Friday, October 23, 2009

Playing the Game

My mom and I have an on-going... let's call it a debate about showing dogs. Don't get me wrong -- she's very supportive; she goes to shows with me, dogsits, walks the dogs, performs bucket-b*tch duties, etc. I don't even remember how old I was when she packed me into the car and drove off to that first dog show, but it wasn't very.

But for her, a "dog show" actually meant an obedience trial. Sure, there was a conformation show there too, but mom and her cohorts paid no heed to "that stupid breed stuff" as they worked last minute recalls and offered up a prayer to the Gods of Obedience that this time the dog didn't tiptoe through the broad jump or creep on the long down. "Breed dogs" were "dumb", and the "real" dogs did obedience. (Where she and said cohorts would have gotten their smart obedience dogs without the breeders breeding the "dumb breed dogs" was a question never addressed, natch.) Conformation was simply never something on her radar. Consequently, it wasn't something on mine.

Right out of college, my first order of business was to get my own dog. What, you thought I was going to say a job? Ha! No. Mom -- she of the Golden Retrievers -- strongly urged me to get (and, by "strongly urged", I mean "forbade me to get anything other than") a sporting dog; preferably a Golden but, if not, then something out of the sporting group. Since at that point I was still living at home, a sporting dog it was. So, along came my Labrador, Tara.

Tara's registered name was "Aurora's Wholly Tara," and she dedicated every day of her life to living up to that play on words. Recipe for NOT having a successful first obedience dog: Go to, if not a backyard breeder, the very smallest step up. Pick THE alpha puppy out of the litter. Get a new job located an hour away one week before the puppy comes home. Stir in a small yard, two adult Goldens, no puppy kindergarten to speak of, and mix liberally with a completely green handler/trainer. In Tara's very short obedience career, she managed to be excused from the ring for limping; threatened the judge's standard poodle who was sitting ringside with the judge's husband; and left my ring altogether to run into the Open ring and retrieve the dumbbell. Thank Dog it was mom in the other ring and not some stranger! I believe it was after that experience that we retired ignominiously and took up playing frisbee, a much more agreeable activity for Tara.

I adored that dog. And she taught me more than I ever taught her.

While I was suffering every obedience indignity imaginable at the paws of my own dog, I was also learning about conformation from a German Shepherd breeder who patiently sat ringside with me, catalog open, and explained the whole process to me -- how the classes worked, how to figure points, the distinction between class dogs and specials, the whole shebang. And once I knew what was going with "that stupid breed stuff," it was very interesting. I had a brief affair with a Pembroke that was supposed to be a show pup but didn't turn out, and I placed him in a wonderful home with a professor at the college where I worked. As of last summer, that Pem was still going strong at 14.

Alas, the life of a long-term renter is not conducive to involvement in the dog show fancy, and I was away from it for several years until my husband and I were finally able to purchase a house. We closed on a Friday; I was at a match that Sunday, starting the process of choosing a breed and getting a dog. I had plans for another Pembroke, but a certain dark brindle Cardigan's photo leapt off of the computer screen at me, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I wasn't looking for a show prospect per se, but Ian's breeder felt that he was finishable, so off I embarked on the show handling thing. Totally clueless as far as handling, even MORE totally clueless on how to show-groom a Cardi, I think I've posted before about the total disaster I was in the ring, and how poor Ian managed to go WD two days out of three that first weekend despite - not because of - me. Even with those wins, I didn't think I'd ever get past the nerves, and I was determined to have someone else handle Ian for conformation. Ariel, who had somehow grown up from a tween to a 25 year-old in the time I was away, handled Ian at the next weekend of shows I entered.

And a funny thing happened: As I stood there watching furtively from behind the crowd so as not to distract my dog from his handler, I realized that I was once again just a spectator. I didn't want to be a spectator to my own dog. He was mine, and I was going to learn how to show him. I've learned a ton over the last year and a half; I expect I'll learn a ton over the next year and a half too, and I hope I never reach a point where I think I've learned all there is to know, because that will only prove that I haven't learned anything.

Is there a point to this never-ending, stream of consciousness, Queen of Babble-On routine?

Well, lately, my husband has echoed mom somewhat; he finds the subjectivity of conformation showing to be very frustrating. He likes things clear-cut: did you win or didn't you? If you add A + B, you should get C, right? Well, not in conformation. Sometimes A + B = H. Or F. Or Z. Who knows? Pick a letter. Why does one dog win one day and get dumped the next? His logical mind can't wrap itself around the whole thing, and he too prefers obedience or agility, where either the dog does what it is supposed to or not, qualifies or not, places or not. For once, on this particular point, he agrees with my mom.

I think a lot of people new to the dog-showing experience become frustrated for the same reason. Some days they're up, some days they're down, and being new, they often have no idea why. The dog that "should" win didn't. A dog that never should have won did. People talk about this judge or that handler, and the information coming at them is a morass of conflicting advice, gossip, information, gossip, and - oh yeah! - gossip. For the newly initiated, it can truly be a confusing and, yes, an unpleasant experience.

But tell them to hang in there. Does the "wrong" dog sometimes win? Sure. Are there politics involved? Yes. Are there unscrupulous exhibitors who illegally cover up faults, trim dogs, fix teeth, etc.? Yup. Are these things in the majority? No.

Despite the deadly earnestness with which some people approach showing dogs, it is a sport. And by definition, a sport is a game. Some days you win, some days you lose. Sometimes a lesser dog will take the points from you because another dog in the ring has a well known breeder or handler on the other end of its leash. It's called paying your dues. Someday, if you keep at it, if you consistently behave with good sportsmanship and integrity, if you continually strive to better the quality of the dogs you bring to the judge, then you'll be the one accumulating the points and the ribbons -- sometimes when you shouldn't.

And even now, when you are new, sometimes you will win when you shouldn't; I was delighted when Ian went Best of Breed over specials, but looking back at it now, he in NO way should have. It's a tribute to our sport, and to the wonderful breeders with whom I was competing, that no one pointed it out to me on that day, elated with my win. Some lessons are best learned organically.

So keep going out there. Keep competing. Watch Group and look at what the professionals do -- there's a wealth of free education there if you look for it. Don't be deterred by messing up the judge's ring pattern, or inadvertently bonking your dog's head on the grooming table, or having a wardrobe malfunction in the ring. Learn from it, and consider it another check deposited into the Dues account. "Another day, another dog show". Be a good sport, even when it hurts, and remember:

It's only a game.


  1. What a nicely written post! I had a moment of frustration with the breed ring when I stated my next dog will have to be a mismark. I have since rescinded that statement. If the right dog comes along and going back in the show ring means I get the best performance prospect – then I will do it. OR I will call up the handler I have handling Bug and beg her to handle my dog. For me the whole experience is too stressful and it just travels down the leash. However, I want the best dog structurally for herding and agility and that might be a dog that should be shown.

  2. Great post!

    I *do* think that it depends somewhat on the breed. :P There ARE some breeds out there where the right handler on the end of the leash trumps any amount of soundness and type, and learning THAT can be insanely frustrating.