Note: This was written in 1991, and reflects my perspective on the sport of dogs as a novice participant.
Although I appeared to be a normal child at birth, by the time I was three years old, it was becoming apparent that I suffered from an affliction, the likes of which was previously unknown in my family. Since no one else in my family has ever exhibited this problem, my poor mother tried to ignore it and hope that I would outgrow it. And indeed during my latter high school years and all through college it did go into remission. What my mother didn’t know, however, is that I was suffering a permanent dementia of which very few people have ever been successfully cured.
One of the earliest indications of my abnormality was my desire to read bedtime stores to the black Labrador Retriever named Snooper that my father brought home one day, supposedly to be trained for hunting. However, since my father exhibits no more than a normal person’s desire and talent for training dogs, Snooper remained convinced that retrieving dummies were really chew toys and should not be given to humans.
After my parents separated and my father moved out, leaving Snooper with my mother and me, one characteristic of my strange behavior actually became quite useful. You see, my mother has even less interest in and understanding of animals than the normal person (which makes my behavior even more of a mystery). She also harbors a fear in the back of her mind that even the most seemingly friendly dog can turn vicious if provoked. And Snooper, in the uncanny way that dogs have of knowing such things, used her fear to its fullest advantage. Every morning when it was time for him to be put out in his kennel run for the day, he would refuse to go with her. After a while, he even got wise to being bribed with a cookie. One morning, Mother had tried everything she could think of, and Snooper was still lying on his back in the middle of the yard with all four feet in the air and his eyes rolled up at her, smug in the knowledge that she was afraid to really push the issue. Meanwhile she was going to be late getting me to school and herself to work. After watching her try begging him, yelling at him, prodding him tentatively with her foot, and offering Oreo cookies to him with no success, I finally marched outside to where he lay. Drawing myself up to my full five year old height, I pointed to the open door of the run and commanded in my most authoritative voice, “Snooper, get in there right NOW!” Snooper promptly got up, tucked his tail between his legs, and slunk into the run. Even at the tender age of five years old, I sensed and understood a fact about which my mother had not a clue. Namely that there wasn’t a mean bone in Snooper’s amiable and loving Lab body, and even though he weighed at least twice what I did at the time, I was totally safe from retaliation for making him do what he didn’t want to do.
Inevitably, my mother had to call my father and tell him that he would have to take the dog, as Snooper was just too much for her to handle. Deprived of an outlet for my fascination, I befriended every dog in our neighborhood that was allowed to run free. There were many canines over the years that became regular visitors to our house because they knew that I was always willing to pet them, play with them, and feed them snacks. One of my favorites was a delightful little Shetland Sheepdog named Perry. Perry learned when I was due home from school and most days he could be found at that time in my driveway waiting for me to arrive. As I got older, I also became interested in trying to teach the dogs tricks and simple commands. I had no idea how to go about this, but I was successful in teaching almost all of them to sit and stay on command. Other commands were usually inspired by some aspect of the dog’s personality. For example, the neighbor’s Beagle, also named Snooper, loved to play fetch with a tennis ball. After a few throws, however, he usually had the ball so slimed that it was unpleasant to pick up. One day I got the idea to teach him to drop the ball in the bowl of water that I always put out for him when we were playing fetch. It didn’t take very long to convey to him that I wouldn't pick up the ball and throw it again until he placed it in the water bowl. However, I didn’t realize quite how well he had learned the lesson until I overheard the neighbor complain one day that at home Snooper had started returning with fetched balls and dropping them in their built in swimming pool!
Throughout these years my mother tolerated my four-legged friendships mainly because it kept me from hounding her (pun intended) for a dog of my own. She did, however, continue to try to cure my obsession with animals. During our regular visits to the local library, she always insisted that I check out at least one book that was about something other than animals in general, and dogs in particular. Whenever I did complain about not being able to have a pet, I got the same old tired answer, “Some day when you are all grown up and have your own house, you can have all the pets that you want.” The unspoken assumption behind the statement was that my fascination with animals was simply a childish phase that I would outgrow with time. And for a while it appeared that she was right.
As I advanced through high school and then college, my time and attention was taken up by more pressing issues, such as boys and dating, scholarships, choosing a major, maintaining good grades, and finding my first professional job. My first residence was an apartment, which did not allow pets, and I was not spending enough time at home to be able to give proper attention to a pet anyway. I seemed to have developed a more normal attitude towards the importance of dogs in a person’s life. But I still continued to notice dogs wherever I went, and I maintained the firm conviction that some day I was going to have one.
When I met my husband-to-be, Ken, and we got engaged, in the spirit of total honesty with my future spouse, I did confess my former addiction. But both he and I were fooled into thinking that I was cured. After all, I was able to rationally agree that we should wait before getting a dog until we had a house with a yard, and were spending more time at home. Ken and I were married May 3, 1986.
Then one day my brother-in-law invited Ken and me to go to an open house at the Michigan State University Veterinary Clinic. One of the exhibits there was a dog obedience demonstration. All it took was one twenty-minute demo and my lifelong dog mania blossomed in full force. Before then, as much as I loved dogs, I had thought that owning a dog meant having a furry friend to lay at your feet, go for walks and fetch sticks. I even planned to teach any dogs that I owned basic household type obedience and perhaps a few parlor tricks. However, I had no idea that my interest in dogs and their behavior and training could be turned into a full-blown hobby. In less than a half-hour, I suddenly had a definite purpose and goal for the ownership of a dog. I decided right then and there that when I got a dog, the dog and I were going to compete in obedience. I really had very little idea what exactly that meant, where or how to find a dog show, how to find an “obedience prospect” dog, where to find classes which teach competition obedience, or how to train a dog. But addicts are usually stubborn and persistent when it comes to the object of their addiction. And at least I knew the reasons why I didn’t want to go to a pet store to get a puppy. I also had a pretty good idea that I wanted a Shetland Sheepdog, due to my childhood friendship with Perry.
We moved into our house on December 3, 1987. Getting your first house is exciting enough, but for me it meant double the anticipation because having a house meant that for the first time in my life, I was going to be able to get a dog! Some initial reading convinced me that I should try to find a “breeder” from which to get a puppy. The only place I knew of to find a breeder was at a dog show. A magazine that I picked up in a bookstore, Dog World, indicated that there were going to be dog shows at the Michigan State Fairgrounds the third week of January 1988. So off we went to the show!
That first show was a huge thrill. For the first time in my life, I discovered that there are many other people in the world who possess dog mania. I could watch, think about, and talk about dogs all day, and no one there thought I was strange. Also for the first time in my life I went from 8 AM to 4 PM without once thinking about food because I was so engrossed in the show. We stayed there all day, just walking around and looking at all those dogs. My poor husband – he would have probably been ready to leave the show hours before we did, but he could see that there was no way that he could drag me away. That was on Saturday. I had so much fun that the next day I left Ken sleeping in bed to get up and go again to the Sunday show. That weekend also marked another first in my life: the first time I willingly got up early both Saturday and Sunday and enjoyed it.
While at the shows I attempted to find a Shetland Sheepdog breeder. First I watched the Sheltie conformation showing, but had difficulty figuring out what was going on. I kept waiting to hear the results being announced or something, but every time I looked away for a minute, when I turned back there were different dogs in the ring but many of the same people. So I tried to watch a little more closely. This time, shortly after the judge had finished examining each dog, I did see four people line up at the table just inside the ring and receive ribbons, while the others left the ring with nothing. But I still didn’t understand how both the people who had placed and those who didn’t knew who they were because nobody said anything.
I also had no idea what distinguished the winners from the losers. Most of the sable and white dogs looked alike to me. They all looked beautiful with their heavy coats all brushed out. I remember noticing one who moved with a choppy up and down, almost prancing kind of a motion, and thought he looked so cute and spunky. I also thought the “black” ones and the “gray” ones were interesting, but I much preferred the “brown” ones.
I tried to be polite and wait until it appeared that Shelties were done. Then I worked up my courage and approached a gentleman who I had seen in the ring with a number of different dogs. I explained that I was looking for an obedience prospect Sheltie, etc. He was very nice and explained that he lives several hours away from the Detroit area, and that I should be able to get a puppy from one of the more local people. But he gave me his card and said to call if I didn’t have any luck.
Next I approached a woman who also had shown even more dogs using the theory that anyone who owned so many dogs must really be a dog lover. I had seen in the catalog that many of the dogs had listed an “agent” in addition to the owner, but I had no idea what an “agent” was. She also was polite and told me that yes, Shetland Sheepdogs generally make good obedience dogs. She didn’t have any puppies at the time, but said I could call her later to find out about future litter plans.
Finally, I went through the catalog and marked the numbers of all Shelties being shown in obedience. I then hung around the obedience rings, and waited until I saw those dog and handler teams compete. I approached many of the handlers after they were done competing, although I didn’t know about sits and downs until one of the people excused herself to get lined up. I explained what I was looking for, and asked where they had gotten their dogs. In studying the catalog I particularly noticed one woman’s name. She had a couple of dogs entered that day, and I also saw that several other Shelties there had been co-bred by her and a veterinarian. I figured that if she was co-breeding with a vet, she certainly must be a reputable breeder. When I approached her she was very pleasant and put me at ease. She told me that she no longer breeds Shelties, but she knew of a litter that was about two weeks old. She added that if she were looking for a new obedience puppy, which she wasn’t at the time, she would have taken one of these. She gave me the breeder’s name and phone number.
When I got home I immediately called the number, but had to leave a message on the answering machine. The previous day at the show my husband had purchased the book “Sheltie Talk” for me. When the breeder called back later that evening, Ken and I were sitting in bed while I read aloud from “Sheltie Talk”. She quickly asked if it was too late to call, and we both had a good laugh when I told her what Ken and I had been doing.
That first conversation lasted well over an hour. She told me about the litter which I had been calling about, as well as her involvement and background in showing and breeding dogs. I told her about my lifelong desire for a dog as a pet, as well as my newer goal of showing in obedience. I explained that I didn’t care if the puppy I got was not a conformation prospect. I was mainly concerned with temperament, and I had it in my head that I wanted one with a full white collar. We ended the conversation by arranging a time for us to visit her.
To shorten an already long story, I did end up getting a puppy from that litter. Sunny came home in March 1988. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but a whole lot of intangible benefits came along with that puppy. I was lucky enough to have found a breeder, Anita Paull of Craigmour Shelties, who was willing to provide me with all the support I could want in my first experience at raising a puppy. She has willingly shared her knowledge about dog health, grooming, housebreaking, behavior, household obedience and competition obedience training. She also introduced me to our local Shetland Sheepdog breed club and helped me find an obedience training club from which to take classes.
As I became more involved with the various dog related clubs and activities, I began to realize that I wasn’t alone in my zeal for dogs. I actually fall into a sub-category of humans known as “Dog People”, and at last I had found others of my kind. It was like coming home. As a teen-ager I had considered myself to be shy, and I always felt awkward making conversation with strangers. But I soon discovered that I usually cannot call a dog person on some club business, even if I have never met that person before, without racking up at least an hour’s phone bill. This is much to my husband’s distress, as he keeps the budget in our household.
Of course not all “Dog People” characteristics are inherited. Some are learned, but being a Dog Person speeds their acquisition. For example, there was a time when I would have scoffed at someone’s suggestion to drive four hours each way all in the same day in order to go to some event in which we got to participate for five minutes. Recently, however, when my dog’s breeder invited me to accompany her to a show four hours away in which I wasn’t even entered, I found myself agreeing willingly.
Another skill I have been learning is the ability to remember countless numbers of people’s names, their kennel names, and the registered and call names of their dogs. This skill is necessary to that I don’t get totally lost when I inquire about a puppy’s pedigree and get an answer something like, “Oh, he’s out of a Mister Big Stud daughter by the male who is a repeat of the breeding which produced the mother of Ch Renowned Kennel’s Girldog.”
I find it interesting that these same people who can keep track of all those pedigrees in their heads and work out who is related to whom and how, have trouble providing clear direction or accurate maps on how to find a show site. After getting lost on my way to shows a number of times, I have finally learned to pick up a map at AAA of the area to which I am travelling. After thinking about it, I’ve realized that the reason directions are frequently sketchy is because usually the same show has been held by the same club at the same site for years, so of course everyone but me knows how to get there.
Another skill which I haven’t quite mastered yet is the ability to fit four people, ten dogs and their crates, two grooming tables, three tack boxes, a cooler (for the freshly cooked liver for the dogs), a bag of munchies for the people, four folding chairs, three crate dollies, and five suitcases all in one minivan. I have, however, learned to determine a vehicle’s value by the number of 200 size Vari Kennels it can hold. When I drive into the parking lot at a show site with my little Chrysler hatchback, I feel out of place among all of the station wagons, vans, minivans, four wheelers, and campers. As soon as I can afford it I intend to get a “real” dog show vehicle.
I have now been hanging around dog people and events while waiting for my puppy to grow up for about three and a half years, and for the last year have been actively participating. I have had a great deal of support and encouragement from my dog’s breeder, from members of our local Shetland Sheepdog Club, and from members for my training club. Sometimes now when I am at shows, I find myself on the other side of the conversation in which a neophyte spectator is inquiring of an exhibitor about “Toy Collie” puppies. Armed with my new found knowledge that there is no such thing as a Toy Collie; that Shelties don’t have to have a full white collar; that prancing is not proper movement; that a full understanding of genetics, the Shetland Sheepdog Standard and the pedigrees of the dogs involved in a potential breeding should be obtained before doing that breeding; that most dogs which were obtained from a shelter or pet store should be neutered; that crating is the most effective way to protect a puppy from getting into things which are dangerous for it, and to protect a house from damage when owners are not home; that raising a puppy and turning it into a well mannered companion requires a significant investment in time, patience, and love; etc, I find myself groaning inwardly as I realize just how much I have learned in the last couple of years, and I despair of trying to impart even a small percentage of that knowledge to someone who probably doesn’t care about it anyway. But then I remember that I was that neophyte spectator not so long ago when some people at a show took the time to talk to me. And who knows, after talking to 100 neophyte spectators who will stare at me disinterestedly as I attempt to share my knowledge, maybe the 101st will be a lost Dog Person looking for people who share the condition of being Crazy for Canines!