We love our dogs. We feed them the best food we can, we walk them even when it’s miserable outdoors, we put up with gallons of slobber. But we don’t buy them Christmas presents.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against dog presents. Or against those wonderful things we buy for our dogs that are really for ourselves. It’s a multi-zillion dollar industry that probably provides some jobs. (I wonder how many are in China, though.) We just don’t add dog shopping to all the other busy work of the season.
A few years ago we did get some Christmas collars, red and white fuzzy things with bells on them that both dogs detested. They sat still for about 3 photos and then declined further time with the paparazzi.
Yes, they’ll probably get bones on Christmas, but then they get bones every week. Other than that, they’re pretty much out of luck on the gift side of things.
But one thing we do for them on Christmas that’s special is to spend even more time with them. We’ll probably toss the toys around the yard for longer (if it’s not sleeting or zero degrees); we’ll take them for longer walks than usual. Maybe Wise Man will even put up with them hanging around the kitchen while he’s trying to cook. I think this is the only thing they really care about anyway.
We have a splendid Bloodhound named Lucy who is undoubtedly the most loving dog I’ve ever had. She is nearly indiscriminate in her affections toward nearly every man, woman, and child she’s ever met. She wants to make new friends every time she’s introduced to someone.
There is only one exception that I know of. One day the Wise Man of the house was walking Lucy on a local trail and practicing her sit/stay as people passed. (She had gotten too excited about offering dog fur and slobber to everyone, like it or not.) Lucy behaved very well until an ordinary guy in ordinary clothes–no hat or sunglasses–walked by. Suddenly Lucy began growling, hackles up, teeth bared. Wise Man was shocked. He scolded her but still had his hands full trying to keep her from jumping at the man and barking in fury. It was such a departure from her behavior before and since that we still talk about it.
When I told this story to the trainer for our urban scent tracking group, Pat Stogner, her response was: “always trust your dog.” Pat’s view is that if a normally peaceable dog takes against someone, there’s a damned good reason and you shouldn’t ignore the warning.
I suppose the flip side of this is: believe your dog that people are mostly pretty good at heart. I wish I could be as trusting and as friendly as my Bloodhound, with a smile for everyone I meet. I wish I could give people the benefit of the doubt before judging them. Lucy’s not stupid: she finds out that some people who look nice react rudely and harshly to her, or yell at us to get away or clear the path faster so they can walk or run by. But this doesn’t hurt her or undermine her self-confidence or make her likely to growl at the next person she sees. She just waves that bushy tail in the air and trots on along, a doggie smile ready for the next passer-by. I wish I could be as good a person as my dog already is.
When I first took Kunga into to a show, I was thankful that (1) he didn’t eat a Chihuahua; and (2) I didn’t trip over him in the ring. So far neither calamity has ever come to pass. But as I think over his show career, I realize I have a lot to be thankful for.
I’m glad I had great mentors in the breed. The members of the Great Dane Club of Greater Denver are supportive, encouraging, and welcoming. If they hadn’t been, I probably would never have thought of getting into showing. When I’m depressed about some of the nastiness that goes around the show world, I remember them again and give thanks that they’re a pretty fine group of people.
Here’s my friend Carol Volleberg with Kunga:
The Wise Man who shares my life enjoys our dogs but has no patience for shows. Yet he is pleased when Kunga wins and consoling when he loses and doesn’t make me feel guilty for being away a lot of weekends during show season. He is the most amazing human I know. Here’s WM with Lucy, our Bloodhound:
There’s no way to go back and give them pets and hugs, but I’m grateful to all the dogs, including Danes, that I had before Kunga. Every single one of them taught me something and they all managed to put up with my ignorance and impatience and give back only love and affection. Kipper showed me how to calm down a crazy dog. Tucker showed me what wobbler’s and bloat look like (and survived both). I guess it doesn’t count to be happy they were in my life in retrospect, which makes me even more intent on loving up the dogs I have with me today.
It’s a week for gratitude, so I’m going to hug my pets and voice my thanks to the people in my life who have taught me something or helped me in some way. My little secret is some fresh liver for the dogs, which is “thanks” in their language.
Had a great time at Nationals: learned a lot, saw some amazing dogs and even more amazing friends. Someone even took a picture of Kunga and me in the ring!
But one thing marred the whole experience: the general level of viciousness among some attendees. As I stood/sat ringside, I heard astonishingly mean comments about dogs in the ring; as I walked around the vendors I got an earful of ugly gossip about people. I overheard a nasty comment about my dog, and had one brazen person say something really horrific (and untrue) about my dog to my face: all before Kunga had even had the chance to show! I’m not alone in having that kind of vitriol spat at them or about them. I stood next to someone whose bitch was in the conformation ring and heard malign comments about her from a person nearby. Funny how that commentator didn’t mention the fact that the bitch had done spectacularly well in rally a few days earlier.
Make a stupid, cutting remark at ringside and Sod’s Law says that the person it’s aimed at is standing unseen behind you. It can be devastating even if you don’t intend to hurt. This is exactly the kind of thing that puts newcomers off our sport when they experience it themselves.
Anyone who lives in the real world knows that mean-spirited, small-minded gossip is an epidemic. At the office, at the grocery store, in the PTA, in the park, even at church or temple (!) you can hear people attack others’ reputation, appearance, or actions. The dog show world isn’t uniquely bad in this way, it’s just like any other gathering of people engaged in an activity they care about. And when we care about something, our egos get involved and somehow interfere with the brakes between thought and tongue. I suppose it’s normal to bolster the sense of self by putting others down, and to ingratiate ourselves with an “in” group by agreeing with their opinions and making even more cruel remarks about someone outside.
Most dog shows are not invitationals: everyone’s paid the same price to bring their dog to the ring to get an opinion on it or give it the chance to perform. I think we ought to let the judge do the job of passing judgment.
I guess it’s useless to plead, with Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I’m not going to change other people’s behavior or human nature. But this is a pledge to myself that I will try to act differently. I want to be the kindest person at the ring, not the most evil. I hope my friends and club members will pull me up if they hear me going off the rails, and remind me that all of us adore our dogs and don’t deserve officious or vile remarks about them in any context.
The GDCA National competition was fierce this year: so many nice dogs, only so many awards to give out. I found it fascinating to watch the final choice on all three days: a giant ring filled with at least 20 dogs or bitches, with a surprising variety of size, color, and especially type. Every one of them had at least parts that fit the Dane standard, and every one of them met that standard in a slightly different way. Some moved well, some had terrific heads, some had incredible angles. More than that: some looked radically different from the others in type. There were tall dogs and short dogs and skinny dogs and dogs built like tanks (bitches too).
An artist friend and mentor once said to me that I had to learn the “Shakespeare Principle:” there are some things that are good whether you like them or not. I think that is applicable to the dogs I saw at Nationals. I learned that which sort of dog you like, and which you breed, is a matter of taste. I had to acknowledge there were dogs there whose type I didn’t care for–but who were beautiful in their own way. You have only to look at the dog I take into the ring to know what type I like. And I hope that people who don’t like that type can still acknowledge that he’s a nice example even if they wouldn’t breed to him.
Now if someone were to ask what kind of judge I think is the best, I’d answer: the one who understands the Shakespeare Principle and can live by it in her selections.
Off to the Great Dane Nationals today! Every year the Great Dane Club of America puts on a specialty show for Great Danes only, and this year the venue is in Phoenix, AZ, close enough for me to drive there.
What do you do to get ready? When you know many of the top dogs in the country will be there? First, you get excited! As soon as I knew I’d be able to go this year–months ago–I was pretty stoked to get to see some of these fantastic dogs.
Second, you get your dog ready. Kunga has had his nails clipped extra short the last month even though he’s not showing, so by the time we get to Arizona he’ll look as fancy as possible. Happily grooming him is pretty elementary: warm water all over and some whisker trimming, which I’ll do once I get there.
Third, you run around like a lunatic at the last possible moment to do everything else! There’s food to buy, clothes to clean and pack, a costume for the Halloween party, all the show gear to get out, check, dust off, and pack in the van. All this stuff has to fit in there somewhere, and there has to be room for the dog!
I’m looking forward to meeting new friends, putting faces to names I only know from FaceBook, and standing proudly with my big blue boy in that ring with 122 of the best champions in this country. You can bet I’ll be grinning then!
Finally, we’ve reached the seventh habit, and it’s what I call charisma on command.
There’s something extra special about a winning dog that goes beyond temperament and bone structure, a show-off’s quality that exhibits itself in the ring. The dogs that have it, or can learn to turn it on, have a distinct advantage. Sometimes it shows itself as a connection between the dog and judge. I can always tell within about a minute of being in the ring if Kunga has the chance of winning that day. There’s some kind of energy that he can turn on, seemingly at will, which makes him lift his head, extend his neck and back, and pop his ears forward. It has nothing to do with what’s going on outside the ring (though once a well-placed squirrel at an outdoor show did us a great favor by running up a tree near the ring), or with bait I’m holding. I think it may be a response to the interest of a judge, which you can feel like an electric charge in the air when it’s directed at your dog. I can feel it and I think Kunga feels it too. He always performs better when it happens.
But a truly great show dog would be able to switch on this charisma whenever it’s asked of him. Sometimes you’ll hear a judge say she awarded a win because the dog “asked for it,” which means that dog has thrown the switch and demanded the attention of everyone in the ring. I wish I knew where that button was on Kunga!
Habit number six never fails to amuse my non-show friends: the dog poops and pees on command. This is a useful habit even for pet dogs, but show dogs that do it are at an advantage.
A nervous dog that inhibits its usual bowel and bladder movements because he’s not sure where or when to go is not going to be comfortable in the ring. Who could run in circles and stand up straight if they have to go to the bathroom pretty badly? Shows are busy places for the handlers, and there is not often a lot of time for “exercise”—so its best if the dog can learn to go when the time is available, on command.
My grooming area was once next to that of a few Cavalier King Charles spaniels whose owners showed me their trick to deal with unwilling dogs. They stuck a match (unlit!) up the butt of their dogs, and quickly produced a bowel movement. Supposedly the phosphorous of the match head stimulates the dog to poop, though I’ve also heard that it’s just the object itself that produces the effect. It’s a trick I’ve seen used a lot.
The fifth habit is similar to the fourth: dogs have to be able to cope with other dogs. Obviously dog shows are filled with dogs, most not neutered or spayed, and many that will challenge one another in the grooming or exercise areas. Kunga likes little dogs but doesn’t much like other large dogs, including Danes. Until he was about two, he mixed well with all the dogs that showed up ringside, sniffing and friendly. But once he reached his sexual maturity—and after his first live cover—he became much less friendly to other dogs. This is an ongoing difficulty ringside, and means that I usually wait some distance away while the other dogs take their turns. (Kunga has never been belligerent inside the ring, even standing flank to shoulder with a dozen other dogs and bitches crowding into a corner waiting their turns for examination.) But a dog that likes other dogs and is at ease around them will be a happier and more effective show dog.
I’m working through a list of habits that are typical of successful show dogs: having these will help, though nothing guarantees a win!
Number four on the list is that the dog actually likes people. There are hundreds, even thousands of people at shows, and not all of them know good dog etiquette. A stranger who wants to cuddle with an adorable toy dog can scare the bejesus out of the animal just before it goes into the ring and spoil its performance. Many children are not taught even basic manners around dogs and will run at them (or away from them, which can set off a prey drive in hunting dogs) screaming, reaching for the face and head. Most show dogs have learned to take all this in stride, and actually enjoy meeting new people. Shy dogs will be overwhelmed and can show poorly after being frightened or petted over-enthusiastically.
Happily Kunga is glad to meet people and get petted and have his picture taken! He has been good with kids ever since he was a little puppy.