Sixteen Best Friends
It has been said that a dog is man's best friend. Is that still true for sixteen dogs? When I was seven years old, our neighbor gave me a show quality Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Libby. Acquiring Libby led to my first training class, two National Specialty Junior Handling Championships and sixteen show dogs who have taught me so much about life.
Learning how to show a dog correctly takes many training classes, hours of practice, and a special "feel" or connection with the dog. Practice and focus were keys to success. I had to take the techniques of stacking, gaiting and grooming from class and practice them at home, daily. The rewards of practice and focus were demonstrated in the ring as well as in other areas of my life, such as personal achievements in soccer, track and academics. A very important lesson provided by the dog shows was how to win and lose with sportsmanship, a task as tough in the dog ring as on the athletic field. You have to graciously take whatever place the judge awards, congratulate the other competitors and, hopefully, exit the ring praising your dog.
A positive and always fascinating aspect of the dog shows is the lesson taught by the rich diversity of the dog show world. Dog show settings range from broken-down hockey rinks to up-scale hotel ballrooms, and the people come from not one exclusive group, but from backgrounds and social positions in sizes and shapes as varied as the dogs they show.
While other friends flew to Mexico or Disney World for family vacations, my parents and I traveled virtually every road in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois in a van packed with dogs and gear. One trip to Pennsylvania for a National Specialty dog show was a peak experience--my first time in a plane, my first time to see the ocean, and the first time I won a National Specialty Championship.
When I returned home, I was interviewed by reporters and had feature articles printed in the St. Paul, MN Pioneer Press as well as on the front page of the River Falls Journal. The emotional highs from this experience were incredible. I felt a bit like a rock star.
My family also breeds and raises puppies, like many others who show dogs. Before the first sex education class in sixth grade, I knew more about sex, pregnancy and birth than anyone my age. Some of my favorite memories have been seeing the bubble with the head emerge just prior to birth and the breaking of the umbilical cord by the mother, followed by the cleaning of the puppy. When the puppies are old enough to walk, I become their jungle gym in my living room and their playmate later as they chase me around our front yard. Unfortunately, some puppies are born prematurely and underdeveloped and die. We then bury them in a special place under an ancient lilac bush. It is always especially quiet around my house on these days. Our most challenging time raising puppies came the day our dog Diamonds had nine puppies, eight when we went to bed, and to our amazement, nine when we got up. Diamonds developed pyometria and we had to tube feed the puppies for ten days around the clock. We saved five puppies, but I learned more about love and loss than I cared to.
The past eleven years with my dogs have taught me that the familiar adage is true--sixteen dogs can be your best friends. Like human best friends, the dogs all have different personalities and bring different qualities to this friendship. All the lessons and memories have helped shape my character and my vision of the world. And it all started with the gift of one show dog named Libby.
In the future, I plan to stay involved with dogs and showing dogs. Going to college near my home was an important factor in deciding on where to attend college, so that I could continue to help raise the puppies and also show on the weekends. After college, I plan to have my own dogs to show in obedience and agility as well as to continue to show in the conformation ring. Perhaps, I may one day breed that puppy who will be a Best in Show winner! Although, I do not plan to become a professional handler, dog showing has been and will continue to be a very positive and important experience in my life and I hope to share it with my future family.