Well, we made it to Westminster!
Westminster, Md., that is.
That dog show dream will have to wait just a bit. For now, my Westminster is an agriculture center, home to rodeos, tractor pulls, a farmers market and the Carroll County 4H fair.
These two weekend shows were Ziva’s last two in the puppy classes and that milestone made me a little misty. She was growing up and would be moving to the 12-18 month class, competing against older and bigger show dogs.
We finished in second place both days at Westminster, Md., but winning isn’t what it’s all about.
Our journey is about learning.
A dog lover forever
I’ve had dogs all my life. There was a Beagle named Snoopy, a Border Collie named Prince, a Tibetan Terrier named Tinker, a Golden named Beau and a Dachshund named Honey.
When I fell in love with Bernese Mountain Dogs, I fell hard.
Our first Berner, Teddy, is our obedience/agility/rally/therapy dog. Merlin, our second Berner was a show prospect but didn’t care all that much for the show ring scene. He is now perfectly happy doing nose work.
Then along came Ziva. I took her to show handling classes as a puppy, went to a few matches to get our feet wet and ventured out into the show world when she turned six months.
I was scared to death.
The only rings I had been in were in obedience and rally. But I figured that nobody knew me in the show dog world, so what the heck if I fell on my face. I could just slink away through the same door I came in.
New friends and a road trip
With this new dog show hobby came new friends. One invited me to stay in her RV during four days of dog shows in Cape Cod.
I had a choice to make … I could go to shows near home or drive for hours and hours to Cape Cod.
Go to the beach? Stay in Pennsylvania?
What’s not to like about the beach, and camping and new friendships.
This would be my first multiple-day show experience. I would be immersed in it and I knew there would be lots of learning.
Ups, downs, and a ‘major’ win
Ziva and I did pretty well the first day at Cape Cod. Not so hot the second.
OK, fine. Ups and downs are normal.
But on the third day, Ziva earned her first big win. It’s what they call a “major.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo, whether a dog wins a “major” or not depends on how many other dogs you beat.
That number is determined by the AKC and varies from region to region.
To become an AKC champion, a total of fifteen points must be earned with at least two of those wins being majors.
Now some shows are 1 and 2 point shows. Those aren’t majors. But if you win at a show with a lot of dogs, and you can earn 3, 4, or 5 points. Those are majors.
There’s much more to explain about it but the bottom line is a major is very special.
Learning from mistakes: A near disaster
Mistakes are good.
I’m OK with mistakes. I have made lots of them, in life and on the other end of Ziva’s leash. Some days I think I should be doing stand-up comedy. I’m sure I’ve entertained a few experienced handlers in the ring. Then again, you have to start somewhere.
On the third day in Cape Cod, I made a very stupid mistake and it really threw me off. And it was going oh so well.
I was organized and calm as I arrived ringside. I had everything I needed: grooming bag, brush, comb, rag, water spritzer and liver for bait and the dog. I remembered to bring the dog.
Ziva looked like she needed a last-minute potty break. Because, really, who wants an accident in the ring!
While waiting for Ziva to find a good spot to relieve herself, I looked down in horror past my elegant skirt and fine black hosiery.
I was still wearing the bulky black socks I “borrowed” from my husband’s sock drawer and I forgot to change out of my old hiking boots. I looked ridiculous.
My fancy Coach flats were back at the RV. Did I have time to race back to the camper with Ziva, change out of my clodhoppers and into my ring shoes? I would surely miss my ring time.
Panic. I could feel my heartbeat in my head.
I couldn’t step in the ring like this, so I took off with Ziva in tow. Back at the RV, I kicked off my boots, flung the socks, found my flats and got back to the ring just in time. I felt like I had just done a 10k, but hey, my shoes looked great.
And then came the miracle
Despite my near disaster, a miracle happened.
Ziva earned the dubious honor of Winners Bitch, earning a 3-point major at the tender age of 10 months.
Winners Bitch. Are you laughing? Dog show lingo. Trust me, nobody bitches about winning Winners Bitch. It means that Ziva was the best of the non-champion girl dogs in the ring that day.
OK, sorry…bitches. You can say that word in this arena. It’s OK. Really. Just say it. Bitches.
The honor came with ribbons, ring favors and some very encouraging comments from the judge afterward. I was in shock.
Never miss an opportunity to learn from mistakes.
Always make sure you have the right shoes on.
A case of the newbie nerves
I know I’m not alone as a nervous newbie in the show ring. Even after scores of show handling classes, everything is an OMG moment when you’re a beginner. Throw in a case of nerves and you have comedy.
Before showing, I always watch the judge’s ring procedure so I know what to expect when it’s our turn. On the fourth day in Cape Cod, I stepped in the ring and did exactly the opposite of what I observed.
The judge asked me to take my dog AROUND the ring. What did I do? I took my dog on a “down and back.”
A down and back allows the judge to see the dog’s movement as it moves away from and then back to the judge. Normally done on the diagonal across the ring, it follows a physical exam of the dog by the judge.
Well, I marched in the ring, apparently without my brain, and did a down and back first. As I turned around to come back to the judge, she wagged her finger back and forth. It was the universal sign language for “come here.” Oops.
She smiled and then moved her hand around in a half circle. That would be my cue to go around the ring with my dog. By the time I got back to the judge, I was beet red with embarrassment. I could feel my face on fire and the stress went right down the leash to my dog like a lightening bolt.
Ziva knew her handler was having a meltdown. Her ears were plastered to her head. Then the judge looked at Ziva and said: “where are your ears?”
In the background, I heard someone say “and you dropped a piece of chicken, too.”
We were so done.
Gaining confidence as an owner-handler
Professional handlers make this dog show stuff look easy.
There’s a lot to know … grooming, how to gait the dog properly, how to show the bite, knowing how to bring out the dog’s strengths, figuring out ring procedure and so much more.
When Ziva won her first point, I was hooked. My confidence got a boost.
I thought I could put a few more points on Ziva myself and then turn to a professional handler for the bigger, more competitive shows.
But once we had a few successes, I became more confident that Ziva and I could do this ourselves.
I knew that choice would mean it would take longer to finish her championship, but what could be better than creating a stronger bond with your dog!
We were a team now.
Learning from the pros: Always be working it
Professional handlers do have a big advantage … experience. It’s their job and they take it seriously. They’re working all the time.
At first, this newbie owner-handler felt intimidated standing in the ring surrounded by pros – some of whom I had seen on TV at the real Westminster.
I thought I’d never be able to present my dog as a professional would, but I tried. There are plenty of very accomplished non-professionals. They inspired me too.
So instead of bellyaching about all those experienced handlers, I watched them and I learned a lot.
I observed how they stacked their dogs, how fast they did the down and back, how they held the leash, how they groomed, how they dressed and even how they stood for win photos with a judge.
The most important thing I learned from the top handlers?
That I should always show my dog, even while the judge examines another dog. Because sometimes the judge glances around the ring.
So if I always have my dog presented perfectly, we might make a good impression on the off chance the judge steals a glance.
Yes, I was intimidated at first until I realized I had a bunch of the best teachers in the business standing all around me. If I simply watched and learned, I would be better.
Professional handlers set the bar high. It’s their job. They’re always working it.
As an amateur, I learned that to compete I needed to be always working it, too.