“Next, we are going to work on our “L” pattern,” the instructor tells us. She pulls someone out to demonstrate, selecting a student who has gone through this class on numerous occasions with her other show dogs. To do the “L” you go down the long side, turn left, down the short end of the ring, turn around, change the hand your leash is in, and come back. The idea behind it is to display your dog to the judge with the dog always closest to the judge. We’re told, this complicated pattern, is usually only used in “group” or “Best In Show” classes (meaning you’ve already won your breed and/or group) or at big shows (like Westminster).
Of course, this student makes it look easy. I watch closely, but I keep missing the tricky part as each classmate goes through the exercise, and I’m still not exactly sure how to change hands with my lead. It’s my turn. Hush stands, somewhat, until she decides to sit.
“Start with your courtesy circle, and then an “L” pattern,” I’m instructed; the wording makes me realize my teacher has now morphed the roles of “judge” and instructor into one, for me, her challenged student. I don’t know how to do a courtesy circle. She shows me.
Flustered, from not knowing how to do my courtesy circle, I take off, and we’re doing okay. Hush is pulling, and moving terribly, but, we’re headed in a straight line, like a person who denies being intoxicated during a sobriety test, we weave left and right, confident in our motor skills, and sure we will not be deemed inebriated… like I said, we’re going in a straight line.
At this point, Hush slams on the breaks, rears up, and tries to run backwards. I’ve been through this before with the many horses I’ve shown. I decide to try to make her work through it. A firm correction on the lead, I look forward, and pull, hoping to encourage her to get back to work. If Hush was a child in a supermarket, she would be the one who wraps their legs around a stationary object, refusing to move, while a temper tantrum erupts. But, she is neither a green pony, nor is she a demon child… she is, a puppy.
“Stop. Come over here.” I halt in my tracks. Gather my lead, and walk over to the instructor. “This is why I do not like puppies this young in my classes.” I want her to have her puppy spirit. This needs to be fun for her. You can ruin a good show dog with just a few bad experiences. Instructor/”The Judge” transforms into Mother Hen, she bends down and wraps her arms around Hush, showering her in affection, praise, and love. She explains to me how and when to encourage vs. correct, and asks me to do it again.
I start, Hush slams on the breaks and refuses to move again, but this time, I soften on the lead, hold a hot dog in front of her nose, and urge her forward with enthusiasm. I get to the end of the ring, and line up, at which point I’m told I forgot to finish the exercise.
Crap. I forgot we were doing the “L”. I somehow get through the exercise, it is as if the rest of the class are trained marshal artists, moving seamlessly through each step, as they kick their way to a black belt. I, on the other hand, am a damsel in distress, I’ve encountered an attacker in an alley, and I throw punches into the air, most of them missing my assailant, my only driving force being my will to live, and in the end, I survive, but I’m horribly bruised and shaken up.
After we are dismissed, I wish my Cruftsbound classmate words of encouragement and congratulations. And head over to my instructor to get last week’s handouts, the ones that covered just about everything that I don’t know, and should. We chat, she reassures me that I’m doing fine, Hush is doing fine, but it is so important that we not crush her spirit… as that can make or break a show dog. And then, I get the compliment I’ve been waiting for, “She is a very nice and extremely promising show puppy.” Which, coming from this woman, is quite a compliment.
I leave class, feeling like I’ve just been through a war zone, alive, but missing some limbs, and my ego isn’t simply bruised, I think it has died. I’m comforted by the after class chat with my instructor, but I feel so inadequate. I am in this class, which is supposed to be for beginners, but I’m the only true beginner that signed up for it, so it was open to more advanced handlers, too. I’ve made a complete fool of myself, and I want so badly to go home and practice, I want so badly to blow everyone out of the water next week in class. But, it’s hard. When you aren’t even really sure what you’re doing, to practice correctly. It’s hard, when you know nothing, and you have a dog that also knows nothing, and has the attention span of a four year old jacked up on Pixie Sticks.
On the drive home, scenes from Toddlers and Tiaras flash through my mind… beautified children, throwing temper tantrums on stage, and mothers, bribing them into submission. As someone who competed in pageants (as an adult), this mental imagery gives me a bit of understanding as to why it is so important not to push a puppy too hard, and to keep things fun. After all, I cringe when I see those toddlers, dressed like street walkers, with haunting eyes and robotic motions on stage… all of the wonder of childhood sucked out of them. I might not have a clue what I’m doing, but I’m trying… and, from now on this will be fun for Hush… I don’t want to put her in a position where she throws another temper tantrum again. We have many years ahead of us, when we have to be serious, but for now, I’m embracing her youthful spirit. I think this is the first of many lessons I will learn on my journey to the breed ring.