Fine Wood Finish

Siberian practicing the “Stand for Examination” exercise. (This is closer to a stand for the conformation ring.)

There is no good way to ask a stranger if she lost a relative to a wood chipper. I had to find one, to confirm or refute a story that had been circulating for decades by now.

I looked at my hospital assignment for the night and recognized at once the odd last name that this woman–my patient–and the alleged victim shared. They had to be connected somehow.

Many years earlier, my husband Richard and I had succumbed to the same mistake with our new Siberian that most purebred dog owners make. We thought our pup was beautiful–perfection–the standard against which we would judge all others of the breed. And the fact that he had “papers” only affirmed his exquisite quality.

Newlyweds routinely buy a dog. Brand new husbands do not, typically, leave their wives. But Richard, number eight in the Viet Nam draft lottery of 1970, joined the Massachusetts National Guard and took off for basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina a mere three months after we were married.

How would I amuse myself while he was gone? My still-single friends were spouse-hunting; the married ones did things as couples. An uncle with a Doberman recommended dog obedience school as a fine bonding experience and training exercise. And so, one night a week, my pathetically blank calendar sported a penciled-in entry.

Now–anyone who knows anything about dogs will tell you that the northern or spitz breeds, one being the Siberian, are notoriously of a mind regarding any efforts to curtail their natural exuberance. They mind–a lot. Or, to put it another way: they do not mind at all. (Turn a deaf ear. Refuse to make eye contact. Look right past you like you’re a mirage.) Either way, their human companions end up embarrassed at best; disgraced at worst.

Maybe it’s because I was mercifully unaware of the breed’s propensity for mischief that I did not expect it, and therefore held my Misha to a higher level of compliance. Probably, it was beginner’s dumb luck. Whatever the reason, the dog took to training like a husky to harness. After just two months we were ready to enter our first American Kennel Club Sanctioned Match, which is a practice event for the real conformation shows or obedience trials. We would compete in Novice X – the lowest-of-the-low class for rank obedience amateurs.

We faced six tests. He would, theoretically: walk beside me on lead, following directions given by the judge; stay close by my side as we executed a “figure eight” around two human poles; stand still for a cursory manual examination by the judge; come when called; and complete two group exercises alongside other competitors–the long sit (one minute) and the long down (three minutes).

As soon as we walked into the First Company Governor’s Foot Guard AA Armory in Hartford, CT, I was a goner. Apparently the essence of dog show can be inhaled, and is as addictive as cocaine. It had me body and soul. Whether we won or placed this day–even if my little guy made a fool of me–it was only his first time. The rosettes and trophies would come. I just knew it.

Meanwhile, my hyper-aware brain was scanning the facility, and stopped short at rings on the far side of the building. In these rings, dogs were being trotted around in circles but were not required to perform any specific exercises. We wandered over and watched. That innocent gesture would lead me down a path to a kennel of twenty-nine show dogs later, but I did not know it at the time. Then, I was just curious.

What I had stumbled upon were the breed rings–the beginning stage of the quest for an American Kennel Club Championship. (At the time, only dogs shown in conformation were awarded the title of Champion. Successful obedience dogs earned degrees such as Companion Dog, Companion Dog Excellent, and Utility Dog. Now there are additional degrees, and top-winning dogs in obedience can also win Champion titles.) Dogs in the breed rings are judged–not on performance–but on how closely they conform to the official Standard of the Breed in soundness, temperament, and type (that elusive set of characteristics that make a breed uniquely what it is, as opposed to any other). No points towards a championship can be offered at this pseudo-show, but there are still lovely prizes for a Best in Match victory and first place in lesser categories.

Note my statement that dogs in the breed ring are not judged on performance. That benign fact would be my undoing later. Meanwhile, though, we had a performance to give this day. Misha didn’t do much wrong, but he did not give a stellar performance, either. In an actual Obedience Trial we would have gotten one leg of the three required for the CD degree, having earned a paltry 172 out of the required 200 points–with 170 needed to qualify. But that was enough for me at the moment. Our future in the world of dog shows was secured right there, right then. My husband did not know he would be coming home to a full blown addict. As soon as the scores were announced, I was back at the breed rings again. That second walk across the armory floor nearly ended Richard’s career before it began–but those repercussions were months away.

Entries had not closed for the breed judging yet. I surveyed the competition with a critical eye (critical as in judgmental, not discriminating). Let’s see–Misha was sparkling clean, and he was the only one in the class with blue eyes. Our win was assured! Fantasies of stardom circled my imagination like a low-lying galaxy as I completed the entry form. I am happy to announce that he won fourth place! In the interest of full disclosure, I must also report that it was fourth out of four. But I had a ribbon in my hand! Our very first. That scrap of satin meant the world to me at that moment.

Then, the stuff of dreams: I met a man at ringside who was waiting to go in with his Samoyed. As we talked, I caught him eying my dog. “I could show him for you,” he offered. For real! At AKC shows, where Champions were made! Oh? Here was a real dog show person, and he wanted to take my pet into the breed ring? This confirmed everything I’d known about what a truly outstanding specimen my Siberian was. We made arrangements to meet at his home for the training appropriate to exhibiting in conformation.

Jack had that look about him that screamed “other”–to everyone, that is, except this googly-eyed dreamer with visions of blue ribbons in her head. His slightly greasy, midnight-sky hair was at odds with the current Beatles-and-Monkees-style short, shiny locks. Scanning back over the rock stars of that era, I recall that few mainstream musicians had beards, but Jack did. The riveting blue eyes that blazed forth from a face nearly shrouded in sinister-looking black detracted even more from any resemblance to the “young Turk” executive trainee. But this is how the dog show handler is supposed to present himself– with conservative suit or sport jacket, dress shirt, tie, pressed trousers. It is advantageous to stand out in the show ring, though preferable that the quality of your dog speaks for itself. It is decidedly detrimental to call attention to oneself in the unique way that Jack did., with his camping-blanket plaids and competing stripes. By the time I noticed that, it was too late.

Meanwhile, my basic training graduate came home to find that his bride had a new love. Ever the supportive mate, Richard embraced my obsession and supported my efforts to secure for Misha his rightful place in the rarified world of canine superstars. We met with Jack, the handler. Our debut would take place at the Ladies’ Dog Club show–only the most prestigious one in New England, which meant the best of the best would be there. We were ready to take on them all.

On the appointed day, Jack and I had to travel to Boston without Richard, who had his Law Boards–the test for entry into law school–scheduled.. I could not let him know how we’d done immediately after judging, as he’d be in the middle of his exam, but I promised to call him as we were leaving the John B. Hines Memorial Auditorium at the Prudential Center to head for home.

The hulking lumberjack did a credible job with my dog. He was entered in the class that no one enters if he is seriously competing for a win, but again I was clueless. The judge had only two dogs in her ring, and one of them was copper-colored. Now, I’d heard that her entire kennel of Siberians were red, and that she was partial to that color over all the others. I was curious to see what she’d do with my black-and-white Misha.

Judging began, and from the start the red dog was a whirling dervish at the end of the leash. He leapt; he pirouetted. He would not stand still for the judge to go over him with her hands to feel for bone structure, muscling, bite alignment, and other features. Misha, with his obedience background, behaved like a seasoned veteran and, in my mind, secured the win. How shocked was I when the judge pointed to the red for first place! (Remember? Dogs in the breed ring are not judged on performance. Well, I forgot.)

I’d been cheated! I was outraged! I would go home and find a breed so new that no one had been able to corrupt it yet, and it would be judged honestly and fairly . . . blah, blah, blah. (I was too ignorant to realize that the winning dog was an outstanding representative of the breed, whereas my Misha was . . . well, passable at best.) Humbled, defeated and deflated, I headed for the exit and braced myself for the long ride home. I called Richard as promised to let him know we were on our way. He was oddly non-commital when I asked him how the exam had gone.

As we neared the doors, I reached into my jacket pocket for a glove and pulled out my car keys with it. “Should have had them in my purse,” I muttered to myself. “Could have been stolen.” A dip into my other pocket produced the twin glove–and another set of keys–Richard’s! But if I had both sets of keys to the car, how did he . . . ? Uh oh–he didn’t. The rancid icing on the fallen-flat cake experience of my very first dog show was that Richard had missed his test.

My dog was not show quality; and Jack was no handler, as it turns out. He was just someone trying to make a name for himself in the dog world, and was using (and charging!) us to get himself known in show circles. Misha never saw the inside of a show ring again, and we never saw Jack–not that we parted on bad terms. It wasn’t his fault that he could no more identify an excellent breed specimen than we could, nor that I had scooped up all the keys in my haste to get to Boston and certain glory.

We acquired a second Siberian–show quality this time–and I got the sugar plums out of my head and knuckled down to some serious observing, learning, and just plain hard work. We added that second breed, the Finnish Spitz, to our kennel and had great success with them. The irony is that, though the judging at my first show had been entirely fair, it was subsequent exhibiting that taught me that dog judges, like all people, come with varying degrees of ethics. I made it a point to seek out those who would assess their entries objectively and award the merit of the dog without regard to personal friendships.

It was years later that we heard that Jack had met an untimely end at work, falling into the crunching, grinding jaws of a wood chipper. Or maybe he just tripped over a log and the story got inflated in the retelling. Who knew, for sure? Now, some thirty-five years after, I was certain that this lady I had before me in the hospital bed held the answer. And so I nudged my nerve into nosy mode and asked. My patient was surprisingly receptive. “Why yes,” she replied. Jack was her nephew, and he indeed had met that terrible fate, as we’d heard. I was glad to have, finally, the answer to the question that had troubled us for so long. But it was not the one I’d hoped for.

Jack would never know that his naive comment, “I could show him for you,” so long ago, would launch us into the world of show dogs at the highest levels. I laugh now at our innocence, but remember him fondly for the simple, well-intentioned gesture that led us to so many years of joy in this exhilarating sport. And oh . . . that red dog in Boston? He went on to become an outstanding Champion and multiple Group winner.