The months of training had come to this. I pulled into the Expo parking lot in Portland, turned off the car and sighed nervously as I looked at the huge convention building.
“Okay, Rowdy. Let’s show ’em how it’s done in Oregon. Let’s win it all.” Rowdy yawned and tried to get out of his wire crate. It was large enough for him to stand up and reposition himself but not big enough for him to really stretch out. He was anxious to jump out of the truck and do whatever his human had planned for the day. Like all dogs he was happy to be out sniffing new smells, seeing other dogs, walking and being touched by his human companion. The competition meant nothing to him. It was I who was excited, nervous and impatient to get into the ring and find out if the months of training had paid off. We walked into the building, Rowdy clipped to his six-foot leash which was in my right hand, and my other hand pulling a dolly layered with a collapsed soft crate, water jug, extra leashes and collars, a chair, a cooler with food as well as dog treats. My eyes misted when I saw the sign “Welcome! Western Regional Obedience Competition”. We had arrived, both figuratively and literally. For once I had confidence that I had a chance of reaching a goal. Rowdy picked up on my anxiety and was pulling on the leash, trying to go toward the area where other dogs were crated.
“Hey, Chris!” Chris’ Papillon, Tripper, was struggling in her arms, recognizing me.
“Oh, no, another Golden,” She quipped.
Golden Retrievers dominated the competition, their easy-going personalities and intelligence often made training and competing easier than more independent breeds. A nationally known Border Collie competitor came up beside me and snickered at Chris’s comment. The competitor, Susy Allen, was well-known for winning almost every competition she entered with her energetic and well-bred Border Collies. She had on an expensive black and white western suit laced with Swarovski crystals. Everything about her said that she was rich and successful and expected to win.
“Okay, now I’m really nervous, seeing her.” I answered, turning to Chris. “Do you think Tripper is ready?” I started setting up my crate while talking to Chris. I knew we had both trained consistently enough for this event but her little bundle of energy Papillon needed to calm down before going into the ring. Tripper was now out of Chris’s arms and was jumping up and down by her side, trying to get anyone’s attention. Rowdy was lunging on his leash trying to play with Tripper. Chris and I both rolled our eyes and laughed. “Oh, well, Chris, half the fun is just competing with the big names. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Want to walk around and burn off some of our own excess energy?”
“Yes, let’s watch Suzy warm up her dog in the training ring.”
All too soon the competition had started, with eight rings of dogs working at different levels. The Novice (heeling, recall and group stays with handlers in sight), the Open dogs (all dogs heeling off lead, retrieving, jumping, dropping with one command on a recall and out of sight stays) and Utility (heeling, drop, sit and recall with no voice command from the handler, picking out an article with the handler’s scent, retrieve one of three gloves, and the dreaded ‘go back’ exercise where a dog ran in a straight line away from the handler, sat on one command, and jumped one of two jumps when commanded by the handler). The Super Dog competitors were in the Open and Utility classes six times over the two days, while in the other classes the dogs only went in three times. It was a long, grueling weekend and tested the stamina of both the dogs as well as their handlers.
Chris and Tripper were ahead of us in the Novice ring so I put Rowdy back into his crate and watched their performance. I held my breath as they went through each exercise, her dog only making a couple of minor mistakes. The recall was their most difficult exercise. Christ left her dog and walked across the fifty-foot ring. The tiny dog looked like a speck on the blue rubber mats. The judge gave Chris a signal, Chris called the dog and Tripper tore across the ring. Instead of sitting perfectly in front of her, he did a happy leap up in the air and sat slightly crooked in front of Chris, his bushy tail wagging furiously. Chris gave the dog the command to go into heel position and the dog ran around behind her, leapt again and sat in perfect heel position, wagging its tail happily back and forth. The audience clapped, most spectators not realizing that the two happy leaps had cost Chris some major points.
Moments later the ring steward called my number. For a brief second I did not want to go in, almost frozen with stage fright. I looked down at Rowdy and stroked his soft ears. “What do you say, boy? Are we ready? You can do it, big guy! Let’s go have some fun. Ready? Ready?” He stared at me and started barking softly. The Ready word was his energy word. It sparked him into overdrive, as I knew it would. At that moment I felt we were alone in the room. All those months of training, all the nights I spent crying into his soft coat, all the long walks at Champoeg Park, culminated in this moment. Our performance showed not only our hours of training but our love for each other. I didn’t look at the judge but kept my eye on Rowdy as we walked into the ring. The judge gave us the commands to step forward, turn left, right, halt, heel around two human posts. Rowdy stood like a statue while the judge examined him. We lined up for the recall, the first chance for Rowdy to run across the ring. The judge signaled me and I called Rowdy in, my voice cracking a bit. Rowdy galloped to me and sat perfectly in front. The judge signaled to me to finish my dog, to command my dog to end up sitting perfectly by my side. But Rowdy was feeling pretty good after his run across the ring. I gave him a signal to finish to my left side. He jumped up into the air, his signature finish, but this time he forgot to move away from me and touched my shoulder on the way to a perfect landing by my left side. I knew that would cost us points. But when the judge said we were done, I reached down and hugged Rowdy.
As soon as I stepped out of the ring, a television newscaster stepped in front of me with her mike and a cameraman stood behind her. I started shaking. Public speaking does not come easy to me. Just as the well-coiffed lady started to talk to me, my score was posted. I had lost one point so far with two more stationary exercises to go. I looked down at Rowdy who was trying to nudge the newscaster, then looked into the camera and shakily answered the reporter’s questions.
The ring area was packed with spectators but I pushed my way back to the crating area.
“It was too crowded around your ring for me to watch you. Suzy is in after you with her Novice dog and of course everyone wants to watch the flashy dog and flashy handler.” Chris and I discussed our scores and then heard cheering after Suzy’s performance.
The day suddenly passed quickly with competitors going with their dogs from ring to ring, the crowd choosing favorites, people cheering, as well as some groans from the sidelines when a good dog made a bad mistake. In the end Tripper had lost three points out of 400 and Rowdy lost 1.5. We didn’t know yet how that placed us overall.
Rather than drive back home Chris and I shared a room at the host hotel. That way we could go to dinner with the other exhibitors and judges and relax. The dogs were crated in our hotel room, the television turned on to make the dogs feel more at home. Competition dogs are treated like athletes and need their rest as much as any Olympic competitor. Before the catered dinner we made sure the dogs were walked, fed expensive kibble, vitamins, and kenneled in their crates with soft expensive bedding. No sleeping on the hotel beds or playing allowed for them. In order to be ready for the next day’s competition they were encouraged to sleep.
In the hotel bar the television was on and a crowd gathered waiting for the six o’clock news coverage of the dog show. The reporter finally closed the show with my interview, but a sixty-second spot showing Suzy Allen and her Border Collie, Tip, performing the Novice exercises. There were some snickers nearby when people realized the reporter had put the wrong handler with the wrong dog. I sounded really excited during the interview, and there was a brief flash on the screen of Rowdy but it did look like Suzi’s dog was mine. Oh, well, I thought, now the world thinks I am one heck of a dog trainer.
“Guess I’d better get a Border Collie, Chris.”
“Nah, get a Papillon. They have a better sense of humor”
The dinner was a dressy affair, with the women trying to outdo each other even more so than in the competition ring. There was expensive jewelry, earrings, pins, dog embroidered or sequined shirts. But best of all it was a chance to meet legendary trainers, judges and retired competitors.
After the meal was cleaned up, an announcement was made telling everyone who held the number one through twenty-five positions in each division. Rowdy and I were first in the Novice division with 1.5 points lost and Suzy in second position with two points missed. Apparently she had heard about the reporter’s mistake and she turned and scowled in my direction. I knew based on her reputation that she was not only disgusted to be in second place but hated that no one interviewed her for television. Everyone knew therefore that tomorrow she would do whatever it took to win. Her Obedience Trial Champion dog, Sunny, was the Super Dog leader at this point. After her placement was announced many people fawned over Suzy for her dog training knowledge and accomplishments, many exhibitors trying to sit at her table or drag a chair closer to her.
Suddenly there was a loud alarm. A hotel employee ran to the front of the dining hall and grabbed the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Please remain calm. It appears we have a fire and I need all of you to leave the building and go out front. The fire department is on its way”. Well you don’t tell one hundred and fifty people to leave their dogs behind in a burning building. There was a mad dash by everyone running away from the door that led to the outside and instead most everyone was trying to get to their hotel rooms nearby, screaming and pushing and crying and yelling.
“My dogs! My dogs! Where’s the fire? No!”