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The Keepers of the Key: Thoughts from a Breed Booth
by Amber Short

It was Friday, the day before the show, and I was beginning the familiar pre-show grooming preparations. I reached into the back of the supply cupboard to pull out the gentle shampoo and conditioning oil; lined up the slicker brush, comb, and scissors; and piled up the well-worn “dog towels.” Though it had been a while since my last show, these motions were still routine. I wanted Alfie to look his best, even though we would not be competing this time.

Before I entered college, I spent as many weekends as I could showing my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Alfie, in Junior Showmanship, obedience, agility, and/or conformation. I love my dog and I love dog shows, but now that I’m in college and at a different stage of my life, I dearly miss my participation in the dog world. So when my local breed club asked for volunteers to man the breed booth at the Seattle Kennel Club show, I was eager to sign up.

Alfie and I took our position in the breed booth at 11:00 a.m.—about the time Cavaliers entered the ring. Most of the devoted Cavalier fans were ringside, so quite a few people stopped by the breed booth who were not very familiar with the breed. Interested visitors scratched behind Alfie’s long furry ears as I shared with them the knowledge I gained from my experience of acquiring, training, exhibiting, and living with my dog. I described the Cavalier and remembered that these were the wonderfully specific traits which led me to choose to own a Cavalier instead of any other of the American Kennel Club’s over 150 recognized breeds. As Alfie gently licked a giggling baby boy’s tiny outstretched fingers, I paused to appreciate the beauty of the predictability of the purebred dog, and the AKC’s function in protecting it.

Near the end of our shift, more people congregated around the long folding table on which Alfie was perched, and it was not unusual for there to be three to five different persons petting him at once. Though Cavaliers are “love sponges,” this was enough attention to weary even the most enthusiastic attention-seeker. I pulled Alfie’s water dish out of our travel bag and offered him a drink. He lapped it up lustily, and his heavy eyes gave me a glance that said, “Do you have a pillow in that bag?” After I gave him an understanding pat on the head, Alfie laid down and let himself be caressed by some admiring ladies.

In the following moments, I glanced out into the passing crowd and noticed a woman leading a blind and hearing-impaired young man by the elbow. They were slowly making their way down the aisle between the booths when the woman looked over and spotted ours. There was a row of people already lined up at the booth, leaving only some space at the opposite end of the table from where Alfie was. As the pair approached the open space, something happened which I didn’t predict, though similar surprises are not uncommon with Alfie. Alfie must have sensed the pair’s advance, because he snapped out of his sluggish state, turned around, headed straight toward the young man, and sat down right in front of him.

The woman guided the young man’s hand to Alfie’s silky soft fur. A smile spread across both of their faces. It was a radiant moment. In a second I realized this was the moment we had come for. Alfie was able to demonstrate sensitivity and connection to a stranger in a way that surpasses human skill. Instances like this illustrate the profundity of canine communication and the evocative quality of our relationships with dogs. It’s an experience that can’t be simulated, and must be shared.

I value the opportunities I have to act as a resource to prospective dog owners and fanciers, but I equally value the poignant lessons and sentiments I often take away from the experience. Volunteering at a breed booth or other local club event allows us to see aspects of dogs we may miss if we limit our participation to competition. It also teaches us something about ourselves. Now I can’t help but think when I step onto show grounds that each dog sitting at the end of a lead or peeking through the bars of a crate is the keeper of a key to some door of our hearts we can’t open any other way.