Like A Pine Forest

DSC_9221a I never saw Honour as an old dog. Staring out at the world from behind milky, clouded eyes. Walking slowly and unsteadily on her always tender feet,  would not suit her at any age. Even after she turned ten this year she remained young in my mind’s eye. Ten was just a number, a way to mark time in the life of a living thing. Never sick and always self-centered, Honour chose to live with Odebt. And she usually got her way.

DSC_8164a Honour was held out for color one whole show season.  But we continued to bring her along while we showed the other dogs. She barked and raved in her crate and spun and barked and raved some more. As bad as she was at DSC_9384ashows, she was inconsolable when we left her home.  On a whim, at the shows in Denver in February 2004, we paid a visit with her to the Dog Whisperer. What happened in the quiet, little booth made us mostly laugh not quite believing animals could communicate in such a way. After a few preliminaries the Whisperer asked Honour, without saying a word, a question we had long asked ourselves. Why she hated to be left home. Sitting smugly, we waited to hear the predictable answer of how she loved us and couldn’t stand to be away from us. What we heard brought us to tears.  The Whisperer told us Honour hated to stay at home because the dogs that stayed home went away and never came back.  It was true, though the Whisperer would have had no idea that it was. Dogs we no longer showed remained at home while we travelled to the next shows. They were eventually moved on to other homes. Better homes for them, where they could be the only dogs and have a family that would love them for themselves, not for what they won or how good a breeder they would become.  It was all a positive to us, but to Honour it meant the end of showing, the most important thing to her.  We never left her again. DSCN1225

When Honour became Odebt’s dog, with all her quirks and indomitable spirit, she was home.  Living at the little DSCN1271farm she had her dog friend, Satie, and the only person who ever mattered to her. That was all she required. She developed a whole repertoire of new behaviors. Strange things making sense only to her.  The morning after Thanksgiving Honour refused to come out of her crate. She lay still and curled up, seemingly cozy and happy and dead to the world. Sometime in the night her spirit left. She would never be old and sick and unable to bark madly, expressing her displeasure. She left us with the memories of a driven show dog, happy and unique. Honour’s death was convenient only to her.

DSCN1221 Entering the yard in a van full of dogs in mid-December, the burned out hulk of the box truck stood sentinel. Its blackened cab with the two seats and twisted steering wheel pointed across the field in the direction of the dirt road. The demise of the box truck was hastened by an onslaught of tumbleweeds of biblical proportion. Piling up against fences and buildings, choking roadside ditches and spilling over, blocking roads, the weeds blew in for several days. Whatever goes on underneath trucks and cars is a mystery to me. But I know a significant amount of heat is the result of the processes. Add brittle, oil-filled weeds and the combustible inevitability cannot be controlled.  Staring at the front passenger seat I could almost feel the vibration of the engine on our trip to Dallas last year. That last trip of the season had brought us points on our puppies and great memories to carry us through the winter until our new show season would DSCN1274begin.  Dallas was our season-ender this year, too. We jammed ourselves, gear and six dogs into the red mini-van this year. Without the box truck we were limited on space and left a few comforts at home. Weathering the worse ice storm Dallas had experienced since Super Bowl Sunday, 2007, we drove back and forth from the motel to the show every one of the four days of the circuit. The friends and dogs inside the venue helped us forget the weather and turn our energy to the competition. The loss of the truck altered our plans but not our purpose. DSCN1218

Loss is a part of showing dogs. Loss of dogs, people, reputation and motivation. Any one of these can be so devastating that moving on seems impossible.  Loss stifles creativity, a key element in breeding and training new dogs. In our time in dogs we have had many losses. We have had to compartmentalize these to continue in a sport we truly love. Beating back fear and dread with each breeding decision we continue to dream of producing dogs we are proud of, winning dogs that will live to contribute to our line or those of others. No dog or person passes out of our lives without making a mark. Sometimes the ones with the least obvious worth are the most affecting in death: Mr. Leonard, Honour, Tammi’s Blue and our three-day old puppy. Images you can’t shake, losses you can’t compartmentalize.

DSCN1209 Walking around the burned out truck, nestled in the choking tumbleweeds it was easy to recall all the failures of the past show season. How our breed seems to have changed into something farther from the written standard than at any time in my life. People breeding, showing and winning with dogs of a quality that would not have been competitive some years ago. We keep winning, too. As we always have. But each year we find it a little easier to not care who wins our National and a little harder to respect the judges. Each show season brings news of the deaths of old dog people. Skilled breeders, judges, club leaders and friends. You see their names in the front pages of dog show catalogs, but few will be remembered long. Partially because they were unwilling or unable to pass on their tremendous knowledge to enough people to make a difference.

A few miles from the burned out box truck is a pine forest that depends upon fire for the germination of its seeds. As the fire scorches each tree, the cones open, their seeds spilling onto the forest floor beneath them. DSCN1247 A new beginning from the devastation.  Every new show season is a chance to move ahead. We make the decision not to be defined by the disappointments and losses of the old season, even if they cannot be forgotten. It takes more courage to continue than to languish in grief or merely quit. We have reached a point of no return of sorts, with too much invested in our breed to not continue. The addition of our German Pinscher has helped us see shows through new eyes. While we mentor others in our breed, we in turn, are mentored by others. It is refreshing to be new in some aspect of showing. Always looking forward. Accepting the losses in the ring as DSCN1235learning experiences instead of evidence of something darker.

We never make a conscious decision to show dogs in the new season. It is something that just happens. A premium list comes in the mail, a dog friend calls excited about a new puppy to show and like all pain, the losses of the last season fade. And being Terrier people we never quit. And maybe, in the house just behind the burned out box truck, two dogs and a breeder make their own start to the new season in the best way of all.

One Third A Champion

  In the waning weekends of the 2012 show season we anxiously counted down the days.  Looking to salvage something from an abortive season fraught with disappointment and the lingering feelings that we no longer recognized our sport, we jumped at the chance to make one more show trip.  Enough clothing, food, bedding and hope for eight dogs outbound and eleven dogs inbound packed with prayers the dry weather would hold. While chatter on the social media sites centered around the upcoming Eukanuba show in Florida, our gypsy road show left Yoder, Colorado, on a Tuesday bound for Dallas.  We would go no further than those shows this season. Four shows in Florida held no interest for us this year. We knew the outcome already.  Instead, our destination held much more uncertainty.  The chance to be made a fool of in public in front of each other and our peers:  showing six month old puppies.  Six months and one day old.

  Only new owners, starry-eyed and giddy with the prospect of winning majors with raw recruits, show puppies this young.  Most reputable handlers discourage their clients from such folly and in fact, refuse to be seen in a sweepstakes ring at all.  Puppies and their hair-brained antics make them look bad.  Somebody might mistake them for amateurs.  Hooligan terrier puppies are probably the worst.  Fighting one minute with each other, the next with you and threatening to either bite or pee on the judge, most sane exhibitors leave them at home.  But, what fun would that be? Especially if the breeder/owner was a hander. Puppies level the playing field. Everybody is at a disadvantage.  A sort of gallows humor had descended upon both of us making this trip in the red box truck and its ironic Pawsatively Handling logo of a serene Pointer on the side. It was Pawsatively dog show suicide.  We could have hedged our bets by training our puppies.  A few handling classes or matches would have been prudent.  But, training in the ring has its own rewards, after all.

  This was my first trip in the box truck.  I liked the feel of riding in it immediately.  Sitting at the level of long haul truckers and FedEx drivers   initiated into a club known mostly from songs.  Sitting in my seat, fighting the arm rest for the seatbelt after every stop, I hoped the truckers thought I was capable of piloting this behemouth of a vehicle.  All the while being grateful I never actually had to work a shift behind the wheel. The red beast carried us across the plains of Colorado and Texas without incident. We stopped twice for a break for us and the dogs and three times to gas up. This was no quick event.  We set the Chihuahua pen up first. Buckie and Raisin handed out and placed inside their portable exercise yard.  The three puppies followed.  Each of us walking one at a time.  Hoping the third one would wait until one of us could get back for her.  The other dogs followed in an order based loosely on age and experience traveling in the truck and who would be faster than who.  We were on the road when we returned the last dog, usually Danny, to its crate.

  The Dallas Market Center is a big, clean, well-lit building.  We had 200 sq feet of grooming space and we barely fit.  The amazing thing about dog shows is that most people show as a hobby.  Hobbies should be calming, relaxing and generally easier than what most of us get paid to do during the week.  There was nothing easy about this weekend.  Three quarters of the first day we devoted to grooming the five Kerries we’d brought. Standing all day on the hard floor, the unloading, bathing, walking and more standing were taking their toll.  I could have entered a wet T-shirt contest by the time every dog was bathed.  My hair lacked any semblance of style and my pantyhose were wet to the knee. There was little time for personal rehab.  We had a deadline:  the North Dallas Terrier Club show and Sweepstakes, starting at 4:30.

  By the time the show started I was barely able to walk. We were all tired.  Too much work, too little food.  And finally the showing.  I was mainly responsible for one small bitch for this first show. Ultimately my mom’s pick from nine puppies, she looked almost benign sitting on her table.  All the dogs were ready and a pride and excitement replaced fatigue in the setup.  I was proud to be part of this machine.  At shows, you estimate when you will be in the ring.  The better an estimator you are, the less standing ringside you have to do.  Standing is a double-edged sword.  If you are young, are approaching middle age or even squarely middle-aged you can grab a ringside chair and sit, waiting for your turn.  But if you are on the back side of the best years of your life, ringside chairs are not your friend.  They look so pleasant.  Inviting almost.  They beckon you to linger on their curved DSCN0231a  metal seats and convince yourself you really aren’t that tired and you will be able to spring up and show your dog easily.  Well, as the rational part of your brain knows, you may never be able to get up. Your legs will cramp and the blood will pool in your calves and feet making it torture when you have to move again.  A crippling stiffness will invade your back and lower body.  I continue to learn this lesson every show season.  I have also learned that several Extra Strength Tylenol, taken about an hour before ring time, mitigates this somewhat.  But on this day it wasn’t enough. Looking wistfully at the chairs, I  remained standing.

  The steward called our breed to the ring. Shifting on my feet, I had managed to recirculate some of the pooling blood from my legs to the rest of my body and believed I might be able to hang in for a lap or two around the ring. I was too tired to care if our puppy made a fool of me.  If she raced around the ring on her hind legs or refused to stand for the judge.  One trip to training class does not a show dog make.  Sure, I was excited to show the little bitch. And there had been a little trash-talking in the box truck on the way out and in the set up about which of the three littermates would do the best.  Just good natured competition between friends and littermates. This first show weekend they would have to do it on their own. Training and real winning would come later.

We entered the ring and the puppy stood quietly where I stacked her. Standing was one thing moving was another.  In the dog show world, confidence is sometimes everything and that was the one thing our puppy had. She became the bitch we all fear.  Typee, cute and full of herself.  Many times we have stood behind such a phenom, graciously accepting our red, second place ribbon.  We have watched from ringside at our National while this same type of  puppy takes home the hardware. We have never owned that puppy and after such a long day I didn’t care who owned one. The judge asked us to go around. Our puppy took off like she was radio controlled, me racing after her. Reaching the end of the lead she never broke stride. I DSCN0080a  caught her midway down the far side of the ring, her front legs reaching, rear driving. My rear movement was not as smooth but I had no choice except to hold on and keep going. Maybe she had snuck out to training class by herself. Maybe she wanted to see me sweat as we returned to the ring for Winners Bitch comepetition, Best Of Breed competition and the Stud Dog class. The wait for the final competition of the day, Puppy Sweepstakes, seemed intentionally cruel. With no points at stake, why were we here.  Our puppies seemed ready to go another round even if we were dreaming of dinner so we stayed.  I’m sure more than just the puppy was laughing as I gasped my way through the Sweepstakes group. When we finished that first, interminable day, she had two points and a Puppy Sweepstakes  Group 2.

By the time we loaded the box truck for the trip home three days later, our puppy had a major and a total of five points.  She was one-third a champion and I knew we had a show dog.

Winter Kill

As the earth leans closer to the sun, the days are longer and the snow that falls melts quickly.  Spring is less than three weeks away.  Spring, the season of hope and renewal. The season for planting and raking and taking stock in what will be required to begin again.  But Winter lingers, barely visible, in the yards and fields and sometimes in the heart.  Some things living when the snow first fell will be dead when newer growth emerges, warmed by the sun.

Sometimes Winter takes its toll on more than just plants, a few birds and old feeble elk.  The Spring thaw reveals the death of dreams long-held, lying dormant through the winter, waiting in vain for the spring that will never come.  In our house we have weathered the ravages of winter kill more than a few times.  My father died in February, one year, and my husband in December of another. Across the street melting snow slips to the edges of  well-tended beds.  Safe underground lie bulbs bursting with life.  The gardener’s hands stilled barely two weeks ago by a brief but fatal illness.  Her husband and son, and their uneasy relationship, left to tend her garden, keeping her hope for plentiful blooms alive.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                .

As we leave through our yard gate into the driveway to go about the mundane daily errands, we will no longer have to fish in our pockets for pieces of dog biscuits to feed Mia Ham, our neighbor’s dog, her soft fur the color of a carmel dessert. Mia, in her time, bore several litters of mongrel pups in a barn on somebody’s horse property before becoming the much beloved, rotund companion to our neighbor next door. Loved to death, her diabetes overwhelmed her and she slipped into the blackness that lies beyond life as she knew it barely a month ago.

As Spring approaches, wind often fills our skies as if to blow away Winter. Prematurely built birds’ nests, ripped from their tenuous holds, end up in the driveways and lawns of our neighborhood.  Sometimes tiny speckled eggs are already in the nests. The parents will build anew and raise another clutch of chicks under more favorable conditions, without emotion.  We are human beings, though, full of emotion and daring to hope that each Spring really will bring our dreams closer. We have the intellect to understand the inevitable losses but somehow unable to detach ourselves from the pain.  And while dog breeding is to some, no more important or valuable an avocation than gardening, the loss of a tiny, two-day old winter puppy can make any breeder heartsick.

Puppies are tangible evidence that hope exists.  That Spring will come and we have all survived the Winter. Puppies are the renewal of the breeder’s line and her committment to her breed.  Her choices of sire and dam reflective of her interpretation of the breed’s standard and her wish to leave something better than she found it.  Like homegrown tomatoes in high summer, puppies are round and fresh.  Full of promise.  Who doesn’t love a puppy?  What breeder hasn’t stared into the whelping box and imagined how wonderful her pick puppy will look,  grown up, on the jumbo-tron at Westminster.  How many puppies enter the world as part of the “K” litter, the “M” litter? Each letter a notch in the timeline of a breeder’s life. The breeder may name her human children Katie, Barry or Edward, plain names meant to carry them into adulthood and hopefully into decent jobs, but she will name her puppies the most wonderfully creative names she can think of. Each name designed to make a statement as to the quality of the puppies and their destinations as companions or show dogs.  Our Danny has such a name.  He is our Chance Redemption.  A dog that came into our lives unexpectedly when our attempts to breed a male to our liking failed.

Being somewhat superstitious, we never name our puppies until they have survived the first three weeks of life.  In our breed that is the time of danger.  We tell ourselves, and anybody who asks why the puppy doesn’t have a name by the time his eyes are open, that we haven’t decided on a name yet.  We say we let the puppy pick his own name as he grows. But that is at best a half-truth. We wait to name the puppies until after three weeks so we don’t waste a great name on a dead puppy.  Once used, a name may never be re-used and will always be linked to the poor puppy who first owned it.  A terrible jinx might follow the dog who gets the recycled name into the ring and into his life.  So tiny puppies pass out of this life unnamed. A name is only a reference point for the breeder.  A Winter puppy that never lives to roll in the Spring grass, or lick water droplets off the hose, or fall asleep on the cool, metal seat of the porch glider will linger in the breeder’s heart for many seasons.

For us, the Denver shows mean Winter is ending.  Our dormant show season stirs and we dare to dream about success in the ring.  These shows bring out many puppies, some of them entered, some along for their first exposure to what the breeder hopes will be a way of life in the near future. So many Winter puppies, or so it seems to breeders whose puppies never lived to see these shows. Breeding is hard on the wallet and the heart.  It is why we prefer to show dogs more than breed them.  Yet like our neighbor the gardener and Mia Ham begging for a treat, we continue to breed dogs hoping our line will grow and flourish in one more Spring.

 As we rake the yard and clear away the straw from the fence line in preparation for the start of the grass season, our mood is dull.  We indulge ourselves, at least momentarily, in the chance to mourn the ending of  our line on the bitch side.  As I bend over to grab the Frisbee Eva has retrieved, I watch her circling in front of me.  Her athletic body with its powerful rear and reaching front still lean and fit at nearly seven.  She shags another throw, jumping high in the air to snatch the spinning disk.  Winter has not killed her spirit nor ultimately, our faith in ourselves as breeders. At least we have come through another Winter.