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

What You Can Do

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, January 20, 1961

DSC_8444a  In January, 1961, I was six years old. My brother was not born, but would be born in July of that same year. We had, of course, a Kerry Blue Terrier named Bran. and we lived in a small house by what we refer to now as the old airport.  When President Elect, John Kennedy, spoke these words and ushered in Camelot, most of America was in what you might call a blissful innocence, and had not yet been rudely awakened to the tumultuousness that would be the sixties. Americans blindly trusted the media and government and the media was not intrusive in the lives of its celebrities and politicians. We moved later that year to the house my mother and I share today. Like many urban families, ours fled the city to take up residence in the suburbs. On a day in late November. a little more than two years later, I was playing baseball on the playground field of my elementary school when we were herded into the auditorium. Squinting from the far end of the gym at a black and white TV on an AV cart, I heard words I did not understand, but would remember for the rest of my life:  the President had been assassinated.

In 1961, the AKC was seventy seven years old. Women, although members of dog clubs across DSCN0820bthe country, were not allowed to serve as Delegates. HSUS was seven years old and PETA would not exist for another nineteen years. Since the early sixties, most dog clubs have struggled to remain viable. These all-volunteer organizations depend on the sweat of their members to put on dog shows, obedience and agility trials and more importantly, to spread the word that purebred dogs are great family pets. As the AKC is a club of clubs, it relies on the member clubs to finance their shared mission: Upholding the integrity of its Registry, promoting the sport of purebred dogs and breeding for type and function. Membership in any club is a privilege and it carries with it obligations and responsibilities. Dog clubs are especially demanding of time as well as mental and physical energy. Motivation to put on quality shows or trials must be self-DSCN0580sustaining. The AKC does not provide safety nets for failing clubs nor reward those that put on the better shows. Clubs succeed or fail on the strength of its membership. Retention of members is a concern to every club. What makes people stay involved in clubs and what causes them to drift away? The answer could lie in the five stages of group dynamics. These stages are nearly universal in any organization with members who must work together to advance a common goal. Any time in the life of a club when new projects are taken on, or a new Board is seated, these developmental stages begin again.

  • Forming.  This is an orientation period when members get to know each other and share expectations about the group. Members learn the purpose of the group as well as the rules to be followed. Trust and openness must be developed during this stage.  These feelings strengthen in later stages. Members are often confused during this stage because roles are not clear and there may not be a strong leader.
  • Storming. In this stage, a club is likely to see the highest  level of disagreement and conflict. Members often challenge group goals and struggle for power. Individuals often vie for the leadership position. This can be a positive experience for the club if members can become united through resolution. Members often voice concern and criticism in this phase. If members are not able to resolve the conflict, a club will often disband or continue but will remain ineffective and never advance to the otherDSCN1134a stages.
  • Norming. This stage is characterized by the recognition of  individual differences and shared expectations. In this stage, club members will begin to develop a feeling of group cohesion and identity.  Responsibilities are divided among members.
  • Performing. The club has matured and attains a feeling of cohesiveness. Individuals accept one another and conflict is resolved through group  discussion. Members make decisions through a rational  process, focused on goals, rather than emotional issues.
  • Adjourning. Not all groups experience this stage of development  because it is characterized by the disbandment of the group. Dog clubs strive to remain relatively permanent.  But this stage can occur at the end of a show or special project. In this stage, members may feel sadness that lingers.  DSCN0755a

If a club is successful in working through these stages, the membership remains healthy. Problems arise when a club becomes stuck In the Forming or Storming stage and the development of factions result.  Even if a club is decades old, when club members don’t feel valued or heard, they drop out or refuse to participate on any meaningful level.

Even in the healthiest clubs, members constantly ask themselves, “what’s in it for me”. What does the average member get out of belonging to a dog club.  In the case of a local club many are temporarily satisfied with priority parking at the annual show, member appreciation dinner, free grooming and club badges or plaques for their dogs’ achievements.  But these are seldom enough in the long run. Ultimately, the motivation to belong to a dog club must come from within every member.  Club leadership must foster a culture where the club and its members see themselves as a necessary part of promoting purebred dog ownership. Leaders with energy who are creative and set high standards and goals are the most successful in retaining members.  When a club puts on a great show, large or small, morale grows and members feel important. Sometimes assigning tasks to each active member, even small ones, goes a long way. Soliciting feedback from exhibitors at the club show, and passing along the positive comments makes everybody feel good.

DSCN0715   In the days of Camelot, before PETA and HSUS, dog clubs were social organizations that put on a show once a year and existed for the pleasure of their members. Today, the purebred dog is under attack. Breeders are vilified and the AKC has a whole department, and paid lobbyists, to monitor and fight anti-dog legislation. Many communities have limit laws and breed bans. Dog clubs are more important than ever. They represent grass roots organizations of people who love and have dedicated their lives to dogs and dog sport.  People who see showing and trialing dogs as a positive family activity with benefits that are long lasting.

It is time we who have joined dog clubs quit asking what the club has done for us lately, and ask how we can do more now.

Flustered With Clusters

DSCN0835aAKC Cluster shows began in the 1970s partially as a response to the gas crisis and partially in response to demands from the fancy. Shows had begun as one day affairs and people generally didn’t travel too far from home. As dog showing grew in popularity, kennel clubs realized there was growing support for two shows, one each day of the weekend. It was double the opportunity to finish a dog if there were two shows on the same weekend.  However, most of these two day events were held in two different locations.  As a child I have memories of our family showing in Lincoln on a Saturday then breaking down, loading everything into our car and driving to Omaha for the Sunday show.  Still, two shows were better than one. Twice the opportunity for points and group placements.

If two shows were good, four would be twice as good and the evolution of the cluster shows wasDSCN0862b complete. Now, if you have nothing to do in January of every year, you can go to Brooksville, Florida, and show in nine shows in ten days.  In August, in Topeka, Kansas, you can show in eight shows in ten days. These two clusters fill up and have great venues.  Enterprising all-breed clubs court specialty breed clubs and offer inducements if they will hold a specialty with the existing cluster. This can stretch out a cluster to five days for some breeds for a total of 10 shows.  This guarantees an influx of professional handlers and often quality dogs as they can charge clients more for a specialty weekend.  Sometimes these clusters benefit the rank and file exhibitor, sometimes not. It is not so easy to determine when the chief motivation to show a dog changed.  When patience to finish a dog was lost, and when finishing a dog in three years, instead of three months, was considered an indictment on the animal’s quality.

I am not one to say everything, or most things including dog shows, were better in the past. Many of the rule and procedural changes inDSCN0787a the sport today have improved the show experience.  Travelling eight to ten hours for a two-day event at the height of summer seems too much effort for too little payoff.  Especially when the humidity rivals the air temperature and the shows are held in outdoor rings.  If somebody tries to tell you how much they love doing this you are probably speaking to a local politician or an outright liar.  In our area we have a weekend show. The Terry-All Kennel Club. These shows are held at a fairgrounds in a semi-rural area just outside Denver in Brighton, Colorado.  These shows are the worst on the Eastern Slope.  Since most of the exhibitors are locals, most show here and most swear every year, after the event, that they will not return.  Of course everybody returns the next year.  The grooming for this show is either in a dark, dirt floor arena, several blocks from the  DSCN0850ashow building, where the floor is rutted and dusty or in horse stalls.  Having never owned horses I am less enamored than some with the smell of manure and old straw. You can also groom outside your vehicle in an adjacent space.  You can buy these spaces for the weekend. Savy exhibitors allow extra time upon arrival to find their spaces and persuade the person already in them to move.  The weather is either blistering or freezing, both accompanied by a driving wind and often precipitation.  Before the thrill of victory is overtaken by the agony of yet another lost major, we are exhausted just getting through the logistics of the venue.  If this show is spurned, and one is patient, there is another show about 600 miles away. The venue is clean with indoor heated water for bathing dogs and reserved grooming. Parking is plentiful and free.  Usually too early for tornados, rain and wind are a passing annoyance as you head inside the climate controlled building to the spacious rings close to your setup. Forgetting nearly anything is no problem since there are a variety of vendors. And did I mention this is a cluster!  The Sunflower Cluster. A four day event in Wichita, Kansas.

DSCN0837a  In more than ten years there has not been a major in any of the three breeds we own and have shown: Kerries, Bedlingtons and German PInschers. And in those ten years, only a few times have any points been available at the Terry-All Show. In Wichita however, there usually are points, if not majors, available in all three.  That is the beauty of clusters. That was the plan. That’s what we all wished for. More opportunities for points to finish dogs quickly. Four shows in good conditions bring out the exhibitors. There are enough clusters in most parts of the country to encourage handlers with their rafts of dogs to enter. Clients paying mileage are much more amenable to shelling out funds when there are four or five chances to win points. It all seems like such a better return on the dog show dollar. Locals with the same breeds can work together to build majors and points for each other. In a four or five day cluster two, maybe three, class dogs can finish. Clusters also provide opportunities for dog people to sit around and talk dogs. This is more pleasant because the conditions are usually better than horse stalls and dirt floors. At clusters there are amenities.  With two or more clubs splitting expenses, larger and better venues become possible. With many out-of-towners, and nothing much to do outside the show, talking to old and new friends takes on more importance. At two day shows most of the entries are locals and dog shows are sandwiched between home improvement projects and kids’ soccer games. People show their dogs then pack up and go home to salvage some part of the day.

I love cluster shows for the most part. Without them we would never have seen the Standard Poodle bitch, Brighton Minimoto,  the great Pointer bitch, Cookieland Seasyde Hollyberry, the number one dog all breeds 2011, Black Cocker Spaniel, Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction, the Kerry Blue Terrier, Torum’s Scarf Michael, the best pure show dog our breed has every known and sometimes our own dog in the Best in Show lineup along side some of these greats. Clusters bring opportunities to learn about other breeds and your own from people you don’t see at local two day events. Clubs frequently offer seminars and judges’ education opportunities at cluster shows.

DSCN0840a  With all the good about cluster shows, where’s the downside?  The downside stems from the very reason we are showing our dogs: honest competition. Pre-1970s, it could take two or three seasons to finish a dog. People had to show for the love of competition because finishing a dog could take some time. You and I, comparing our dogs and paying a third party to decide which was best. We’d square off against each other all over the state and maybe into a few others, several weekends a month, throughout the show season.  Sometimes other dogs showed against us and we both lost, or one of us won and sent the interloper packing!  Clusters changed all that.  With a fancy much more goal oriented than in the past, finishing dogs quickly, has become the most important measure of the animal’s quality. Wins and losses at clusters get lumped together.  “Look,” they crow, ” Fluffy finished in just three weekends!” You glance down at Fluffy and wonder how this happened. You’ve never finished a dog in just three weekends.  The gushing owner never mentions it was three, five day clusters and all the wins came against the same group of dogs. Without a cluster, their pet would have competed seven weekends, possibly in a different division against different dogs.  A truer measure of Fluffy’s quality.

DSCN0864a  Judging at clusters is as disappointing as anywhere. Sometimes it seems one judge follows the other and in traditionally low entry breeds judges appear confounded when confronted by a larger than average entry.  Judges with confidence, judging earlier in the cluster, set the tone for those who follow. A convenient  template for judges that either don’t care or lack the skill and confidence to apply the standard on their own.

Clusters are good for most of us. A kind of one stop shop for finishing class dogs.  If you show dogs long enough you will eventually DSCN0867abenefit from walking into an entry of class dogs not nearly as strong as your own and taking the points every day. Since clusters are bigger, you feel a lot of pride winning majors greater than the three pointers you sometimes find in just weekend shows. But, it doesn’t matter if the cluster is Bucks & Trenton, Del Valle, Scottsdale, Canfield or Brooksville, the winning dogs have only beaten the same dogs day after day.  Where is the pride in that. No one would brag if they found a rival with dogs easily beaten and followed them around the division weekend after weekend. But cluster wins take on more importance due to their size. Like that old diet strategy. Put a diet portion on a smaller plate and it will look bigger. Nobody’s fooled by that. Smaller plate or bigger venue, the quality or lack thereof is the same.  As the better dogs needing just a single or two to become champions finish and are moved up, subsequent judges are left with poorer and poorer specimens to chose from. But few owners perceive it this way. No need to compare a dog to the standard, just find another cluster.

DSCN0868a  Showing dogs at clusters requires perspective. If the exhibitor’s goal for his dog is to finish it young, breed it and start over, clusters are  the best bet. But, if you want to train your eye, test your dogs and yourself the cluster should be just one stop. Wins and loses in diverse competition, over time, are in the long run more meaningful and provide more insight into the quality of the dogs bred and shown.

SRA, A Personal History

Nobody traveling the dog show circuits for very long can avoid visiting the safety rest areas known to us as rest stops.  Those ubiquitous icons of travel along the interstate highway system.  Rest stops offer a chance to mingle with fellow travelers and walk the dogs.  We have stopped at some of them every year for nearly forty years.  Some have interiors we envy and wish they were found in our home.  Rest stops add a familiarity to our routes.  Sometimes they bring an unexpected element, too.

I was four years old when the first rest area opened in Ohio.  The year before a Policy on Safety Rest Areas was established to standardize rest area construction.  In those early days, rest areas were primitive.  The toilet building was most often designed to be the architectural centerpiece of a rest area site.  Early designs were modest in form and materials, little more than out houses, growing ever larger over the decades.  These buildings reflect the popular architectural trends of the mid-century period and beyond.  In those early days it was hard to get much of an appreciation for the wonderful architecture or quirkiness of the picnic structures outside when you sat perched on a toilet worthy of San Quentin inside one of those building in the winter.  In those days many were unheated.

Some states seem to have more money to spend on these stops than others.  Usually, the grandeur of the roadside oases parallel the amount of money the state spends on road maintenance.  States like Colorado, Utah, Kansas and Nebraska have nice buildings with regional themes.  They are newer, brighter, climate controlled with terrazzo floors in various colors.  They are havens in inclement weather and have a low creep-factor.  Travelers through New Mexico, Texas and Montana fare less well.  There is a high creep factor in the older, darker and often waterless stops.  In New Mexico a large sign inside the toilet building proclaims: “Water Not Potable”.  This means there is no water in the sinks.  The soap containers hold new age gel hand sanitizer.  There are dryers on the walls but no paper towels.  The signs probably present a problem to the non-english speaking public as well as those educated here who missed several days of English class. Why even have a sign when there are no faucets in the sinks?

Flushing the toilets and turning off the water in the sinks was a major problem at rest stops.  About five years ago self flushing toilets began to appear in the better appointed rest stops.  This marriage of the low tech and high-tech taking place in the humble toilet rooms of Missouri has made rest stops cleaner.  No more peeking suspiciously into a stall to see if the previous occupant flushed.  The toilet, smarter than many of the people who use it, flushes at the appropriate moment and is ready for the next visitor.  Now, if there was just a way to eliminate the watering of the seat by kids and old ladies.

Sinks have undergone a similar metamorphosis in the forty years we have made visits to the roadside way stations.  Many sinks no longer have the handles for hot and cold.  Just a faucet jutting out from the countertop.  These come with no instructions but if you reach under them the water turns on like magic.  Warm or cold water emanating from the end.  These are an improvement over the faucets that turned on by pressing the top of the faucet. The water was always cold and never stayed on long enough.  Soap is dispensed now from automated dispensers, too.  Sometimes there isn’t any soap, just a foamy substance impersonating it.  It seems to work so much better than the gritty powder, cousin to laundry detergent, found in these same rest rooms when I was ten.  In many of the South Central states the water comes from little spigots hidden under the decking of a semi-circular sink taking up one wall inside the toilet building.  These are more ambiguous as to where to place your hands to activate the release of water.  In a bizarre game of whack-a-mole you move your hands in and out under each spigot until you find one that turns on when your hands are in place.  Usually, you just remove your hands, move on to the next place and the water comes on.  By the time you reposition your hands the water is off.  I used to feel the icy water in the sinks didn’t make your hands clean.  Last year I read an article from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that stated the temperature of water has no effect on transient or resident bacterial reduction.  That made me feel a little better.

This year we saw the debut of a new hand drying system with the terrifying name of Air Blade. It seems you insert your hands into a slot between two plastic pieces and the blades of air come on.  Your hands dry quickly.  Either that or your hands are loped off and there is no need to dry them again.  We declined to use this new scientific marvel.  I’m not putting my hands into anything called a Blade.

Turnpike rest stops are in another class all together.  Most roadside rest areas are really twins.  One nearly identical stop on each side of the interstate.  Sometimes we have stopped for years at the rest area on the north bound side but never its counterpart on the south bound side.  On our annual trek to Montgomery in October, we travel the turnpikes of the Eastern States.  The rest stops along these stretches are little cities in themselves, called travel plazas.  The stops lie between the inbound and outbound lanes accessible from both.  They contain a gas station and pavilion with fast food restaurants and cavernous rest rooms.  Their monochromatic tiled rooms are devoid of personality and smell vaguely of the usual bathroom smells mixed with grease from the frying burgers.  In Ohio, the birthplace of the safety rest area, there is a rest stop selling high-end candy.  Last year, both coming and going, we paid fifteen dollars for dark chocolate cherries and bark, making ourselves nearly sick with its richness.

Since we usually travel during the day, we rarely visit rest stops after dark.  There are usually people around and we aren’t fearful.  Travel after dark evokes images of wandering serial killers.  Once in Texas, we were traveling later than we should have been.  Unable to drive one more mile, we stopped for a brief nap.  It was high summer and the interstate landscape crews had been hard at work spreading a fresh layer of wood mulch at the bases of the shrubs.  We were alone in the parking lot.  I decided to venture into the women’s side of the building.  I trudged into the gloomy, dimly lit room and entered the third stall.  I brushed large pieces of mulch off the seat cursing the kids that probably had fun putting it there.  I squinted at my reflection in the wavy metal mirror and wished we were already in our motel room.  More of that damned mulch in the sinks!  I grabbed at the pieces to throw them on the floor and felt a squirming movement in my hand. The mulch was alive.  I screamed and scrutinized the wood chunks still left in the sink.  They were huge wood roaches, denizens of the nighttime Texas rest stops.  The germs on my hands seemed minor compared to facing the larger than life roaches.  Driving the rest of the way seemed easy after my encounter.  For weeks every time I closed my eyes in the car I saw the wood roaches.

As we start our show season and anticipate traveling the highways, I can’t wait to see the latest innovations in rest area technology.  I will also remember to pack bug spray.

Accidentally Family

Both my parents were only children. My brother and sister and I grew up with no aunts, no uncles and no cousins. At Christmas this was a boon. I listened in horror to my friends who only got one present and had to share their rooms with cousins from all over. My sister and I shared a room in an amicable truce that lasted through our adolescence. I often wished the room was mine and I’m sure she did the same. The last laugh is mine as I now have that same room all to myself. Growing up with a well pruned family tree I wasn’t even sure what cousins or second cousins were. I understood dog pedigrees but never put the two together.

Rediscovering my roots holds little interest for me since I am happy with all I know about my family, but a couple weeks ago a long forgotten picture made me curious. Not about the people in the photo. People from my mom’s side of the family. A rather stiff family portrait common for the day. As my gaze travelled around the photo something previously unseen caught my eye. The supine form of a little, collared dog resting his rear feet on the patriarch’s shoes. It was clear he had wandered into the shot and layed down. Perhaps bored by the activity and the length of time it must have taken to set up the portrait. It is not clear even whose dog it is. It might just as well have been the photographer’s animal. Somebody thought enough of him to put a collar around his neck. He is of uncertain lineage but seems totally relaxed in the staid atmosphere of the Victorian photo. The little dog has been preserved in our family history, name unknown, as a family member.

There is an old trunk in our basement containing my paternal grandmother’s mementos including a large number of photographs. She was a doting mother and many of the photos contain images of my father’s childhood and the various homes they lived in. When we travel to shows south of here along Interstate 25 we pass a place called Watrous, New Mexico. If you look to your left, from the southbound lanes, you will see a sprawling house with a new, green metal roof. It is an adobe house and my father and his parents lived there for several years. My father was born in 1913. The pictures I discovered were from that time forward to the 1930s. Many of the photos contained dogs. My father as a teenager, crouching with his prized Great Dane, a mail-order Pointer and some farm dogs hung in my grandmother’s house for years. In the picture the larger dogs were there on purpose, but I’m not so sure of the smaller ones. Maybe they are the Dane’s mongrel puppies or maybe they just liked hanging out with the big guys and the young boy.

Dogs were part of more than a few photos in the old trunk. Sometimes the dogs were clearly pets or appeared to be props for people having their portraits made. But there were others where the dogs appeared to have insinuated themselves into the scene. Choosing just the moment the shutter was released to jump up on the person in the shot. Shyly peeking from behind the legs of some long forgotten family member or standing like the second brother as one was photographed on his way to military school. These dogs were the accidental family members of the people recorded on film. Just as their wild ancestors did, these dogs crept into the lives of the humans around them and made themselves at home.

I was struck by how casually the dogs slipped into the scenes. They never seemed to be intentionally part of the photos, but since they were there, why not? A photo of a woman dressed in period clothing baiting two dogs with hunks of some tasty treats was taken outside some post office in an unknown New Mexican town. The writing on the bottom of the photo declared “…after the blizzard 1917”. Another showed a mixed breed dog being held by a man, sitting by a woman and pickup truck, and still another was obviously taken to show a precious young girl outside the Watrous House, watching a litter of puppies. None of these dogs seems to have been the focus of the photographer’s efforts. They were merely there, like the rocks, dirt and yard debris. Like the houses and buildings themselves. Sharing the lives of the people, but not as prominent as our dogs are today. The dogs don’t seem to mind this objectification and in fact seem to be content in their roles. Like Kilroy, they were there, waiting to see if somebody noticed and if they didn’t they were still there. Wandering in and out of the lives of their people.

Some of the dogs appear in more than one photo. None were on leashes, but they didn’t seem to need them. Where would they go? Where had they come from? I wonder how many of these dogs died before their time from diseases we now routinely vaccinate for. How many litters had these bitches whelped. Part of my father’s family lore was how the Great Dane gave birth to her puppies under their porch. His father would never allow an animal inside the home.

We never heard the fate of this Dane or the Pointer he sent away for through the mail. The dogs in the photos lived in a simpler time. No designer dog food, no catalogs devoted solely to their needs and lives much shorter than their descendents who live with us. Dogs weren’t expected to live terribly long lives and trips to the vet were a rarity. In the western United States of the early 20th century, life was hard, money was precious and there was none of it to spend on yard dogs. But these old photos revealed how people enjoyed the company of dogs and while maybe not making an effort to include them in their day-to-day lives, didn’t mind if they tagged along.

The last photo in the trunk was an 8 X 10 of a Scottie bitch. Edith was her name and she had been purchased by my father, after his return from the war in 1945. The bitch had been sent to him through the famous, Bob Bartos, who handled Scotties for the Carnation Farms in Washington, State. This was his first show dog and first terrier. He had her when he met my mom. He had been draw to the breed for its large and strong teeth. My father had bred Pekingese prior to Edith’s arrival, but was disturbed by their poor dentition. I have no idea why this was so important to him, but it was. It is unclear what happened to Edith, but she was a gateway terrier for my parents. When they looked for their first family dog in 1956, they considered Scotties, but opted for a dog they felt would be better with kids. They answered an ad in the local paper and brought home Bran, our first Kerry Blue Terrier.

I spent several hours exploring the bygone years in the photos. Most were not dated and few of the people were identified. I was free to imagine who they were and wonder if they loved their four-legged companions. Who could not love a little collared dog sleeping with its feet on your shoes.

Making Lemonade In Scottsdale

After our trip to St. Louis in January, reasonable people might just wait for great weather and really great judges before venturing out more than a day’s drive  to show dogs.  But nobody has ever accused us of being reasonable.  Arrival at the hotel in Scottsdale was a harbinger for the rest of the weekend.  The motel had no record of us reserving a room.  The fact that we had called a month before the event fell on deaf ears.  We were able to get a room for only $30 more a night right across the street. 

The show grounds were open to exhibitors at 1:00 pm, per the premium list.  We were so happy our drive out had gone so well that we were actually able to go to the site at 1:30.  When we arrived, it was obvious there were two premium lists that had been distributed.  One for the locals, motor home owners and handlers and one for the rest of us.  Apparently, many of the specialty clubs were able to buy space in the large grooming tents that lined the perimeter of the ring area.  As there were conveniently no signs on the tents, it was often hard to determine which tent was open to the riff-raff.  Being a part of that group, we were finally directed to the tent on the extreme end of the venue.  That was the refugee tent,  also known as public grooming. 

Upon entering the tent we  were confronted by two large sections coned and taped off from the rest of the space.  This, we were informed was the paid for sections belonging to the Bernese Mountain Dogs and the Boxers.  We took great pride in passing this along to the other refugees who came after we did.  We finally knew more than somebody!  As we stood looking where to put our mat, the warnings of friends who had attended these shows echoed in our heads.  “If it rains the whole place floods.”  Mindful of this, we looked for the highest point in the tent that was closest to the center and not under the seams.  We put down rubber mats, slightly thicker than an inch, put the dog crates on these and dragged in the rest of our gear.  To say we prepared for the worst is an understatement.  You can’t prepare for your own stupidity, however, and that caused us more aggravation and more money.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In refugee encampments you make the best of the situation.  After all, we had power supplied by the show superintendent.  This alone caused elation.  We could use the rest of the time at the show bathing our dog and working on him.  The ring times for the weekend were obviously decided by somebody who knows nothing about the grooming needs of the dogs.  We were scheduled for 8:00 am and 8:30 am while the Am Staffs, Bull Terriers and other large gasping breeds were left to grind out their time in the ring after noon.  This was so patently absurd that you started thinking it was a plot. 

We asked around for the location of the bathing area.  This was announced in the premium list so we knew it was there.  Finally, a boxer handler from Colorado told us where it was.  Walking over to the station took about twenty minutes as it was out beyond the sea of motor homes in the lower lot.  Upon arrival, we had to wait for the one functioning hose for the two tubs.  Fortunately, we were in line before the handler’s assistant with the five Irish Setters.  Our dog, Danny, was so shocked by being hoisted into a plastic tub and doused with lukewarm water he forgot to start a fight with the lab in the next tub.

I guess the cursing and lowering of our moods started as we headed back to the grooming tent.  We were more than annoyed with the lack of amenities and how our stay in Scottsdale had gone thus far, but consoled ourselves with the fact that our boy would be fully groomed by dusk.  Standing in the tent, with Danny on the table, we reveled in the serenity. Cool and shady, with nobody there except us.  Confidently, I laid out our grooming tools and plugged in our dryer to begin our work.  Flipping the switch, nothing happened.  I checked the connection and then felt the first real blow from my own feeble brain. The quiet in the tent was the result of the generator not running.  It was oh so obvious the power was only for the show days.  We took our wet, dripping dog and left for the day. 

Saturday, we arrived at our customary 7:00 am.  We walked the two football fields length to the grooming tent. This walk was probably good for our fitness levels but was really difficult being dragged by two raving dogs.  I had long since become inured to the nasty looks and whispers directed toward us as we powered our way down the midway. We had only about an hour to get Danny ready, and since we had bathed him the night before he needed more than usual.  Both his breeders were at this show so we were anxious to impress them with how great he could look. I swung our oversized tack box onto a table and once again was leveled by the weight of my own stupidity.  Tired of hauling my purse to the show and back everyday, I had transferred everything to my pockets except the key to the tack box.  There we stood, like the first day without power, staring blankly and trying to figure out a solution.  Our problems mounted when there was no power to our tent.  The public grooming was the only tent without power.  I wasted more of our time screaming and cursing about it and some more time shrieking at the old man running the club table.  His little come-along Border looked terrified.  It took four attempts and two tantrums to get the power running.     

Our salvation came from another Colorado person, a young handler, who had asked me to show a Berner the day before.  I race walked the distance to the  opposite end of the venue and found her engulfed in a hair storm in her easy-up.  She is now in our wills for loaning us shears, a comb, brushes and a show lead just a little too small,  to get our dog ready. We dropped money from our dwindling cash supply on some hairspray and a ratty from the vendor right outside our tent.  It was only later we discovered our familiar vendor from home just around the corner who had the same items for about $3 a piece less.      

The rest of the weekend went pretty much as expected win-wise.  We won one, lost three, but made some strides in training our dog.  We met the Kerry locals and they were a friendly group.  We talked about dogs and handling and grooming.  One of the young dogs was a puppy bred from Russian import parents.  We had seen his dam at some shows a few years ago and only knew the sire from the show stats.  He is a nice boy and the owner works him very well.  He would be competitive in any company.  The bitches were a mixed group.  They were owner handled and the owners were just learning their craft.  The class bitch shown by a handler probably should have been the winner each day, but was sidelined by some of the judging.  Nobody could understand it. 

Our early ring time on Sunday turned out to be a good thing.  Rain pattered on the tent off and on until our show time. We showed, lost and uncharacteristically returned to the motel.  Shortly thereafter, the skies opened and the show grounds began to fill up with rain.  We didn’t care, we were in our room ready to watch HBO all day with our dogs and snacks.  A knock at the door interrupted our day off and as the maintenance person inspected a suspicious stain on the ceiling, we braced for certain disaster.  He was out of our room less than ten minutes when the ceiling started to drip and then drop pieces onto the carpet.  The motel offered us the room next door and we packed up and moved over. Refugees once again.

The show was rained out the last day.  We arrived early and parked in the front row of the loading zone and walked the long track to our space.  We held our breath as we saw everybody’s set up flooded with crates and gear literally underwater.  We looked toward the middle of the tent and saw a little island, high and dry, and all ours. The show committee and superintendent were extremely unhelpful and refused to allow exhibitors to use the golf carts unless a $35 fee was paid.  This seemed punitive since we weren’t getting our entry fee for the day back.  As we trudged the fifteen minutes back to the vehicle from the tent I glanced right and left and recalled the CNN reports of flooded third world cities and the fleeing hoards. I have never been so glad to leave a dog show in my life.  There are very few things I can be truly sure of, but this is one:  we will not show in Scottsdale again.

Sometimes when life hands you lemons you can make lemonade.  Sometimes all you get is rotten fruit.

A Measure of Excellence

Those of us who devote a substantial amount of our time to breeding and showing dogs often find ourselves in discussions ringside about the dogs we see.  We point to faults we can view from the front row and feel disheartened by wins that seem scripted or worse, set up.  But, if you discover somebody you can really talk dogs with, the conversation inevitably ends up with a discussion about how closely a given dog fits the standard and thus how perfect an example of its breed it is.  

It is the general belief that producing an animal that possesses a high degree of adherence to the breed standard is the ultimate goal and determination of perfection a breeder should strive to achieve.  Breeding to produce the perfect dog, anatomically, is the goal of many breeders.   Contrary to what some of us think we see, the one generalization you can make about the dogs in the ring today is that they are better made than dogs of forty or even twenty years ago.  It is rare in Kerries to see cow-hocked dogs, or exhibits with weak rears.  Just conforming to a standard does not, by itself, signify excellence or perfection as a whole.  Most breed standards are purposely flexible leaving interpretation open to skilled breeders and not so skilled judges. 

Another belief of ringside pundits, and breeders at all levels, is the identification of faults as the sole determiner between the exceptional exhibits and the less valuable,  or sometimes worthless, dogs. Many breed standards specifically list faults as disqualifications while others mention faults that are only to be severely penalized.  Using the adherence to the standard theory, the dog must possess a specific departure from the standard, in a given area, to be considered faulty.  

If you have ever bred, or aspired to breed, a litter, and if you are a true student of your breed, you know you hold in your head, an invisible ideal, a “vision” of perfection, which is far more specific and detailed than what is described in the written standard.   Judges carry a “vision” in their minds, too. This is what should makes their opinion a valuable assessment.  It is this thinking which supports the idea of breeder judges – those who are most likely to have in-depth knowledge of a breed.  We count on these judges to have clearly envisioned the ultimate, superior animal.   However, experience in a breed is needed for an individual to understand how to properly weigh departures from this vision. The continuing refinement, and clarification, of this breed “vision” is part of what makes a truly successful breeder or judge.

Just meeting the physical description of a breed is not enough for most serious exhibitors to consider a particular dog exceptional or extreme.  Those who have an expert’s knowledge of a breed will tend to agree on what these exceptional attributes look like.  Their vision is usually based on historical perspective and experience.  I know as I have sat ringside, evaluating the heads of our two breeds, I can see the majority of dogs fit the standard for heads acceptably.  But on a few occasions, I have seen the heads of a few dogs which were far superior to the basic requirements.  These few were strikingly beautiful.   Both the acceptable and the superior type of heads meet the standard but the latter type are what might be considered virtuous.

Meeting any standard can be technically defined as “faultless”.  But, there is obviously a difference between being faultless and possessing virtue. If a dog exhibits the absence of a particular fault, it does not necessarily exhibit the presence of the corresponding virtue.  Just because it isn’t technically wrong doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s ideal.  

So then how do we breed the dogs that possess such strength of virtue. No one with even basic knowledge would breed two dogs with bad fronts together with an expectation of producing good fronts.  Most of us breed dogs with the idea that a stud dog  should complement our bitch’s deficiencies and vice versa.  Following this line of thought, for the bitch with the poor head, a stud dog with a good headpiece would be used in the hope some of the puppies will have the sire’s virtuous head.  This process uses phenotypical attributes to determine the genetic consequences. Breeders make assumptions about what a dog is likely to produce based on how he appears. Isn’t this the whole basis for dog shows?  If examining a dog provided no insight into how he would produce, the point of dog shows would not be the judging of breeding stock, but the celebration of individual show dogs themselves. This seems to be the perspective of those exhibitors, and judges, who tolerate or participate in the cosmetic or surgical alteration of dogs they choose to show.

The challenge of producing a dog that embodies your vision,  employs two kinds of methodologies. The first is to breed away from faults.  If this process is consistently followed, the eventual outcome would be dogs possessing few faults as defined by the standard, but these animals would likely be considered “common,”  or mediocre. 
The second approach, perhaps more “risky”, is to search for the strength of virtues.  This means selecting a stud dog based on the fact that he is extreme or exceptional.  He may have a gorgeous head, or great side gait, but may not be a standout in any other way.  Using this methodology, the breeder is seeking something beyond the minimum adherence to the standard.  These forward thinkers know,  just meeting a baseline is not the path to reach any degree of consistent success or personal satisfaction.  These breeders strive for something that exceeds the ordinary, something that is better than the rest. 

Using this more risky approach, a breeder can find himself needing to determine if a dog of extreme virtue and extreme fault can be leveraged in a breeding program successfully.  It really takes considerable confidence and experience to accurately assess if the risk is worth the potential value.  Given the right opportunity by the breeder, who somehow has the ability to understand when these controversial dogs are useful, they typically make profound influences on their breed.  Likely also is the criticism and praise of these types of dogs, leaving the breeder standing alone among his peers.    

In the end, the ideal scenario is to obtain a high proportion of superior characteristics with no faults.  In reality, dogs that are very exceptional in some aspect are sometimes also saddled with faults.  In this situation breeders without vision, who breed for lack of faults, would send such an animal to a pet home.  Breeders who are striving for that ideal carried in their minds, would hesitate and determine whether the dog, overall, was worth using despite the faults.  A simple question to resolve this conundrum is often posed, “Can I obtain these great virtues elsewhere, in a less faulty dog?”  If the answer is yes, the dog in question can be discarded from the breeding program.  If the answer is no, then failing to use such an animal will ensure those exceptional traits will never be bred to such a high standard again in your line.  For the judge, the question is much the same, “Have I seen such strength of virtue exhibited in this breed before?”  If not, then he must consider the value that dog has in a breeding program before deciding its placement among its competitors before him.  Could this be why sometimes the “wrong” dog seems to win?
It is strength of virtue – intelligently recognized and patiently utilized – which moves a breed forward, not a mad race for faultlessness.  Judging by faults is far easier also, but far less beneficial to those who respect a judge’s evaluation.  All this is not to say that a characteristic carried to extreme is always virtuous!  But I do believe as a breeder approaches what they consider perfection, the horizon never gets closer and the concept of perfection continually changes.  Without the recognition and judicious use of these rare exceptions to the standard, momentum is lost and great opportunities for breed advancement along with it.