least I could control my dog.  Eva and I completed every station.  We lacked the precision of the Rottweiler and Shepherd, and the joy of the Havanese, but Eva sat when she should have, turned when I asked her to and didn’t pull on the lead.  Somewhere between station eight and ten, I stopped sweating, too.  I finished feeling like we had done a good job, like we could go on and maybe give Rally another try.  I felt empowered.

I ran the course another time with Eva and once with Peyton,  just for fun.  I felt great.  Peyton even sat for me on his own a couple of times.  We lined up with the other students to find out who was most improved dog:  the Rottweiler and the four top placers.  Neither my mom nor I placed in the top four.  We weren’t surprised, but we had earned our graduation certificate.

  The snow had stopped and the streets were wet, but not slick, as we drove home. A slight breeze brushed my face drying the sweat.  It felt good.  Packing for the trip would be a snap and surely good things awaited us in Hobbs.

It Was Written on The Cake

Now that Peyton has been home since November, and his show days are behind him, he is once again our strange and wonderful pet dog.  He has no purpose in our house except to be our dog and go with us as we occasionally travel to see his brother, Danny, show.  It has also been long enough that the bad memories of his season on the road are fading and we have all recovered our sense of humor and some of our positive attitudes.  Packing away the vestiges of the last show season we came upon his Grand Championship certificate.  Soon, we were both laughing and recalling the story of how he finished his title and how a chocolate sheet cake played more than a small role in the last two points.  

For weeks before the shows we had deemed Peyton’s last ones ever, we waited for his certificate to come in the mail from the AKC.  We knew he had finished his title at the shows in Georgia.  We had added up the points many times and were sure he had the requisite 25 with three Select Dog majors needed to be called Grand Champion.  The pursuit of this title had become the redemption for a show season far too lacking in rewards.  Even this was no slam dunk for Peyton.  We were also proud that he was surely among the first ten Bedlingtons to earn the title, thereby giving us a little more to brag about and at the same time, reassuring us that some judges saw in him what we did.  The AKC has a running tally of the lifetime Grand Champion points earned by every dog shown.  It is listed by breed and in Bedlingtons last year it accurately ranked the dogs in the order in which they earned their title.  We waited anxiously by the mailbox every day but nothing came.

Finally, in a fit of pique, we called the AKC department that deals with this new title and holding back a tirade, asked with some politeness if there had been some mistake.  The AKC and the IRS are very similar.  They are overseen by nobody but their upper management and since each body writes its own codes, they are always in compliance.  In short:  they never make an error.  A representative of our sport’s governing body not so patiently pointed out to us how we had  mis-calculated the point tally.  She went on in her best east coast tone to explain how the points were correctly added.  By the time she relinquished her verbal death grip on me, I had seen the error of our ways.  The AKC didn’t make an error.  Not this time, not ever. 

The sinking feeling in my stomach was matched only by the look on my mom’s face as I broke the news that Peyton was not a Grand Champion at all.  He was two points short!  Two points.  It might as well have been 200.  There were only two shows left for him where there would even be one Grand Champion point available.  Those shows were the Southern Colorado Kennel Club shows in the middle of November.  There he would have to face his nemeses.  The dogs he lost to more than he won.  We would not show him on, even if he didn’t earn those last two points.  Like marathon runners, we could not run one more step.  We could not ask our handler, Odebt, so kind and patient with this dog who might suck up a testicle in the ring or pout at any moment for some imagined slight, to travel one more mile with him. 

The judges were not people we had a lot of faith in.  So little in fact, that we did not enter Danny in these shows.  These judges were mavericks, picking what they liked on the day and usually not what we liked.  In the owner handled world of the Bedlington Terrier, neither would be looking for a familiar face.  It would be a head to head match with the dogs standing on their own, our naked desire exposed to our rivals who were sure to stick around to revel in our nearly certain disappointment.  If he won Best of Breed he was home free, but if he didn’t,  he had to be awarded Select Dog both days and hope all the entries showed up.  We broke the news to Odebt and it was then that a kind of sad, desperation filled our hearts.  All the hard work of the season and it still wasn’t enough.  The race course had been changed, the finish line moved just a few yards further away.  Then there was the matter of the cake.

In the midst of our excitement over Peyton finishing his new title, we had ordered a sheet cake from a local bakery.  The plan was to bring the cake to the shows on the last day and celebrate with Odebt and as many people who cared to swing by the set up.  The cake was chocolate with a butter cream filling, frosted with a white butter cream and emblazoned across the top with the words: Congratulations Odebt and Grand Champion Peyton.  When we realized our error the first thing we did was call the bakery and change the inscription on the cake.  The young woman I spoke to assured me there would be no trace of the dreaded words “Grand Champion”  on the cake.  If he made it, so much the better, but if he didn’t we could still celebrate the season’s successes and our disappointment would be hidden.  We settled down to wait out the week.  We would pick up the cake on Saturday. As I left the salon that afternoon I dialed the people who were at the shows to find out what had happened in the Bedlington ring.  At the gas station near the bakery I was finally able to learn a few sketchy details.  It seemed that Peyton had been chosen Select Dog.  One point.  One more chance the next day.  However, the Sunday judge was the most unpredictable of the weekend. I raced home to break the news.  We dared not feel too optimistic, after all it was not over.     

We entered the bakery slightly more upbeat than we had a right to be.  Confidently, we presented our receipt and waited for the cake. We stared in horror at what we saw.  The words “Grand Champion” were still there!  Nothing could be done to remove them at this late date so we took the cake and left with our darkening mood.  This was either a great omen or the harbinger of great embarrassment.  As we drove the two and a half hours to the show grounds the following day, we were quiet.  By one o’clock it would all be over.  We left the cake in the car.  We told ourselves that since it was a surprise that’s where it belonged, but really we were silently debating whether to bring it in at all.  Ring time came and we filed over to the show building.  I couldn’t watch the judging so I cowered in the vendor area talking to some dog show friends.  Time crawled.  I crept to the entrance of the ring room but could barely see the Bedlington ring.  After twenty minutes I walked into the room and headed toward the ring. I had to face the outcome.  It was just a dog show after all.  Nobody had been diagnosed with cancer or awaiting the outcome of micro surgery.  But this season has been uncommonly personal and we wanted to go out winners, even it was just winning this one point.  Some of the exhibitors were leaving the area and they didn’t look happy.  I scanned ahead to see Odebt and finally located her.  She wasn’t smiling.  She just looked tired and maybe a little happy.  Then my mom appeared in front of me.  Relief and happiness spilling from her eyes.  She hugged me and said, “He made it.” 

Sitting around the cake, sharing its sinful richness, we could relax and truly celebrate.  We did have faith in our dog and handler, but often in the world of dog shows faith and a good dog aren’t enough.  Sometimes you need an omen:  a big, chocolatey one.

City Mouse, Country Mouse

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.

Lining Up

It is the first true winter night we’ve had all year.  The year is only nine days old, but two days ago we were all wearing shorts and flip-flops and now we’re searching the backs of our closets for winter boots.  There are six inches of very light snow piled up on the roads and the yards.  Schools are closing and the local news stations have done their best to whip up the fear of a brutal morning commute by showing video of cars sliding into each other.

The new show season has started.  These first shows bring out an interesting mix of dogs.  Dogs just starting out, last year’s winners waiting out the weeks before Westminster and some dogs just out of the Miscellaneous classes vying for their breed’s first AKC championsips.  California and Florida are the locales most associated with these first few weeks of the new year, but Texas and Minnesota had shows, too.  No matter where dogs show they all seem happy out doing something with people they like to do them with.  There are a lot of hopes behind the dogs out on the circuits.  But it takes more than wishing to make a dog a winner.

Three things make a winner at the dog show game: a really good dog, a good handler and a fair judge.  All three of these are in short supply today. The show climate is very different now than what it was even ten years ago.  There were fewer shows in those times. Many of the shows today are fewer than 600 entries.  This is successfully exploited by those with the money to travel to SmallTown, USA, with a mediocre dog and pick up several good wins on paper, at least, while the bigger dogs and their handlers, are elsewhere.  Before anybody longs to return to the days of far fewer shows remember, fewer shows mean fewer opportunities to win on any level.

Overall, a careful look at the people involved in dog shows now a focus more on the winning than on the dogs. A kind of obligatory lip service is paid to breeders of quality dogs, but it’s the wins that matter most. If a dog wins a couple of nice placements some owners are on the hunt for a monied backer.  Admittedly, it’s fun to see your dog’s name in the Weekly Wins column, or the superintendent’s results pages.  It’s more than a little satisfying being perceived as a winner by your peers.  The irrefutable evidence in their faces, in print.  And since many people aren’t even clear on the fine points of their breed they have no choice but to accept these wins alone as proof of  a dog’s quality.

The need for immediate success has changed the idea of a really good dog into a really generic dog quickly and easily trained. Able to endure the rigors of a show seasons on the road.  A brief reading of the breed standard detailing the conformation of  some of the show game’s biggest winners doesn’t seem to match what’s in the ring at all.  When I was first going to shows with my parents, the German Short Haired Pointer was a moderate sized breed, not the behemoths seen winning today.  At a large show in the lower mid-west, two years ago, a popular judge called for the wicket on an entry of Britanies.  Knowing very little about their standard I knew two of the dogs in the classes were oversized, and there is a size disqualification in that breed. Both were shown by handlers with familiar faces in the sporting dog ring.  As the judge attempted to measure one of the dogs, the handler applied pressure to the animal making him crouch just an inch or so lower. Clearly the handler knew his exhibit didn’t meet the written standard. The judge noticed this and instructed the handler to reset the dog.  The two dogs eventually measured out.  The major broke and many of the exhibitors were unhappy.  The two dogs were back in the same ring the next day.  This time the judge didn’t seem as concerned about the breed standard and the two dogs, found unworthy the day before, awarded winners dog and reserve. That day everybody lost.

If you couldn’t drag your dog around to all the shows necessary to pick up enough wins to finish him, or to make him a ranked special, you hired one of the half-dozen or so professional handlers in your area.  These people were skillful and had learned their craft through lengthy apprenticeships with more seasoned professionals.  They took on clients that could pay, but that also had dogs worthy of winning.  In those days, you knew the dog was a good one if it showed up with Eddie or George because they wouldn’t disgrace themselves showing a lesser specimen.  Their reputations were on the line.  People making their livings showing dogs could groom what they showed and knew something about the breeds they presented.  The same handler showed a Pekingese differently than a Doberman and differently than a Fox Terrier.  Look in any Group or Best in Show ring today and you will see a kind of generic presentation.  Every dog must free stack, free bait and do it all at the end of a six-foot, or longer, lead.  The handlers hold the lead in one had and make a casting motion with their other hand, full of bait, in the direction of the dog as if they were fly fishing.  There is no motivation to improve handling and presentation skills if the same method works for every breed, every show. What seems necessary today are legions of aged-out juniors acting as assistants, not apprentices, who show up ringside to minister to the dog and handler with water, sprays, towels and an occasional cell phone.

Similar to handlers, judges were people who had the highest integrity. Respected in their field and revered for their depth of knowledge about the breeds they judged. They viewed themselves as guardians of the sport.  They were more concerned about finding the best dogs than they were about their next assignment.  With so many more shows comes the need for many more judges.  These people must come from somewhere.  Often, they are retired handlers or bored breeders.  These people are more aware of the win statistics than what it takes to become a skillful judge.  Thanks to the various online reporting services we are all too aware of the connections between some high-profile judges, handlers and exhibitors. The information is both enlightening and disheartening:  a group of handlers, judges and owners vacationed together in Upstate New York.  The same group of people rewarded and awarded each other throughout the last show season.  The 2010 season saw judges picking dogs owned by their business managers, shown to them by handlers who have been their employees.  None of this was technically illegal. The perception of fairness in judging is all important.  Exhibitors need to believe that wins are not bought and paid for, if only figuratively. We all need a fair judge to be winners.

As this show season starts everyone has the best of intentions and lots of dreams.  Owners of the first few winning dogs will begin the long season holding their collective breath waiting to see if the early wins were part of a trend or a one time flash in the pan.  We hope the year is full of good sportsmanship on all sides of the dog show equation.  It would be a welcomed change to see breeders show only their best, not just what they’ve bred.  To see handlers showing fewer dogs, but better quality dogs.  And to see judges with the knowledge and courage to pick truly worthy dogs, not just the ones shown by the more recognizable lead holders.  And it would be the best of all to hear exhibitors quit complaining about handlers winning everything and get involved in local kennel clubs where their constructive voices could be heard.

Let’s make 2011 a great show season.

Six Weeks Later

There are things many show people say to each other, and their less doggy friends, about what they will do with their winning show dogs once they come off the road and return home.  Maybe it comes from guilt.  Spending a lot of money sending a dog out with somebody in a truck, with other people’s dogs, all around the country pursuing rosettes and bragging rights.  Maybe it’s something to say to the relatives who’ve asked over the years, “Do you win money at this?” Or maybe, in the end, it’s a way to fool yourself into thinking you can actually do more with your pet than just show it.  What we show people say is, “I’m going to do Rally, Obedience or Agility with my dog.”  This seems a way to prove your dog is more than just a pretty muzzle.  He is smart and what’s more you’re smart, too.  You can train your dog to leave it, walk casually beside you through obstacles or other dogs totally under control, or run like a fool jumping, climbing and barking for fun. Besides, all this training could help you lose that extra weight you put on worrying about how your dog was doing on the road.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say, and we are certainly on that road. Six weeks ago we started a beginning obedience class with Eva and Peyton.  Since 1956  we have owned Kerry Blues, and we have never managed to train one of them to do more than win in the show ring.  This time we are determined.  This time it won’t just be one of us trudging to class every week, exhausted after a long day of work, and plodding around the training room.  It will be both of us.  We each have a dog to work, and we’re making it a kind of competition.  Further inspiration to keep us going.  So far neither one of us is winning.  Peyton and Eva are winning.

The training center, the hell-hole we trek to every week, is one large room used some nights for obedience and some nights for conformation.  Nothing can match the tedium of conformation training.  Over the years I’ve endured unimaginable humiliations inside this building.  Several years ago, in a fit of pique, Honour jumped up and attached herself to my butt as I continued around the makeshift ring.  I left that night accompanied by peels of laughter from my classmates.  Eva never actually went around the practice ring on four feet.  Leaping along beside me on her hind legs, clawing at the air and braying were her preferred postures.  I trained her so well in these behaviors that she performed them perfectly at her first three shows.  Three years ago, I had taken my first tentative steps into the world of obedience when Honour and I took a Rally class.  We pushed and pulled each other through the class and somehow through three qualifying scores to earn her rally novice title.

Surely, even with such limited success, I was ready to venture once again into the world outside conformation.  Maybe we really could do this.  My mom and I spent several weeks deciding which dog each of us would work.  I wanted to work with Peyton.  Though our ring relationship was problematic, he and I do a series of little tricks, behaviors really, before I give him a treat.  He seemed to learn these thing so fast and take so much satisfaction from doing them right that I thought he would be the easier of the two candidates.  My mom professed not to care which dog she would train and since she had completed the beginning obedience before with many more dogs than I, for her to take the more difficult dog made sense.  But as the weeks before class  rolled along we both realized that Eva, with her high energy and mischievous sense of humor, would be too much for her to keep up with throughout the one hour class.  When our first night came, I was to work with Eva and my mom would work Peyton.

We arrived at the class at least ten minutes early.  Our dogs were freshly bathed, groomed and each sporting new snap collars.  This class employes the modern training philosophy of praise and reward, no choke chains necessary.  The students, human and canine, all gathered in one corner of the big room.  The trainer wanna-bes took the chairs and the dogs were to “settle” on the floor passively beside them.  Right away we realized we weren’t fitting in.  We were, of course, the only terriers.  We were the oldest dogs, and trainers, and neither Eva nor Peyton had attended the pre-novice course everyone else had. Alone among the Labs, Bernese Mountain Dogs and one very smart Havanese we scrambled to catch up.  Several times the instructors offered a lame excuse to us, meant I’m sure to console us for our pets’ lack of progress, “They’re terriers.”  I kept thinking of a T-shirt sold at our national specialty one year. ” True Trainers Train Terriers”, it proudly proclaimed.  Maybe the part we were missing was the true trainers.  The new snap collars were replaced by sturdy choke chains, and sometimes we employed the old training methods of jerk and release.

By the two-week Holiday break Eva was sitting on command and heeling on a loose lead most of the time.  She was working on short stays and lost interest after 15 minutes instead of five.  Peyton was another story.  No matter how hard my mom worked with the little lamb-dog he would not sit.  He walked on a loose lead easily, if not particularly happily, and had no trouble paying attention to her commands to watch.  The instructor suggested my mom help him learn to sit on a table.  He appeared to make little progress.  Peyton was clearly the most stubborn canine student our instructors had ever seen.  No matter what anybody did, he would not sit.  We had two weeks to work our dogs before class reconvened after New Years.  We vowed to come back showing real progress.

My mom worked with Peyton as often as both could stand.  Every time he came into the house or dog room from the yard my mom would implore him to sit.  No dice.  Sometimes she was able to collapse his rear legs and fold him into the correct position, but sometimes he wouldn’t cooperate.  Even if it mean he was not getting a cookie.  It was clear Peyton had no understanding of what sit meant.  We took to calling him Helen, after Helen Keller, before she had her epiphany with the water spilling from the pump in her front yard.  When she finally put the gushing torrent together with the finger spelled word for water she was able to unlock her tremendous intellect.  Maybe it would be the same for Peyton.

Thursday night came and we reluctantly drove over to our class.  Eva was ready and had even learned the down command with a little pushing on my part.  Our class filed into a line along the far wall, ready to show how much we had forgotten over the break.  My mom took up a spot on the very end of the green mat with Eva and I standing next to them.  The instructor told us to sit our dogs.  One by one each dog sat.  Eva was sitting just where she should have been, looking up at me.  Maybe we had a future in this venue.  Maybe we could go on to the rally class.  I gazed out into the room toward the instructor.  She had a look of absolute amazement mixed with satisfaction and pride.  I looked to my left and saw all the dogs were now sitting properly.  But the instructor wasn’t looking at them.  She too, was looking to her left, my right,  and she was smiling.  The only dog and handler to my right, the dog she was looking at was Peyton.  I shot a sideways glance at my mom and saw what the instructor was smiling about.  Peyton was sitting!  It had taken six weeks but Peyton finally figured it out.  My mom’s patience and persistence won out; she was in fact, a true trainer.

We have three more Thursdays to master the basics of beginning obedience.  We just might make it.