Labor Day is always a bittersweet holiday for those of us living on the tourist-trap coast. It marks the nominal end of the summer, even though we have three more weeks until the autumnal equinox puts a decisive end to the season. We already have a few red trees and a few orange-y branches here and there. Pretty though the leaves might be, we still could use a few uncrowded weeks of sunshine and lemonade before we all have to hunker down, draw our jacket hoods around us, and start shoveling the damned snow again.
There are still outdoor dog shows and trials in this region after Labor Day, including some of my traditional favorites (such as the Garden State Bearded Collie Clan's regional). None of them possess quite the end-of-season poignancy of the Labor Day weekend cluster, though.
Dinah hasn't been showing in many conformation shows this year. We missed out on the Canadian National and haven't entered any of the Regionals, so the BCCA National will likely be the first time she steps into a conformation ring in 2011. We've been focusing on rally and obedience this year, and have made great strides forward in our training. We've completed two APDT rally titles, and are shooting for AKC obedience and rally titles before the snows come.
Because we haven't been showing, this leaves me open to being dragooned by chief stewards at all of the other local dog shows. Gossip gets around; if you've finished your dog and aren't showing anyone else in the classes, you're considered fair game. Stewarding is not a task for the disorganized or easily distracted, but if you're up to the demands, there aren't too many other places to get as close a view of the goings-on as inside the show ring with the judge. Besides, how much fun can you have while being paid gas money with breakfast and lunch thrown in?
All the "hired hands" at dog shows share a camaraderie based on hard work and war stories, but the ring stewards have an esprit de corps all their own. Recognition is instant: "So you're another sucker, eh? Welcome to the club!" Veteran stewards have some of the best dog-show war stories and gossip you'll hear anywhere.
If you're very lucky, you'll get to work with some wonderful judges. Every one I've shared the ring with this year has been delightful, funny, friendly, and a joy to work with. Many of them remember well what it's like to be the ring steward, since they had to have that experience before becoming judges. Some, if time permits, will share some of what they look for in a good dog — whether in general or specific to the breed being judged. Some are chatty, some are strictly businesslike, and some seem gruff until you're both up to your elbows in ring procedure. Some are newbie-friendly and share tips from their own stewarding days about how to keep the traffic flowing smoothly. Some talk about their own experiences in the transition from steward to judge, and are wonderfully encouraging. I've even had a chance to work with a fellow DWAA member, and wish we could have socialized more. Oh, you do get stuck with a humdinger every now and then, but I've only had one of those, and not within the past couple of years.
The most interesting thing I've noted as a steward is the change in dynamic in how many of the other folks treat you. The professional handlers and the juniors are almost unfailingly kind and polite, and I've had some owner-handlers poke me in the back or shoulder or shout "Hey, Steward!" when they want something. (Note to the pokers and the shouters: Judges notice these things. They were stewards once, too.)
On the other hand, specialty chairs are so grateful when you do something as simple as keep track of their trophies and ribbons without making a hash of things. The Sheltie folks were a joy to work with this weekend, and they even gave me a tin of treats to take home to the Gang of Four. I should have offered them gifts for being so well-organized and fun to be around.
Yesterday, at the end of the four-day show cluster, I plopped into a handy director's chair someone had vacated in the club tent. My feet felt broken. My bones were weary, and I hadn't had a caffeine fix in hours. All the same, I watched the group judging and Best in Show through the afternoon sunshine, smooched a Vizsla puppy who had climbed up into my lap, and thought, I freakin' love this. What finer place to spend the last weekend of Maine summer?