Monday, April 28, 2008

When It Was a Game (Newbie Edition)

Apple Valley Rat Terrier Club, Westfield, MA
4/26-27, 2008
3 BOBs, Group 3, 85 points and one major

If you hang around the grooming tent long enough, you're bound to hear the old-timers waxing nostalgic for the "good old days" of dog showing. The sun was always shining, the judges were always fair and knew a good dog when they saw one, and all of the dogs and their owners were of better quality then. Why, to hear it told, every dog show looked like a Merchant-Ivory production minus Helena Bonham Carter. You have to hand it to the "good old days." Whatever realm they exist in, they always look shiniest when viewed through the scrim of a few decades' worth of nostalgia.

However, if there were a place on earth where you can revisit those "good old days" of dog showing, it would be at a UKC show. Compared to the highly organized and formal nature of an AKC show, UKC shows seem so relaxed and informal -- more like B matches with points than actual competition.

If, like us, you've spent all your show time at AKC shows, the informal character of a UKC show might even be confusing at first. Day-of-show entries? People building the rings before your eyes? Everyone cracking jokes with the judges -- in the ring? No hairspray? No brushes in the ring? No trophies? What kind of a dog show is this, anyway?

Two other things I found remarkable about the UKC shows: the huge number of juniors participating, and the number of rare breeds. The shows we attended happened to be hosted by a Rat Terrier club, so there were many Ratties in attendance who barked furiously every time someone walked by their vehicles. We also saw a Leonberger, three Bergamascos, and an amazing number of northern/spitz-type breeds I had never even seen before and can't identify without a much bigger breed book than the one I have now.

I don't especially like children (aside from my niece and nephew and my best girlfriend's daughter), but I lovelovelove junior handlers. They're always kind, polite, well-spoken kids whose parents deserve credit for recognizing the value of early socialization for both puppies and children. I enjoyed the heck out of the passel of juniors at the show, particularly the bunch with the Aussies. One of the Aussie crew, who came very close to taking a couple of Best in Shows, dropped by the barn to talk shop with me. It was an absolute blast to trade notes on movement with an 11-year-old who knew twice as much about the subject as I did. She admired Dinah's movement and asked to go over her. Her dog, Austin, was perfectly trained to respond to her in the ring -- and he never once lost focus. He wasn't the best-moving Aussie out there (which she herself admitted), but the two of them made such a great team that it was no wonder they picked up so many Group Firsts. They don't do obedience or canine freestyle, but they really ought to. The two of them are amazingly well synchronized; watching them show is like watching a dance routine.

Her mother, and some of the other parents of juniors at the show, raved about how much UKC supports the development of juniors and the family nature of dog events. At every show, juniors show first. This allows everyone who wants to, to watch the juniors in the ring before regular showing begins. In addition, juniors who are showing in the regular classes have time to get through Junior Showmanship before having to skedaddle to their respective breed rings, instead of having to juggle two show schedules at a time as they do at AKC shows. The relaxed environment of UKC shows adds to the supportive nature of showing in that venue, too.

Lots of kids, no professionals... this really does sound a lot like the "good old days." Still no sign of Helena Bonham Carter, though.

Larger shows probably run a little bit differently, but the rest of this event ran in a simple, logical manner. Each group was assigned to one ring for the entire weekend, and the judges rotated to different rings. Judges judge entire groups, first in their respective breed classes, and then in the corresponding group competitions. As in Canadian shows, the breeds within each group show in alphabetical order. The classes have different names, but work much the same way they do in AKC shows: puppies through Open, dogs before bitches. Because Dinah is just two years old, she showed in Senior (Youngster). The Open classes are for adult dogs over three years of age. Each breed judging even includes the Champion and Grand Champion classes before choosing Best of Breed.

Thankfully, I wasn't the only UKC Newbie there. Quite a few other people were attending their first UKC shows also, and we tried to pool our newbie resources to figure out points and navigate the rules. I shared a grooming space with a congenial owner of an English Cocker and a Tibetan Spaniel. The show was intimate enough that we had an entire grooming barn to ourselves, so we parked our Subaru Foresters nose-to-nose and set up around our cars inside the barn. Every time one of us came back from the ring, we clustered around our pooled collection of printouts from the UKC Web site to try and figure out where we stood, and to compare newbie notes. Go Team Newbie!

Like APDT rally trials, UKC shows are set up so that you can in theory (with enough competition) earn a CH in a weekend by showing in two shows a day, each day. In AKC, you're used to putting all your work and energy behind your one show per day. You go out there, do your very best, and then you either go on to groups or you're done for the day. However, at a UKC event, you have to do your best and go on to groups in two shows per day. The thing we found hardest about the experience was remaining fresh and alert for that second show each day. Seamus and I learned to overcome that in APDT rally trials. With practice, Dinah and I will figure out how to shine in two UKC shows in a day.

Unlike AKC shows, though, you can be the only representative of your breed and still be able to get credit for showing. It means that you have to earn the minimum of a Group Three to get credit for competition, but at least you're not wholly dependent on the number of other representatives of your breed to show up. There were three times as many Bergamascos as Beardies at this particular show -- funny thing to contemplate. Dinah did the "flirtation dance" for the male Bergamasco, but she performed the same dance for one of the white Standard Poodles and the red Border Collie. (Those boys must have been pretty special, especially the Poodle. Dinah prefers to flirt with Beardies, and apparently Bergamascos count.)

In spite of my usual stage fright and a wind that turned Dinah into a mop in the ring, we acquitted ourselves fairly well for the weekend. She picked up three BOBs and a Group Three. The Group Three constituted a major for Dinah because she beat the dog who picked up the Group Four -- and that counts as competition. I particularly liked that the judge referred to her as "my Beardie" when she placed her in the group ring. We almost picked up a second Group Three at the show, but one of the other judges sneaked both Corgis ahead of us at the last minute. We had been placed in front of a magnificent Beauceron whom I adored. In that competition, Irene and one of the Bergamasco girls took the Group One, not a minute after she whispered to me, "Ah, we won't do anything in here."

To become a UKC Champion, you need 100 points and three majors. To the best of the collective reckoning of all of us UKC Newbies, Dinah has 85 points and one major. Grand Champions require five majors, but I forget if additional points are also required.

Dinah and I were so fried after Show Number Three that neither of us could focus well enough to face going back for a fourth time. After the third show, she popped back into her crate in the car and plopped down, sighing, for an immediate nap. I didn't have the heart to make her go back out there again when she was so tired, and I was getting rather close to walking on my knees and talking gibberish myself. I went back to the club table, pulled our fourth entry, and brought us home instead.

So... we didn't finish our UKC Championship in one weekend as Maryann did, but no problem. This just means that we have to go back and enjoy ourselves at another UKC show (or shows) this year. Aw, shucks.

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