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First Dog Show
In 2005, I found myself for the first time in almost thirty years dogless, and I had a strange notion. I searched far and wide, studied long and hard, and bought myself the best show puppy I could find. She has a fancy name, but we call her Weegie. She’s an American Eskimo Dog, an Eskie. A fluffy white spitz.
She was a beautiful puppy, though I would have to say a little more hyper than I had bargained for, amazingly hard-headed and alarmingly vocal. She was fearless, though, from an early age, with an unshakeable and groundless confidence in her own judgment.
When she was six months old, I enrolled us in a conformation class at our local show-dog school. We joined about two dozen dogs of all breeds for an hour on Wednesday nights in a large, garage-like building on North Lamar to practice stacking and gaiting and having our dogs examined by a judge on a table.
This venture did not turn out well. Weegie was the only dog who went berserk when I put on a show lead for the first time. She was the only dog who barked, loudly, at the proceedings, which she alone found strange, for just about the whole sixty minutes, and she was definitely the only dog who tried to bite the teacher when I put her on the table. She made such a scene that we dropped out of class in disgrace after two sessions. In other words, we fell flat on our faces, right out of the gate.
So what did I do? I entered us in a great big dog show.
The Westminster Kennel Club dog show and its send-up, the mockumentary Best in Show, form what most people outside the dog world think a dog show is like. They couldn't be much farther from the mark. Dog shows as we dog-people know them do not happen at night, and there is no audience. A dog show is a daytime event more like a county fair than a glitter-fest at the Garden – in fact, most dog shows take place at fair grounds or county exposition centers like the one on Highway 290 in East Austin.
Which was where we’d be going. The Austin show is held “outside under cover,” meaning that the huge, warehouse-like building with packed dirt floors has its walls opened up on all sides. When we showed up for the annual show, it was October, still quite warm, but we would be in shade with a good cross-breeze and plenty of natural light.
Does Weegie look just a little bit worried? I was. I was afraid she'd bite the judge.
An AKC dog show in Central Texas draws about a thousand dogs of a hundred breeds or so, and about the same number of people as dogs. It’s dogs and crates and grooming tables, hair-driers and ex-pens as far as the eye can see, and at the heart of the storm, low white babygates form squares about thirty feet across, one after another, connected by narrow aisles that are choked with handlers wearing armbands, waiting with their freshly groomed dogs for their turns in the rings.
Weegie took one look at all this, started barking and couldn’t stop. I had to sit her down on the sidelines and hold her mouth shut. I was on the brink of leaving when a small woman with short, curly hair walked up to me and said, “You got that Kort-Mar pup from Dick and Eileen. She’s my grand puppy.”
She pointed reverently to a dog who stood calmly on a grooming table a couple of aisles away. “That’s Gandalf. He’s her half-brother.”
I smiled and nodded at these mysteries and let her lead us to our ring. The main action at a dog show is in the classes, age groups and other divisions where the dogs who are not yet champions vie for points. Most of us never even see the groups.
I couldn’t figure out the classes, even with the catalog in front of me. First the males went in, class by class, then the females. Weegie, by some miracle, was now sitting quietly on a slack lead, some ancestral sense of rightness having kicked in.
Everybody else knew who was up when. We hung near the gate until everybody turned and looked at us. Somebody said, “Get in there!” We went. We were all by ourselves, the only one in the six to nine-month female puppy class.
I knew I’d have to circle the ring, put Weegie on the table, show her teeth, and then trot her across the ring and back. But when? The judge had to tell me what to do every step of the way around the ring. It looks easy enough: walk in a circle, stand still, get up on the table, get back down, walk around some more.
People ask what’s so difficult about this simple routine and what the difference is between doing these things and doing them well. It's a good question, and I would spend the next two years trying to figure out the answer. That day, we wandered in circles, struck random poses, and managed not to bite the judge. Weegie sat down at least three times. In spite of that, she was reserve winners bitch. This came as a complete surprise to me. It had to be explained, and even then, I didn’t know what it meant. This, I would realize later, was my share of beginner’s luck in our career.
We lingered to watch Best of Breed. Gandalf, who was being campaigned as a special that year, was first up, and when it was time for him to go on the table, his handler dropped the lead, turned away, and he leapt up and stacked himself. Took my breath away. And the judge’s, too, I guess. She put him up for breed without hesitation. Gandalf’s real day would begin in the group ring.
I had gotten out alive, and I was hooked. I was going to have to try this again. We would go to Waco next. I was going to figure this thing out.