Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Go With What You Know

Before I forget, here's a picture of Dinah and me at the Augusta shows. Photo by Fritz Clark, The Standard Image. Both Fritz and the judge, Margaret Cook, showed saintly patience with us while we struggled to get Dinah's head and feet pointing in the right directions. Looks easy, doesn't it?

Dinah's been in season (her first), so we've been staying away from the shows for a while. We can still take lessons, though we're doing private sessions until her season is over.

You'd think that there wouldn't be much to just grabbing a leash and prancing around the ring with a pretty doggie on the other end, wouldn't you? I sure used to think that while watching the shows, either at ringside or on TV... and then I got to try it for myself. Let me just say that I've come away with a whole new appreciation of the handler's craft: it involves making a dog look its best while not appearing to be doing anything. Talented handlers are like stage magicians, allowing a dog's good points to appear and draw the judge's attention while making the not-as-good aspects disappear (or at least fade into the background). It turns out that I have much more to learn than I thought.

I am not a natural athlete. Although I played a couple of sports in high school, I had to work very hard just to be mediocre. Once I get something into muscle memory, though, it stays there, and I can reproduce that action (or sequence of actions) just about exactly the same way over and over again. Until the point where muscle memory takes over, though, I'm awkward and self-conscious about my lack of coordination.

In Dinah's and my first few shows, I've tried my best to apply the things I've learned in our classes. Without muscle memory, though, I've tended to forget parts of the showing routine that she's taught me. Even though we haven't had any competition (so we always get first place), I don't generally walk away from the ring thinking "Gee, that was my best performance yet." I almost always forget something, some detail or action or part of the routine that would have made our presentation so much smoother.

Thanks to Tracy, I had a breakthrough of sorts in how to commit the routine of showing to muscle memory. We were practicing entire routines at once, from entering the gate to standing for exam to the gaiting patterns. Tracy watched how Dinah and I stopped, started, and gaited. "It's just like heeling in obedience," she said. "Lead off with your left foot each time and the rest will fall into place."

It DID! I can't quite explain why that little tiny detail did it for me, but things just seemed to fall into place, and I was able to get us to perform the same way each time we tried. Assuming I don't space it due to performance anxiety, this should make a huge difference in our ring presentation.

I am still reluctant to mess too much with Dinah's feet during stacking. She has a fine sense of balance and usually places her feet right where they should be without any help from the other end of the leash. Any attempt I make to perfect an already well-balanced stance just throws her off balance and makes her wiggle.

A bunch of my Beardie buddies are entering the Fitchburg shows in mid-August, the weekend immediately before the Canadian Specialty. I had argued with myself for weeks over whether to enter Dinah in those shows and finally opted not to, preferring to save my energy and hers for the trip to Ontario. Now that so many of them are planning to show in Fitchburg, I'm waffling again. I have a little less than a week to decide, but the option is still available if I decide to join them all down there. Dinah would be showing in 9-12 Puppy for the very first time -- not that we'll see any more competition in that class than we've seen in 6-9 Puppy, mind you.

The Canadian Specialty will be the site of another debut for both of us. It will be the very first time I've ever shown in any venue in Canada, and you could definitely say the same for Dinah. There, Puppy 9-12 is referred to as Senior Puppy. Because it's a national specialty, we'll definitely have company in the Senior Puppy ring for the first time since we started the whole beauty-contest game. I'm likely to be the only newbie handler there, but it will be fun to see all the other puppies of Dinah's age. The judge is English, which is a break for me; she won't want to see the Beardies all teased and clipped, and I don't know how to do any of that stuff anyway.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What About BOB?!

(Dinah says, "Yeah. What about it?")

We drove up to the Lakes Region KC's show yesterday figuring that we'd probably go BOS to the male special who was entered, just as we did to Trav at the Augusta shows. No points, but brags are worth something too.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the special had not checked in, leaving Dinah as the sole representative of Bearded Collie-dom for the whole show! You might call it the fast track to Best of Breed.

The breed judge, Joseph Gregory, was lovely. He's judging herding breeds (including Beardies) at Westminster next year. He appeared to like Dinah, and might even have picked her if we'd had any competition. At least he didn't laugh too hard when I looked at the BOB ribbon and said, "Wow. Our first trip to Group." He was gracious and patient as we wrestled for another goofy show photo. Two handlers, Greg, the judge, the photographer, and I all struggled to get Dinah into position and looking like a show dog. Guess we'll find out how that went when the photos arrive.

Wish the weather had cooperated a little better for him, poor man. The grooming area was covered by a huge series of tents, but the rings were all exposed to the elements -- and there were some elements, believe me! That poor judge, in his nice suit, had to judge a gazillion junior handlers in a downpour.

Up until now, we've been done showing for the day as soon as breed judging is finished. This time, we had to wait from 10:15 in the morning until 1:45 PM, when the breed judging commenced -- and did I mention that Herding was the last group to show? By the time we got around to actual Group judging, the downpour had ended and the summer heat had started to return to the fairgrounds. Pounding sun is not kind to little black puppies, so I kept Dinah in the shade as much as possible.

Our first trip into Group was quite the different experience, but fun. In Group, dogs enter the ring roughly from fastest to slowest. As the only puppy in the lot, we ended up third from the last, after the Malinois and in front of the Corgis. The Group judge, Linda More, took quite a bit of time to look Dinah over, and watched us carefully as we gaited. She didn't pick us over the adults with clean feet, but I think she liked us more than I expected she would. The two stewards were friends of mine, and they made quite a bit of noise applauding as we circled the ring. I think it helped to have our fans there, too.

Anyway, we brought home our sleepy puppy and our collection of ribbons, and called it a good day's work. Whether or not she had to beat anybody to get there, we're proud of our little Best of Breed puppy. She might end up going around the Group rings more often in the not-too-distant future.

This was our last show for about a month or so. Dinah appears to be starting her first season, and we aren't entered in anything else until the Canadian National in August.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Stacking 101

Now that Dinah's eight months old and we have a few shows' worth of experience, Tracy has started to expect more from us in our handling classes. We started out with just standing up (as opposed to sitting in the mud), and have progressed to a little more self-stacking with attention work. Just as we're beginning to get used to self-stacking, Tracy is moving us on to actual stacking and placing of the dogs' feet.

This lesson comes just in time. Dinah's last show photo was 80% WWF wrestling match, 20% photo shoot. Although I've been handling her feet since I brought her home, she didn't take too kindly to my messing with them in an unfamiliar place, in front of a bunch of people she hadn't met before. After considerable squeaking and tossing of toys and other distractions, the photographer managed to get a reasonable shot of Dinah with four on the floor and the very-patient judge smiling.

Dinah hasn't been enjoying these stacking lessons. Part of it is due to my technique, I'm sure. She allows me to place her feet, but she dances and wiggles. Tracy showed me how to hold Dinah's head (by a handful of Beardie beard) so I could better control her. If we practice this, it might work someday. Dinah is not a big fan, however. I think Tracy thinks she's a spoiled brat. That might be true, but Dinah does learn when she's shown what is expected of her.

The other technique, which I have to UN-learn, involves how much I talk to my dog. I'm still operating in puppy kindergarten, where chattering to your dog is expected, and where you praise for every little thing. Tracy made me realize just how much I yammer to Dinah, and I'm trying to cut down on the chatter a little so she'll listen to me when I do speak to her.

Our next show is the Lakes Region Kennel Club show next week. There are only two Beardies entered, and Dinah is the only class dog (the other is a male special). I guess we're on the fast track to BOW/BOS again. No points, but no complaints either -- we enjoy bragging rights.