I have been blessed in my time showing dogs. Some very generous people have trusted me with their beautiful puppies, taken me under their wing, and given me an education on what it means to be in dogs beyond the chasing of ribbons and championship points. I’ve had introductions to very influential dog people, people who have been breeding and showing dogs for as long as I’ve been alive, and those people have graciously shared some of their wisdom and insights with me.
On Sunday, just before Loki’s class entered the ring, a long time Borzoi and Dachshund breeder stopped to tell me how nice a puppy she thought Loki was. While it’s always nice to hear compliments on your dog, when it comes from a breeder of her caliber, and a breeder who specializes in hounds, it makes me sit up and listen. After Loki’s class exited the ring, I made a point of stopping to thank her again. She was with three other judges, knowledgable hound judges, and they all praised Loki.
She graciously included me in their conversation, but it was what happened next that inspired me to write this post. In the course of our conversation, she said two things that I immediately committed to memory because they were so important.
First, she related a story about a time when one of her dogs was with a handler and showing. The dog had done very well his first two days, and then not quite as well on the third. Her handler noticed her disappointment, and asked her a very shrewd question: “At the end of the day, are you happy to be going home with that dog?”
It’s fun winning ribbons, rosettes, and trophies. You hope that the dog you are showing will win. But, every show is different and every judge’s interpretation of the ideal dog described by the breed standard is different. Whether you go home with a ribbon or not, you need to be happy with your dog. The dog you show up with should be a dog that you are proud to show. It should be a dog that you look at at the end of the day and say, “I’m glad that dog is going home with me.” If you’re not doing this because you love that dog, then you’re not doing this for the right reason.
Then she went on to tell me about a conversation she had with a well respected judge, a woman who was a true sportsman and an expert on showing dogs as well as judging dogs. As we watched Loki’s judge examine the Open and Winners classes, she told me about how in her conversation with the judge, the judge had lamented to her that newer exhibitors were unaware of the importance of watching breed judging beyond seeing who won and who lost. “When I put my hands on a dog,” the judge said, “I’m giving a lesson to the people watching the judging. I’m not just judging the dog, but I’m also educating them.”
When a judge finds the points of Loki’s shoulders, runs his hand down Loki’s ridge, finds the point of the hips, and then measures to see that the point of the ridge reaches the hips, he’s not just judging to see that Loki’s ridge is the length described in the standard. He’s also demonstrating how to judge the length of the ridge. And when he uses his hands to test the quality of the inner thigh muscle, he’s telling the observers watching the judging that this is a feature specifically called out in the standard and that it is important that your dog have well developed muscle tone.
The standard describes a hypothetical ideal dog of that breed. The features described in the standard are not just there for cosmetic reasons. A standard will never specify that a dog have four legs, two ears, and a tail. It’s just assumed that these are features generic to every dog. The standard describes the features that are unique to that breed of dog. A judge, in his exam, is giving you a lesson on the things that make a Golden Retriever unique from a Flat Coat Retriever, beyond color of coat, and what makes a Chesapeake Bay Retriever unique from a Curly Coated Retriever.
I repeated those two lessons to myself for the rest of the day on Sunday, letting them turn over and over again in my mind. I’ve tried my best to be a good sportsman when I show my dogs whether I win or lose. I said on Saturday that if I got angry every time I lost at a dog show, I’d go home pissed off every weekend! However, this lovely lady helped me understand that it’s not just about being gracious when you win and when you lose, but it’s about your dog. Isn’t that why we are in this sport: for the betterment of the breed and for our love of dogs?