When I learned that a competitor from the group ring recently won her breed’s National Specialty, I was hardly surprised. In my view, her dog is the complete package: Sound, exemplary of breed type, showy – and a moving fool.
That said, a National Specialty draws out many great dogs, and presumably, such was the case when my friend’s dog achieved the ultimate prize in our sport. Still, I’ve competed against her often enough to know that she had a secret weapon going in. I could picture the unadulterated joy I knew she’d have written all over her face as she showed her dog in the Best of Breed ring. She would be wearing a smile so wide, only its genuineness would keep her from looking foolish. I’ve witnessed it often enough to know that a good dog in the hands of a capable handler who is clearly proud of their entry is an irresistible package to most judges.
Joy. One doesn’t hear the word used much to describe our sport, but it does make me wonder: Would the fancy attract new people and give novices extra staying power if more people in it would remember that being at a dog show is better than standing in line at the DMV? Haven’t we all had a judge that made us wonder why he or she was still judging? Haven’t some of us encountered the odd exhibitor, show rep, or club officer so consistently sour tempered that they seemed pained to be doing what they’re doing? Are “dog show bullies” really just people who are burned out?
My fascination with looking at other aspects of life to understand my own sport lead me to hear of professional organizer, Marie Kondo, whose method of organizing one’s home is rooted in the simple concept of joy. Her runaway best selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” made a celebrity of the Japanese woman who reshaped the thinking of clients desperate to “edit” their homes once and for all. Her Zen-like approach suggests that we’re asking the wrong question when holding up an item or garment and asking ourselves when the last time was that we used it. Instead, Kondo instructs her clients to regard the item in their hand and ask themselves, “Does this bring me joy?” Items that don’t “spark joy” should be thanked for their service (very Zen), and then discarded. An item to which there is guilt attached should it be thrown out, such as a gift or memento, needs to be regarded as having done its job by sparking joy when it was received, but if guilt is the only reason we continue to keep it, it needs to move on, it did its job.
Kondo’s philosophy inspires us to fundamentally re-think our relationships to the objects in our everyday lives. When I came to realize that it’s not so much things we hang on as much as the emotions attached to them, I was finally able to donate 35 years worth of show ribbons, rosettes and medallions that were once special to me (though I stopped short of thanking each and every one of them). Kondo’s is a simple approach, brilliantly effective, and as I see it, applicable to life choices as well. When I realized that obligation or guilt was a lousy reason to enter a dog show because the judge was “good” for my dog even though I didn’t really feel showing, I was able to let the entry deadline come and go without regret.
There is no shame in editing our “dog lives” as we would our closet. When applying Kondo’s approach to simplifying one’s home into bettering one’s life, it helps pare away the extraneous and ultimately leads to the conclusion that it’s better to do fewer things that we really love, rather than many things we “sort of” like. Life is just too short to stay involved with something just because we’ve always done it, and it’s especially too short to be doing something we don’t really enjoy any more because the world changed, the fancy changed, or, more likely, we changed.
“Sparking joy” can mean different things to different people, but if there’s no joy in showing our own dog because ring nerves reduces us to nausea, or if the importance of volunteering in a breed club is overshadowed by unpleasant clashes of personalities, why are we doing it? How effective can anyone be if they dislike what they’re doing or the people with whom they’re doing it, and how happy can our dogs be when they’re with us at those times?
We think nothing of editing our closets and drawers to rid ourselves of things that longer fit, have gone out of style, or fail to “bring us joy,” but how many of us are doing things for the wrong reasons? Is there a tacit sense of obligation in some of us that we must show our dog at each and every show, particularly if it’s a rare or uncommon breed and majors are hard to come by? If our dog does some winning, is there’s a sense of duty to campaign him because some around us would “kill” to have such a dog? If we have a sound bitch that has passed her health clearances, do we feel that we “owe” it to the breed to have her bred even though whelping, raising and placing her puppies is more than we want to take on? Though few of us can resist puppy breath, not everyone feels up to producing it. I’m not suggesting that we abandon the sport, but perhaps for some of us, it’s time to explore other things we can do in it. Wouldn’t it be better to find what does bring us joy?
The thing about joy is that once we give ourselves permission to weed out what it isn’t, the feeling can be life-long.
Otis Williams, founder, and last surviving member of the original Motown group, the Temptations, is still performing at the age of 73. I recently saw the group in concert, and as Williams stepped through the signature Temptation dance moves, he wore an expression on his face that struck me as very familiar. And then it came to me. It was the same joyous grin worn by my fellow exhibitor, the National Specialty winner, when she shows her dog. After fifty-five years of performing with the group, Mr. Williams still finds joy in singing to an audience. How many of us will be able to say the same after five decades in the sport?
This article first appeared in Dogs in Review