You Ought To Be In Pictures … But Not This One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Favorite Season

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Tough To Special A Bitch

This year, for the first time in more years than would be polite to mention, we are specialing a Kerry Blue dog.  No matter how he does by the end of the show season, it will still be easier than specialing our bitches.  In the world of conformation dog shows it has always been boys first.  Even the order in the ring is dogs first, then bitches.  The AKC has never been at the forefront of women’s rights.  There is a long history of women’s participation in the breeding and showing of purebred dogs, but admittance to the AKC’s various positions of power and influence were longer in coming. 

 In 1888, Anna Whitney became the first woman to judge a dog show in America with her assignment of 117 St. Bernards at the Westminster Kennel Club show. She would judge every year for the next seven years, but it would be 1901 before another woman judged any dog show in the U.S. In 1933, Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge became the first woman to officiate as the sole judge for Best In Show. Mrs. Dodge (Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge) became legendary in the dog show world.  It was not until 1974 that women were allowed to represent a dog club as an AKC delegate.  Among the first women voted in as delegates that year was Mrs. Julia Gasow, elected to represent the English Spaniel Club of Michigan.  Later fanciers will remember her Salilyn’s English Springers.  

There was the perception in the early days of dog showing that males were primarily considered for Best of Breed and bitches had a special award:  Best of Opposite Sex.  With the sixties came a new attitude that females of all species could do more than whelp puppies, have babies, be nurses or other support personnel.  I was raised to believe that with hard work and luck I could be a doctor or even President and our bitches could win Best of Breed.  I think a lot of exhibitors believed this, too, because more and more people started to show their bitches and some did win!  We have had several Bests in Show on bitches, in fact more than on any males we have owned.  Still, a look at the top 20 dogs among all breeds,  by sex for 2010, show that bitches make up only 40% of that group.  These top bitches were all heavily campaigned and most were shown by professional handlers.  Considering the years 2004 through 2010 bitches have been among the top 20 dogs, all breed, only 32.5% of the time.  So much for our perceptions.

At the individual breed level it is no better.  In our breed, our current number one is a bitch and she is owner handled.  Our own breed number one, breed and all breed, was also a bitch.  But most aren’t so lucky.  Currently, only 20% of the top Kerry Blues are bitches.  In some breeds you wonder why anybody would even try to special a bitch.  In Pomeranians, a very popular Toy breed, there is only one bitch ranked in the top fifteen.  In Smooth Coat Chihuahuas only three out of the top fifteen are girls.  Why is this dog domination still going on?  There are probably many theories if you pin exhibitors and breeders down.  They may tell you it’s harder to keep bitches in coat throughout the show year.  Every time they come into season they blow their coats.  This might make sense in many of the heavily coated breeds.  When a premium is placed on a luxurious coat, males will have it nearly all the time.  In both Golden Retrievers and Labradors for 2010, bitches made up only 27% of the top fifteen dogs.  On the other hand, Boxers, with almost no coat issues, rank bitches in the top fifteen 40% of the time.    

If a breeder wants a new generation of show dogs bitches must be used.  Sometimes promising girls are pulled early from the ring to be bred.  This makes a lot of sense.  A recent article in the AKC Gazette suggests that waiting to breed bitches after the age of three is a contributor to small litter size and infertility.  As people who breed our bitches late, we can attest to this wisdom.  Our Eva produced only three puppies from her first litter at age five, and Honour was never successfully bred starting at age four.  While we were proud of their rankings, we might have been prouder if our recent Best in Show had come on a dog we had bred ourselves, from one of these two bitches.  Blue ribbons are small consolation to a dead ended line and the prospect of buying a bitch from someone else to rebuild.  

The average percentage of bitches ranked in the top twenty in each of the seven groups, is a dismal 38%.  It may all come down to perception and the weakest link in the chain that takes dogs from the breed classes, to the group ring and into Best in Show competition:  the judge.  The very human being that with the point of a finger determines winners and losers.  This person is driven by a desire to choose the best dog he can find in the entry before him.  But he brings to his assignment a set of prejudices and feelings honed in his own kennel.  The exhibitors of bitches have to hope the judge doesn’t think bitches are only achievers in the whelping box.  They have to hope the judge isn’t a sucker for a thick, flowing coat or wants an animal of a size no bitch could ever be.  Male dogs exude a power and presence that is hard to ignore.  More so in some breeds than others.  The fire males in the terrier ring show during the spar is never matched by the bitches when face to face with each other.  Where the boys seem ready to take on one another in battle, the girls look alert and inquisitive.  While both attitudes are proper, human nature intervenes and more often than not boys get the nod. 

Do  breeders themselves torpedo their bitches as specials because they believe breeding is their most important function?  Listen to breeders talking and you catch a glimpse of this attitude prevalent among people who should know better.  At some shows in the South, a ringside discussion among Chihuahua breeders revealed the majority opinion about the breed was that the bitches should be the larger since they carry the puppies and the males the smaller because that would be more competitive in the ring.  Just the opposite of what the standards states regarding size. But maybe the biggest perception to overcome in this seeming inequity in the show ring is the maleness and femaleness of certain breeds.  Like some languages, with nouns deemed masculine or feminine, breeds of dogs seem either more male or more female to many people.  Many judges being among that group.  Breeds like Vizsla, Pugs and Mastiffs, both in body type and expression connote a more masculine animal.  Each has only three bitches a piece in the top fifteen.  On the other side of the coin the Standard Poodle, Pointer and Whippet with the soft sweep of their muzzles and the dreamy look from their eyes have a more feminine look and an average 64% bitches in their top fifteen.  Clearly, these subliminal qualities must exert some degree of influence on the people making the decisions in the ring.   

No matter what causes bitches to come up short on the list of dogs at the top of the win columns, the fact is they do.  Specialing a bitch takes patience and a mental toughness many people can’t sustain throughout the long show season.  For this to change, breeders must concentrate on showing only their best, most competitive bitches, with a close adherence to their standards.  Bitches entered just to finish their championships in order to legitimize their future breeding is not beneficial for anybody in the breed.  Judges who reward dogs and bitches equally should be praised and the word spread. And those who seem unable to rise above perceived sexual stereotypes should be placed on the “do not show”  list.

City Mouse, Country Mouse

As a child in elementary school, we read a variety of allegorical tales thinly disguised with clever drawings and talking animals.  After reading each story, the teacher would attempt to engage our class in a discussion of what the story meant and what we could learn from it. There was always the implication that our lives would be on the right track if we did what the little stories told us to do and our teachers were there to keep tabs on our progress.  My parents firmly placed in our heads that when somebody in authority, say a teacher, school nurse, the lunch lady or gym teacher started asking questions about how we lived and what we did at home or who our parents voted for in the latest elections, we were never to give too much away.  These little fishing expeditions seemed harmless enough to us, but we heeded our parents’ pleas and didn’t reveal that we ate dinner at 8:00 at night, were solidly Democratic and had anywhere from six to nine dogs at any one time.

Part of the familial fabric was a staunch belief that the AKC knew what was best for our dog show lives and if you wanted to exhibit dogs there was only one place to do it:  inside a dark, noisy and often dirty arena under the watchful eye of an AKC field rep.  These shows played the same role as religion in more than just our family.  From the middle of February to the end of November, our show season, we trekked on Sundays to the shows.  Competing week after week against local rivals and out-of-towners all seeking the same thing:  a red, white and blue ribbon.  Just as none of us wanted to be the grasshopper, doomed to die in winter because he danced all summer instead of laying away stores of food, nobody would have dreamed of exhibiting dogs outside the auspices of the AKC.

One particular story that has stuck with me since those days as a young student was the story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse.  In this charming tale fraught with danger and ambiguity, two mice visit each other and decide that where they each live is the best for them. Seemingly simple on the surface, I saw the interpretation as not so concrete. There was a real slant toward the more simple, country life.  The city life was full of wonderful things but also a great deal of danger.  After experiencing the urban life the Country Mouse returned to his home in the country and never left it.  Why didn’t he stay on a little longer?  Learn to avoid the danger and reap the benefits.  Why return to his meager home and never grow or challenge himself?

All my life we have shown in AKC conformation shows only.  Our dogs are registered with the AKC only.  I wasn’t even aware of the existence of any other dog registries until about fifteen years ago.  There are a little more than twenty registries in the United States.  And just like our teachers interpreting the allegorical tales we read, the AKC has decided which of these registries are “legit” and which are not.  In short, the AKC is the only registry that matters and all others are to varying degrees illegitimate.  The possible exception is the United Kennel Club (UKC).  This AKC rival, established in 1898, does mostly the same things the AKC does, just on a smaller, more down home scale.  The UKC registers breeds found within the AKC and some that are found only in the backyards of the few people who own them.  The UKC puts on hunt tests, coonhound events, weight pulling and conformation events.  Wait a minute, conformation events?  Like the City Mouse we decided one weekend to venture forth and see what the Country Mice knew about dog shows.

The first thing you notice at a UKC conformation event is less noise and far less fighting for grooming space.  This may be the case because not as much grooming goes on at UKC events. This has never bothered us, but if you can win and spend a little less time on your feet how can it be a bad thing.  Exhibitors may also enter their dog day of show in most cases, so there is a real element of surprise when you discover your arch rival has come to the show, too.  Things have an order, but not with such precision as the events we are used to. The qualityof the dogs is also a little more spotty due to the many rarer breeds being shown.  There has been a bump in quality as more and more AKC people migrate to the UKC shows. We saw many people at this show we would be seeing two weeks later in the Pueblo shows.   By the time the Best in Show lineup has been chosen, the best dogs have been found.  There are also usually two shows per day making it easier to finish a dog’s championship in a weekend.  The ribbons are more beautiful, too. 

What made these City Mice take notice was the absence of professional handlers and the unhurried atmosphere. It was all so strange and disquieting. Everybody wanted to win and it was clear not everybody was happy with the color of their ribbon, but it was amateur against amateur.  Nobody had more face value than anybody else.  There was a down home feel to the shows that made most people relaxed and forget their less than polished handling skills. It really was about the dogs.  Judges talked to exhibitors and in an atmosphere where a free exchange of ideas and learning was taking place.  It almost seemed too easy.  We shook our heads as we packed up at the end of the weekend vowing we’d return next year.

A few weeks later we attended the last AKC show of the season in our area.  The venue was one we’ve shown in for over thirty years.  Dark, dirty and crowded with noisy dogs and people.  The constant roar of blow driers and the occasional sharply barked command left little doubt we were in the midst of a typical AKC event.  The usual suspects walked away with the biggest wins.  Our grooming space was nearly in the same spot as it had been for the past five years.  We visited our friends in their setups, where they set up every year, too.  We talked about dogs and judges and their decisions and what we were planning for the new year just a few months away.  This year we celebrated a small triumph in our handler’s set up with a cake, our friends and even people whose names we technically didn’t know but whose faces were familiar. There was a comfortable familiarity about the shows that made us feel at home.

Driving the two and a half hours home from these last shows I recalled of the tale I had read so long ago. Why did the Country Mouse return home with no regrets.  I think I finally understand.  Maybe it was that these shows were only two weeks apart that made the contrast between them unavoidable.  It might have been all the talk around the AKC shows about how much the show scene has changed and is now dominated by money and connections that leave most of the owner/handlers out in the cold that caused us to leave our world and venture out. But as visitors to the UKC world, had having more than a little success in that venue, we just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just too easy and just slightly illegitimate.  When faced with the ability to walk into a show with a nice dog and be rewarded for it every time, we still chose our more familiar world of the AKC show.  No matter the easy victories at the UKC shows, we have always been proud of standing toe to toe with the best dogs in the country and sometimes coming away with a hard-fought win.  We enjoy the drama and the struggle, the whole process, as much as the wins.  We are City Mice through and through, even if we sometimes get our necks snapped in a trap.

Six Weeks Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First One

Like water dripping on a rock, day after day, month after month the show season has gone on for Peyton. The water wears a small depression into the face of the rock and with the help of freezing and thawing it widens. Eventually, the water cracks the rock and splits it, running free. Finally, Peyton has broken through and become a Grand Champion. It happened far from home, in a state we have never seen. He finished surrounded by three girls from his Harem, his Kerry Blue brother, Danny, and his patient and caring handler, Odebt. Peyton finished the title by defeating dogs in different parts of the country and at home, not so many dogs, but enough. Certainly those he did beat were from more diverse lines than those defeated by some Grand Champions on the AKC list. Peyton showed as one of one. No supporting cast of kennel mates or contrived filler dogs to bolster the numbers and increase the point count. Often he was the only Bedlington in the show and he met many people who had never seen one of his kind outside their television screens. He won a couple of group placements. He will be one of the first ten Bedlingtons to earn the new title, and it will strike more than us as just a little ironic.

It took Peyton nearly the whole show season to become a show dog. Early on, we nearly brought him home as he seemed incapable of doing anything more than pouting and grinding his teeth in the ring. He turned the corner at some shows in Kansas City in the spring and gave his handler enough hope that she kept him on. There was probably more failure, in terms of points lost, than points won, friendships strained and some broken. Achieving this title was an afterthought for all connected to his showing. So far from our minds that we never bothered to learn the rules. Now that he has won the right to be called GCh Velvety Quarterback Sneak, we are in awe of how far he has come. He is happy in the ring and on the road. He gaits with his head up and looks proud to be a Bedlington. He has learned to like people and feel comfortable around those of his breed. We will see Peyton show for the last time in just two weeks and take him home with us. A long season with at least a little to celebrate.

What is behind this new title? In May of this year the AKC rolled out their latest program to encourage people to continue to enter dog shows and drum up support for the purebred dog. Following on the heels of the Amateur Owner Handler class, where the “little people” could win a ribbon without the fear of professional handlers beating them with better dogs and more skill, was something that struck many of us long-time exhibitors as nothing more than patronizing. Here was a title you could earn by never going Best of Breed. A chance to win by merely showing up. Rumor had it the higher-ups of the AKC modeled the program after the Agility MACH title. They saw that agility competitors keep entering their dogs, even after they won titles, to pursue the Master Agility Champion title. The qualifications are rigorous and you can do it more than once. Somebody has a dog that is a MACH25! The AKC Board no doubt drooled over the fees that person racked up. But Agility competitors and conformation people are very different. Conformation people know there is ever just one winner and no matter how close you were you either take home the purple and gold or you take home a memory. Winning and losing, is determined by the point of a finger from a person you don’t know personally and is often based on an impression and always an interpretation. Success in Agility is based on the dog and handler being faster than the clock and the other guy. Nobody’s opinion.

Here we are at the end of October. The first season of the Grand Champion title is nearly over. There has been time to at least make a preliminary evaluation of how the new program contributed to the dog show experience and if there is any point of it. I’ll admit I sometimes think it has become too easy to title a dog. Many people complain about the lack of majors, but really it’s the quality of the dogs they should be complaining about. But to keep the sport going you have to encourage people to show and this program just might have succeeded in this.

Once a dog has attained its championship, what do you do. As humans seem to be goal driven, there must be a point to exhibiting a dog. Since there is no prize money in shows, for the most part, and the trophies aren’t what they used to be, there seems to be very little purpose to continue. You either decide to special your champion or you take the dog home. The AKC’s fervent wish for the Grand Champion title was that people would bring these retired show dogs back out to win this new title. Who would do that, I scoffed? Well it seems cynics like myself were in the minority this time. People have come back to the ring in droves. Well maybe not droves, but enough that there is a good mix of dogs staying on to work toward the title and retired dogs brought off the couch and back into the ring.

There is a sense of excitement when a dog nears the title. Another milestone to be reached. The requirements are just difficult enough that it seems a legit title, and easy enough that if you consistently show the dog, you may be able to title him in one show season. To sweeten the pot, the AKC offers medallions for the first ten people to finish dogs with this title. Most breeds have reached this mark by now, and many will do so by the end of the calendar year. A friend of mine likened being awarded Select Dog/Bitch, the designation given to the dog chosen to receive the Grand Champion points in the breed entry, to getting points for making the cut. A sort of tangible way for the judge to let you know you were close, still not the winner, but close. A way to dangle the dog show carrot in front of us to keep us going around the pole hoping some day we’ll actually catch it. A way to reward the perpetual runner up spot: Best of Opposite Sex.

But all cynicism aside, the Grand Champion title might be the best of the harebrained ideas the AKC has trotted out this year. It may actually have a value to the fancy. As the top echelons of the sport continue to be dominated by big money, big handlers and judges too unsure, unskilled or just plain lazy to honestly evaluate the entry before them, we all get a chance to go back and finish our dogs again. The new title is attainable by most people who care to show their champion a few weekends a year. It provides a purpose for getting the dog out where people ringside can see him. It gives people without the time or money to actually special a dog the means to keep showing and getting something for their trouble.

By the end of the 2010 show season we hope to have two Grand Champions. The completion of Peyton’s newest title strangely seems to confirm his worth as a show dog and prove that the hard work Odebt put into him wasn’t completely wasted. He overcame nasty politics, a less than kind owner and his own faults and peculiarities to finish his time in the ring among his breed’s first Grands. It was worth every penny.