Much like visiting a foreign country for the first time, your experience is better if you go with friends who have been there before.
Or, in the case of dog shows, friends who are showing dogs themselves and are eager to take you under their wing.
Which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Show Dog, by Josh Dean. If you’ve never attended a dog show, he literally takes you by the hand before opening the door and ushering you inside. If, like me, you’ve done the dog show circuit but have been away from it for awhile, reading Show Dog, will make you feel like you never left.
Dean latches onto an Australian shepherd named Jack and all of the “accessories” that are a necessary part of life as a show dog and its lifestyle: the owner, the handler, the breeder; the RV-traveling, the set up, and tear down of crates, positioning of grooming tables; training, promoting and more. He follows behind Jack for 12 months and to his credit, tells an accurate and insightful tale about what it’s like to campaign a dog. You’ll feel like you’ve got a ringside seat.
Dog shows are a world unto themselves with a language and a culture all their own, just like any other sport.
You had better believe it. Complete with canine athletes, professional and owner-handlers, event sponsors, television coverage for some of the more prestigious dog shows, and a long and storied history.
What I like about this book are the conversational nuggets that weave in and around the main story of what happens to Jack in year’s time. On the difference between professional handlers and owner-handlers:
Tom Grabe (a former professional handler who publishes Canine Chronicle): “If I was a bicycle racer and I rode my bike fifty miles a day every day and you went out on weekends and want to be a bike rider but have a job during the week, odds are, unless you’re incredibly talented, I’m probably going to beat you during the race. Pros are showing ten to thirty dogs three to four days a week. Owners can’t practice as much as professional handlers.” (pg 69)
On the difference between Border Collies and Aussies?
One lady at a dog show explains to the author: ” Aussies ask; borders do.” (pg. 96)
Why be a handler?
Billy Wheeler: “I have no aspirations of winning. I just go for the company and the human drama. What’s really cool about the sport is that it transcends social structure. You’ll be sitting there and talking to somebody and not realize that they’re fabulously wealthy.” (pg.147)
The inside scoop on terriers versus working or sporting breeds?
Billy Wheeler: “Terriers have the quintessential show personality. I own a Cairn and a Scottie, and my wife just absolutely hates the fact that they will not listen to her. They do what they damn please. Unlike Dobermans or gun dogs, they’re bred to work by themselves. They see human interference as interfering with their jobs — to go out and kill something. ” (pg. 148)
And, if you’re asking yourself if dogs actually like dog shows?
Stanley Coren: “Oh, my God, they love it … they love the attention; they love the treats. They enjoy two things … the first is that they’re social animals, and they’re surrounded by dogs. Also, a dog gets lot of one-0n-one attention — and lots of treats.” (pg. 230-231)
And, writes Dean, “they get extra care. They’re groomed and brushed and stroked. Most dogs take that sort of thing as attention, as a form of affection.”(pg.231)
Last, but not least, are the dogs themselves.
The story that Dean tells is that of an Australian shepherd: Grand Champion Wyndstar’s Honorable Mention; or Jack to his family and friends. First and foremost, Jack’s a family pet. Dean wanted to tell the story of what he calls “the accessible show dog — undeniably beautiful and special even among other top breed dogs in his breed – but also a family dog.” (pg. xiv)
He wanted to tell a story that was representative of “the average dog-show enthusiast, the person who loves the sport, and all that goes with it, but doesn’t have the bank account to run ads or jet around the country piling up points in pursuit of Best in Show ribbons at major events like Westminster.” (p. xvi)
Jack’s a stunning Blue Merle with stand-out markings and that extra special “something” that dog people call presence or attitude.
Kerry (the breeder): “He had that ‘Here I am! There’s a spotlight over my head!’ (p.31).
It’s an added compelling “something” that draws your eye, says, “You will look at me because I’m really special.” It’s a thing that dogs are born with and that breeders, owners, judges and spectators spend their lives looking for — that once-in-a-lifetime, outstanding dog.
Then there are the dogs that appear on the peripherie of Jack’s story – the other dogs that are being campaigned by the professional-handler couple who agree to work with Jack.
Meet one of them: Tanner, a Bernese Mountain Dog, America’s top-ranked Bernese by the end of 2009.
“He was four years old then and a hundred-plus pounds of black, brown, and white fur, a gentle, mild-mannered beast who loves nothing more than to stand on his rear legs and throw his prodigious body into you for hugs. If you sit, Tanner will sit — and then lean into you. If you are giving him love and happen to be distracted … he will tap you in the back or on the shoulder with a gigantic paw until you’ve resumed paying attention to him. Even for a breed known for temperament, his is exceptiona, causing Heather (the woman who is his and Jack’s professional handler) to often declare, “Tanner should be the spokesdog for the breed.” (p. 56)
The gift of this book is that it is so detailed without being dull and that it captures the heart of what dog shows are about: the “human drama” and the dogs. If you think that dog show people are an unfeeling, ignorant group who have messed up the world of purebred dogs, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. [gplus count=”true” size=”Medium” ]