Two women had no business trying to lift such an awkward piece of furniture, but what could I do. The lady had wandered through the open front door of my new house and insisted on being a good neighbor by helping move a chest of drawers. Despite my objections, she lifted the end nearest her and looked at me expectantly. Dumbly, I did the same. With my knuckles turning white and unable to see much past a drawer that kept sliding into my face, we inched along awkwardly until my new neighbor made an abrupt and hard stop. She’d bumped into a pristine wall of my brand new house and dinged the drywall with a corner of the chest. My heart sank when I saw the crater left behind by the impact. “In another week, you won’t even notice it, “ she blithely said.
I was incensed, and I doubted it, but she turned out to be right. Before long, the dent had become visual “white noise” that I noticed only when someone new to my house saw it for the first time, and then I would see it through their eyes and wince. What did this blemish say about the people who lived here and hadn’t done anything to fix it?
It’s been many years since I lived in that house, but for some reason, memory of the incident flooded back to me when I attended a dog show with a novice recently. The novice was an old friend who’d gotten her first show dog, and I simply wanted to be supportive of her new endeavor. There are those who maintain, however, that veterans of the fancy should go to a dog show with a newbie every so often; seeing our world through their fresh eyes revitalizes a jaded exhibitor’s enthusiasm. The buzz of competition, a panoply of beautiful dogs and different breeds, the camaraderie of friends – it’s all rather exciting and infectious, isn’t it.
To a neophyte, the competitive side of our sport is enthralling, if not baffling: Why are dogs placed in front of bitches in the BOB ring? Why is a dog gaited in the left hand when 70% of people are right handed? Why can a Shih Tzu be shown with the hair over its eyes tied up, but not a Komondor?
As puzzling as all this can be to a novice, things get really interesting “behind the curtain” of a dog show: The grooming area. Most of the time, practices that elicit a novice’s double take are benign and rooted in practicality: The glamorous and glittery snood worn by an Afghan Hound; paper wrappers on a Yorkie’s face; a Puli’s corded coat trussed up with rubber bands; a Schnauzer standing in a basin as his furnishings are washed.
Less comical, and in my view, detrimental to the sport, is when there is no good explanation for something: A dog tethered to the grooming arm of a table with nary an owner or handler in sight; a harsher-than-necessary jerk of a lead; a dog left languishing in a crate for hours; the rough handling of a dog being groomed. Happily, none of this is the norm, but those of us who’ve been in the sport long enough have likely seen something at least once that would have raised our eyebrows as novices (and probably should now). If we were experienced exhibitors at the time, did we speak out to protect the integrity of our sport, or have we come to mind our own business for so long that we’ve become inured to what’s around us.
It’d been a long time since I strolled through a grooming area with a beginner as I did in December at Eukanuba; As we weaved our way around crates and tables, I was struck by the details my friend noticed: Open D-Flight grooming boxes kept so orderly that leashes arranged by color resembled surgical instruments lined up and ready for a skilled hand; a dog on a table looking frantically around for its missing person; the busy groomer who looked up at us as we passed and smiled pleasantly; food on a grooming table left to grow cold and odiferous; a child tasked with tidying a set up by sweeping up hair; the person blowing chalk out their dog oblivious to the black coated dog in the line of fire.
Is it fair to assess a sport by the mental snapshots taken during a walkabout in the working end of it? Probably not, but the reality is that this happens every weekend at every show where amateurs compete with professionals, and the public is invited.
The fancy is aging, and clubs are hemorrhaging new members. Registrations are dropping and the sport is in crisis. We can blame the animal rights movement and an aggressive rescue agenda, but is that the entire picture? There are challenges we’ve never faced before, and the advice that each of us should experience our sport through the eyes of a “baby exhibitor” has more value than just reenergizing the juices of old-timers. It’s possible that seeing the sport through the eyes of a novice could help save it, but only if we’re willing to open our own eyes and see our own culpability. Glossing over facets of our sport that defy reasonable explanation to an inexperienced participant doesn’t say as much about that person’s naiveté as it does about the people who’ve “lived” in the sport and haven’t done anything to fix it.
It could mean that we no longer notice the dent in the wall.
This article first appeared in Dogs in Review March 2015