I love games and I love competition.
However, lately sometimes I wonder if a slightly edgier attitude of "winning is everything" is slowly becoming the norm in juniors today. I’m not that far out of it--I only aged out a few months ago--and it scares me sometimes how often this type of cutthroat intensity shows up.
My mom has always been involved in dogs. She’s been in it since before I can remember, and I’ve been to shows since I was a little kid. And, of course, the second I was able to physically show a dog, a lead was placed in my hand and I was off. I started in juniors a little late--at the age of eleven--after I decided finally that my dog showing life could maybe be cool to my friends, or at least a secret. And I found that I absolutely loved it. Juniors became my favorite thing at the dog show--it was my chance to shine, a chance for me to brush up, to show what I could do and what I was capable of. I showed in breed too, of course--and naturally, I encountered a lot of people who didn’t take juniors seriously, who thought that I was just wasting my time in there along with all the other kids. So, I began to take juniors very seriously, too seriously, in order to make up for this. I’d get a second place ribbon, and I’d be heartbroken. I was inconsolable when I missed qualifying for Westminster my very first year in juniors, even though I ’d started in May, managed to escape from novice, and gotten seven wins. I mean, I was depressed during Christmas!
I went to show after show in January and February just after I turned twelve, and I seemed to be in what my mom called "a slump." I got second after second. Now, second’s not bad at all--but second, to a twelve-year-old perfectionist--well, it could’ve been a million dollars and I would’ve felt the same way. And one day, when I realized I had to show in juniors, I knew that it had gone too far. I was taking things too hard and working, fidgeting, instead of letting it come naturally and showing the dog. I had completely blown things out of proportion and lost my focus.
Around then, my mother took me to my first Alston clinic. I’ll admit--I was scared and intimidated! I was a puny preteen faced with a man who had been described to me as a connoisseur of sorts, of the dog world. On the drive up to the clinic, my mother just kept stressing: "Now, this is for you. Make it fun. This isn’t for anything but to help you learn that it’s not about work, but about passion. It’s about loving the sport and showing the dog." She told me story after story that she remembered about George Alston in preparation for my first glimpse of him. She told me he was interested in teaching people who were serious about learning about dogs. I was one determined kid when I walked in there. I took pages and pages of notes and sat in awe while George asked relentless questions. I worked hard and I learned. I learned fast--you had to, or you got yelled at. And when I walked out of that clinic, I was a changed woman.
See, something I took away from that clinic, and from other clinics, and from so much in the dog world, is that it isn’t about the winning. It just really isn’t. Winning is only satisfying if you love what you do, if you have confidence in it. If someone handed me a World Series ring right now, all engraved and everything, it would be nice, but truthfully, I wouldn’t appreciate it. It just wouldn’t mean anything to me. And that’s how juniors had become to me by the time I was just twelve.
So, armed with some new knowledge and a few savvy tricks, but more than anything with a new sense of confidence--stemming from the fact that I was in there to show my dog and love it instead of show my dog and get a pink ribbon--I qualified that second year in a couple of months after struggling for about that long. People commented that I actually smiled in the ring again, instead of looking "so stern." I wanted to be able someday to talk like those famous handlers that George Alston had described. I didn’t want to be fifty and looking back on a handling career and realize that the high point was a second in juniors and lots of time wasted with worrying and struggling to be number one all the time. I wanted to be able to look back and sigh at the wonderful dogs I had been able to show and the (hopeful) best in shows to which I had guided them. Things changed. I stopped fidgeting so much because I had a little faith that maybe economy of motion was better than hands moving all over the place. And, all of a sudden, I was talking to people, opening up to the other juniors, instead of going off by myself to "prepare." My dogs responded too--they perked up and showed for me instead of being so reluctant and restless in the ring.
I guess when you change, you are more perceptive to changes in others. And, around that time, I started to notice that many of the kids around me were just like I had been. I’ve talked to people ringside when the conversation has been primarily dedicated to how we were doing in the junior stats. It seemed that sometimes that measured how "good" you are. And I wonder, just like I always wondered then: is that all that some of these people see? Yes, winning is fun. I’d love to do it all the time, but the truth is nobody does. And yet, I’m fairly sure I know some big winners who never really get the satisfaction that I do from being in the ring. I make it my priority to walk in the ring a handler. I’ve learned that the key is to step away from everything and focus on nothing but you and the dog, and to work at nothing but making that dog as beautiful as it can possibly be. And if I do that, I consider myself a winner, regardless of the placement. If I don’t, I’ve mentally lost. It’s as simple as that. I remember a few years ago standing in the grooming area at the Garden, and a very prominent handler I admire (who had done exceedingly well only a short time before at that very show) came strolling to her kennel area, smiling and declaring to anyone within earshot, "Well, looks like I’m the big loser today. Let’s eat!" And that just made me smile. It’s so hard sometimes to have that kind of attitude, but she made it seem so easy. She came to that show with a string of top dogs--I mean, top dogs--and she lost. Maybe she should have, maybe she shouldn’t have--it doesn’t really matter. What matters is, she took it in stride because what she truly loves is the sport.
So, juniors out there--if you get anything out of this, please understand that the biggest mistake I ever made in juniors, bigger than almost careening into the giant "one" in the middle of the Garden floor at the finals, bigger than doing a pattern incorrectly, or spilling bait all over the place--was almost losing faith in myself by taking everything so seriously. Once you do that, you’ve just lost the point of the AKC Junior Showmanship program--it’s here for us. It’s here to prepare you for the breed ring, but it’s also here to let you learn how to love everything about the sport. So, sure--take it seriously. Talk about that time you really should have won. Every now and then, I think we all have. But don’t let it ruin your weekend or your love of the sport. Let it make you better.