Fun for people, with dogs — or is it for dogs, with people?
On July 13 and 14, I spent the weekend at the dog show — actually, two complete all-breed dog shows with obedience and rally trials — put on by our Roaring Fork Kennel Club. Sitting at the information table, selling T-shirts and catalogs, answering questions and handing out prizes, I had the best seat in the house for observing the various little dramas unfolding among the dogs, judges, exhibitors and spectators who populate the world of purebred dogs. Another club member sat down to chat and watch; our eyes met and we simultaneously exclaimed, “You know, dog shows are really weird.”
It wasn’t a criticism, exactly. Both of us have been “dog people” for many years, living with and loving dogs, always; but also, at times, deeply involved in other doggie activities. What aspects of our long and close bond with this species are embodied in dog shows? Can that question even be answered seriously — beyond a giggle and a shrug?
I’ll bet that around the time early humans began to express their admiration for canines in art, they began to compare their dogs to their neighbors’ for beauty, fierceness or skill: early dog shows?
Sports evolved from stylized games, where performance could be measured, judged and rewarded by abstract standards and markers. In Big Red, by Jim Kjelgaard, a book I loved in fourth grade, Mr. Haggin, the breeder, corrected young Danny Pickett’s contempt for the ribbons the big Irish setter had won, telling him that a ribbon is nothing in itself, but important as a mark of achievement in a tradition striving toward unattainable perfection. No dog ever whelped would sacrifice hours in a crate, followed by hours on a grooming table, culminating in a couple of laps around a ring for such a goal. Yet they seem content to let us indulge our compulsion to adorn and to improve things, upon their bodies. Indeed, the incredible variety of shapes, colors, sizes and personalities of dogs seen at any show testifies to their species’ tolerant indulgence of our species’ incomprehensible proclivity to change what we love, paradoxically creating the institutions that make winning possible and losing inescapable.
Is this always a benign process? Of course not. But then, if you’ve ever coached a kids’ sports team, you’ve seen how parental love sometimes coexists with ruthlessness — even cruelty — in the throes of competitive frenzy.
At the end of the day, whether handlers are exultant in triumph or sadly disappointed, the dogs seem content, displaying a fine equanimity. After all, they are lucky in being absolutely essential to their humans’ enjoyment of this strange hobby. And then, they get to go home together.
In the last 20 years or so, the “better angels of our nature” (to use psychologist Stephen Pinker’s phrase) saw us humans inventing a whole slew of sports and games that give dogs scope for all the capabilities and drives we have shaped in them over the centuries: agility, flyball, tracking, nosework, Treibball, lure coursing, joring, dock diving, even dancing. These are purely fun for dogs, with people. Having exquisitely refined the bodies and minds of border collies into herding geniuses, and at the same time nearly eliminating access to sheep for all but a lucky few, humans invented Treibball, a soccer-like game where dogs use these honed instincts to herd large balls down a field into a goal.
We’ll get a chance to see a three-day agility event in Carbondale, Aug. 9-11, at Bridges High School, 455 S. 3rd. St. Agility is, so far, the most widely successful sport in which dogs and people have almost equal scope for delighting in their different mental and physical abilities. Fun. For dogs and people. Together. A truly sextipedal recreation.
Note: The event, sponsored by the Zippity Do Dogs agility club, is a formal competition with all entries made in advance. Please do NOT bring your dog, but do come, watch, and then go home and try it with your dog.
— Laurie Raymond has spent 55 of her 66 years living, working and playing with animals of all kinds. For the last nine years she’s been the owner of High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs. Her column appears monthly.
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