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.

One Good Day

DSC_8755aEtherial and serene they came. The Borzoi.  The early morning sun barely finding them.  By the time they reached the field in the walnut grove, on the far side of the ring, they were perfectly backlit.  Their white and red coats translucent. In the ring my black and red dog waited his turn to meet the judge.  Around us, other dogs watched their handlers’ faces, waiting for the subtle cues and movements that make up the dance between them.  My dog is young.  Not quite a puppy, but not nearly what he will be next year, or the year after, at this time.  He lacks body, ring experience, a great handler and for at least these shows, a stag red coat, but what he has is a little ring presence and his father’s signature pose: the Moltaz.

This was the fourth day of the five-day event at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, DSCN0255aCalifornia.  It is also called the Del Valle shows or the Harvest Moon Cluster, but to those of us who made the trip this year it was our showcase event:  The German Pinscher National.  A gathering of nearly fifty of our breed, mostly owner handled, all vying for a handful of placements.  This is one of the most level playing fields in the working group.  German Pinschers rank 137th on the AKC list of breeds by popularity.  Grouped in the bottom twenty percent of the AKC recognized breeds, they are the smallest of the dogs in the working group.  Only about three professional handlers consistently take on this breed and they are usually rewarded. The dogs are easily trainable, but hopelessly impulse ridden and usually ignored by group judges.

I stepped slightly forward, edging up the line. The wet grass and October air almost cold.  The sun began warming the ring and Rico grp 2our smooth-coated dogs.  How different this ring full of dogs than any other I have stood in before.  Usually, the specials ring at our more familiar National is fraught with tension.  Dogs and handlers jockeying for position. Amateur versus professional. Dog versus bitch. Haves versus the have-nots.  Old rivalries rekindled and intensified in the holding area and among those sitting ringside watching.  Hundreds of years of breed experience making notes in their catalogs and judging from the front row. Not so in this ring new to us. German PInschers have only been recognized 10 years in the AKC.  These breeders are new to the breed and to breeding in general. The lack of experience is readily apparent, but some are making progress. Fewer rolling toplines and wide fronts. Better temperaments, more uniformity in size. But plenty of room to improve.

DSC_8612a  My young dog shifted his stance and looked toward the far side of the ring. I shift my eyes from him to watch the dog three in front of us move.  He was powerful and confident but bounced as he moved.  His handler baited his head up too far, exposing his straight shoulders but highlighting his wonderful expression. He was black and red like us. Black was at a premium this year. Less than one-third of the entry wore the lustrous, dark coats that are so striking. I watched the judge’s hands as he evaluated the two dogs ahead of us. I could tell he was careful and tried to do his best.  I wondered if he re-read the standard in his motel room, as I did, the night before. If he studied the breed from ringside at previous shows in preparation for this assignment.  Does he care. Will his picks for the ribbons be dogs that all match either in color or style, or would he take a chance on an unknown, a black dog, maybe a young dog, maybe my young dog.

DSC_9040a  The German Pinscher standard is very nearly the same as the Doberman Pinscher standard. And some dogs have the look of a small Doberman. In the five days of these shows our dogs had their mouths examined four different ways. The standard has undergone a revision mostly to clarify the topline. Some judges on the weekend clearly used the old standard with its description of the topline as having a dip behind the withers and a slight rise over the loin.  The revised standard, since 2007, describes the topline as slightly sloping from the withers to the rear, extending through the well-muscled loin to the faintly curved croup. Would this judge know this.  My young dog has a dead level topline moving and though he has a slightly shorter than ideal upper arm he still has good side-gait. His head has great length, but lacks a little fill.  The red dog directly ahead of us was smaller and seemed nervous.  His handler at least as new to this ring as I am.  It is their turn now.

The sun rose higher but hung somewhere in the lower branches of the walnut trees.  The Borzoi were lost in the glare. The judge DSCN0187aallowed all the specials to enter the ring together, but excused the bitches. There were two professional handlers in the dog specials ring.  They don’t have the best dogs, but they get the most out of them. We are near the end of the dog line up. Behind us the dogs are waiting for the judge to finish this preliminary assessment. He will make his cut and move on to the bitches.  I am a competent handler in the Kerry ring. Sometimes too aggressive, and I have been known to push a judge a little too far. There is always excitement in the terrier rings. Control is at a minimum. It takes three to four times longer to get these dogs ready for the ring than to show them. Tradition is important. Easily half the 38 Terrier breeds hold their Nationals in a field in Montgomery County, PA every October. In mud, blistering heat and cool, crisp fall weather as many as 3000 Terriers assemble. While it’s true everybody is a neophyte at least once, it quickly becomes apparent you need to bring your A-game or don’t bother to come. I know every rill in the rings at Montgomery. It is our family reunion. In this ring in Del Valle, I feel as if I have married into a strange and foreign family. I am attending somebody else’s reunion and the few words of the new language I have learned are not enough.

Axel 2013 2 yrs  It is our turn. As the dog in front of us gaited away from the judge, we moved up. I stacked my boy, guiding him into the position that we have decided is best for him. He is steady on the exam, enduring the stranger pulling back his lips and opening his mouth when I whisper, “teeth”, to him. This trick taught to him by my mom. The judge smiles.  Watching the other handlers, I determined the best route away from the judge and back again.  I know to focus on a spot in the distance and not watch the dog as I move.  This will help him move straight.  I know the speed by feel. We lack the finesse to make the slight turn and perfect stack as we stop in front of the judge for the final moments before we are dismissed and circle the ring on our own.  The dog judging  finished and the judge surveyed his lineup .We were one of two or three black dogs before him. Now was our chance to stand out.

Every dog was stacked. The judge walked down the line pointing to dogs in front of us and behind us.  The sun was bright in the grove outside the ring. One black dog was pulled.  The remaining dogs are told to move around the ring together. This was our last chance to catch his eye. Loose lead, perfect speed, keep his head up, soft knees for me. We do our best. I got a thumbs up from ringside from our one woman fan club. Another day in the ring was over for us. But in dog shows it’s never really over until you walk out of the ring. The chosen ones were already relaxing, the steward gathered papers for the judge. Some judges, confident with their choices, never take that DSCN0051aone last look at the dogs not pointed out. They go through the motions, but it is just that. This judge seemed different. He scrutinized those of us remaining as if searching for the one or two he might have missed. The sun was clearing the trees and the reflection off theDSC_8687a white coated dogs was blinding. Shimmering.  The light in the grove caught my dog’s eye. He turned toward the open field, leaning over his front, squaring himself.  His neck elongated and his eyes narrowed into an intense stare. Scenting the air, strong and confident, like his sire:  He was doing the Moltaz.   I could not move the dog. All I could do was step behind him, holding the lead with a slight tension. The judge had looked past us. He would never see what I was seeing. Then he turned. For a few seconds the judge followed the gaze of the dog out into the open field beyond the grove.  The Borzoi had turned and moved off toward the main show grounds. The judge nodded at us and we joined the lineup of cut dogs.

DSCN0257a  We did not survive the second cut. No black dogs did. In the end the judge picked all red dogs and only one black bitch for his final placements. All were the same style, save the black bitch.  The skies poured rain the last day of the cluster and we finished out the weekend with a judge in an indoor ring who could barely be bothered to look at the dogs. It didn’t matter. The magic of the previous day never reappeared for us. But on that one good day, I like to think I caught a glimpse of what we could be.

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.

A Matter Of Perspective

Perspective in photography refers to the dimension of objects and the spatial relationship between them. It also relates to the position of the human eye in relation to the objects in an image. Perspective may change the way an object looks, depending on the object’s size and distance from the camera. In photography, perspective is another illusion you use to produce photographs of quality composition. When you are making pictures, the camera always creates perspective. Because a camera automatically produces perspective, many novice photographers believe there is no need to know much about it. This attitude is far from correct. When you know the principles of perspective and skillfully apply them, the photographs you produce show a good rendition of the subject’s form and shape, and the viewer is given the sensation of volume, space, depth, and distance. Additionally, the photographer can manipulate perspective to change the illusion of space and distance by either expanding or compressing these factors, therefore providing a sense of scale within the picture.

In the sport of purebred dogs these same principles apply. In our breed there is a line of dogs that have become very popular. Only a few years ago there would have been no market, and no desire, for dogs of this quality. Straight fronts, bicycling rears, exaggerated type and movement combine to produce caricatures of a breed defined by its moderation. What makes this type of dog become the embodiment of the standard in some breeder’s eyes? The answer is found in the perspective of the people who own dogs from this line and their reasons for being involved in showing dogs. It is ridiculous to pretend that no matter how well a dog may fit its standard, if it only wins occasionally, or seldom gets the “right” kinds of wins, showing that dog is satisfying. To many newer breeder/exhibitors, the view from the BOB place marker is the greatest determiner of breed type. This is the perspective automatically produced by winning. But what caused the win? Was the winner deserving because it fit the standard better than the competition, or because it was the best of what was before the judge that day.

From the judge’s perspective, the dogs are supposed to be judged against the standard. More often, the relationship of the judge’s eye to the dogs in his ring creates its own perspective. If the entry is a litany of mediocrity, while fitting the standard, the dog with that something extra: ring presence, incorrect, but flashy movement and a good grooming job will stand out. The principles of perspective, skillfully applied, influence the judge’s view and make a picture suggestive of more quality in the dog than its structure provides. The ability to change the judge’s perspective is critical for a faulty dog to win consistently enough to be noticed. Such a dog emerged in our breed a few years ago. Shown at first in a part of the country where there are sufficient numbers for majors and a Best of Breed win captures many points, this dog soared to the top of the stats. Some splashy, well placed ads followed. The illusion was complete. From a ringside perspective, this dog gave the impression of what the standard calls for. While not a good example of what the breed was developed to be, his record could not be disputed. Since this dog has not been used at stud often, he has had little effect on the breed in general. What paved the way for this dog’s success and ultimately the success of his line in this country?

Breeding dogs is not easy and each standard allows for personal interpretation by skilled breeders. Maintaining perspective about one’s line is difficult and today’s breeders don’t keep more than a few breedable animals in their homes at any given time. If the animals bred have faults difficult to overcome through limited breeding, they are perpetuated. As dogs in one line show the same faults across generations, their breeders’ perspective is changed to view these deviations from the standard as acceptable and in fact correct. Additionally, breeders may over-emphasis one trait, usually one easy to change, like temperament, or head length. This approach produces dogs with critical faults in their basic structure but exhibiting some exaggerated traits now deemed virtues. Since most people choose stud dogs in their area, or those belonging to like-minded friends, faults spread from line to line within regions. These regions become like islands, limiting the development of a breed further. As these dogs make their way to the ring, judges see the same faults in most of the exhibits in front of them. Within a few show seasons, this manipulation of breed type successfully changes the perspective of breeders, handlers and judges. If a dog emerges, with the same faults but exhibiting more showmanship or ring-presence he is perceived as more correct and worthy of winning. If his handler is smart, the dog will be campaigned consistently in the area where he has fewer dogs of real quality to overcome. This was the evolution of our breed’s latest imported phenom.

In today’s dog show culture, game changing dogs are seldom brought to the ring by veteran breeders. Instead, they come from exhibitors with the money to buy the dog, but not the knowledge to properly apply the standard to it. These people look outside the country for a dog that will make them sure winners among their peers. There seems to be a prevailing attitude in our breed that dogs coming from outside the country are somehow more authentic. Exaggerated, foreign bred dogs appeal to the American lust for more is better. People looking for the exotic gravitate to European breeders whose splashy websites tout their show ring successes. Sometimes these dogs are of sufficient quality to do some winning. If they do a lot of winning, as a few have, naive exhibitors perceive all dogs from those lines as being superior. And since winning creates its own perspective many never question whether their view is accurate or just immediate. Twenty years ago, the lack of diversity within European bred Kerries produced dogs with faults American breeders had overcome. With a more diverse gene pool and more opportunity to breed across lines, American dogs came closer to the standard, than their European counterparts. During those years, a few truly outstanding dogs made their way to the US and were successfully incorporated into American lines, strengthening them. Importation was judicious and done by master breeders with close ties to a few lines in Europe.

As the quality of American Kerries has degraded, their conformation more closely approaches that of dogs produced by European breeders today. The internet has made the world of dogs smaller and the door has opened for more imported dogs to find success in AKC shows. The demand for puppies from foreign lines is high. At this year’s Montgomery weekend, the presence of the imported dogs was felt. Some of the winners came from established European lines, but more were American. Imported dogs won their share, but did not dominate in all classes. Movement and type were virtually indistinguishable. Less than skillful breeders, on both sides of the Atlantic, who produce dogs that win regardless of their quality have no incentive to change direction. As a result we are left struggling with mediocrity and dangerously close to losing correct breed type. Our dogs appear more flashy, but hardly more sound. This forces an unintended change in perspective affecting us all.