Friday, March 1, 2002
It's not quite 6:00 a.m. and already there's a solid line of people with dogs, crates, and grooming equipment making their way to the Madison Square Garden exhibitor entrance. Spying a penny on the sidewalk, I am tempted to pick it up. After all, a little extra luck on the day I would be showing my dog here for the first time couldn't hurt. But the woman just ahead of us has seen it too. She scoops it up, murmuring to her companion that it would only bring good fortune if she kept it in her left pocket. This must be even more auspicious, I decide, glancing down at my dog. At 18 months, Bingo (officially known as Ch. Maverston's Bingo) would be the youngest entry in the Cairn Terrier ring and would face tough competition from more seasoned dogs.
As soon as we enter the building, Bingo lets out one of his signature, ear-piercing, high-pitched barks, sure to have everyone within a quarter-mile radius staring at us. Inside the packed exhibitors' area there is barely room to stand. I stake out an area just large enough for the grooming table while my husband Vic carries our supplies up in the freight elevator.
The Westminster Kennel Club dog show is the most prestigious dog event in the United States. Since its inception in 1877, it has attracted the most celebrated breeders, judges, and handlers. Because of space limitations, entries are capped at 2,500 and only dogs that have completed their championships are eligible. Entry forms must be FedExed overnight in order to arrive during the one-hour window before the maximum entry is reached.
Once we have set up, I take a moment to check out the arena where the rings are. In contrast to the bustling, crowded "back stage" area, the spectator arena is relatively quiet and orderly, with eight rings neatly roped off. I stop to say "hi" to Kathy Ferris, a professional handler, who has handled some of my dogs in the past, and from whom I have learned a lot. Today she will be handling a pretty Wheaten Cairn by the name of Ch. Romany's Aberdeen Lightfoot.
At our hotel the night before, I ran into my friend and fellow breeder, Cheri Eagleson, from Michigan, who has spent the last year campaigning her dog Taffy to the #1 Cairn spot for 2001. I confided my nervousness about showing at the Garden. "It's just another dog show," she remarked. "Right," I replied. Somehow standing in the middle of the Garden with the stands filling with spectators, it seems very different from an ordinary show.
It's almost time for the Cairns to go on. I put the finishing touches on Bingo's coat. Being in this crazy atmosphere with hundreds of people and dogs filing by us has not fazed him one bit. I put on my armband and proceed into the arena to the holding area. Most of the Cairn entries are familiar to me. Ch. Kyleakin Scotsman Invasion, last year's winner, is back. He's a little more than a year older than Bingo, and has been doing well on the show circuit lately. He will be shown by a professional handler, as will most of the entries today. There are dogs from every region of the country. Taffy is here as well.
Each breed recognized by the American Kennel Club has a "standard" or description of an ideal specimen in terms of physical characteristics, movement and temperament. The Cairn Terrier standard begins by describing the general appearance as that of "an active, game, hardy, small working terrier of the short-legged class." Most dogs were bred to perform certain work. For centuries, in the Scottish Highlands, the ancestors of today's Cairns earned their keep by routing foxes, badgers and other vermin from the piles of rocks (called cairns) commonly found in the farmers' fields.
At Westminster, the judges will be evaluating the dogs strictly on conformation in other words on how closely they resemble the breed standard. The handler's job is to show the dog to its best advantage. Good handlers make showing a dog in the ring look as effortless as eating apple pie. But in reality it takes a lot of practice to get to that stage. Professional handlers have an edge over breeders and owners because they do this for a living and generally become very good at it.
Our judge, Peggy Beisel-McIlwaine, has bred Cairns herself and knows the breed well. She goes through the entries one by one, examining them on the table and then having them gait to the corner of the ring and back. Then she walks down the line and asks to see Bingo move again. Next she asks the same of Beth Sweigart, who is handling Scotsman Invasion. She asks me to stand in the opposite corner of the ring and Beth to stand behind me, signaling that these were her picks from the males. She repeats this process for the females, lining up Kathy's dog and Taffy behind us, and then has us "go around" once more before pointing to Bingo and announcing "Best of Breed." My excitement is hard to contain! The others in the ring shower me with congratulations!
Westminster is one of the few shows that are still benched meaning that all dogs shown must stay in a designated area for the remainder of the day in this case until 8 p.m. when the televised group judging would begin. The dogs are benched according to breed and each dog is assigned a section of a bench barely large enough to hold the appropriately-sized dog crate. The idea of benching dogs is nice in that it gives fanciers an opportunity to see the dogs up close and speak with the breeders or owners after the judging is over. However, at Westminster, the aisles between benches are quite narrow and there's a lot of congestion as people from both directions try to make their way down the aisles.
My husband and I take turns staying with Bingo and watching the judging of some of the other breeds. I am excited about getting the chance to show Bingo in the Terrier Group that night. Bingo has won some big events such as "Best in Sweeps" and "Best of Winners" at the California Specialty last June. However he only finished his championship on December 1, six days before the Westminster entries were due. As a newcomer on the scene, he would not really be competition for the top Terriers who would be showcased this evening, many of whom have been campaigned for years and are multiple "Best in Show" winners. But it was a fantastic opportunity to acquaint judges with my dog, so my goal for the evening was to make Bingo look great and enjoy myself.
Cairns have been part of my life for several decades, though I have only been showing and breeding for the last eight years. I have always been amazed at their intelligence, their adaptability, their feistiness, and the way each one has its own unique personality. Bingo is a dynamite little dog whose favorite pastime is playing ball. For times when no one is around to play catch with, he's invented his own game, punting the ball under a living room chair, then running to the other side and hitting it back. He can play ball for hours on end.
Showing and especially winning is fun, but needs to be kept in perspective. Cairns typically have a life span of least 12 to 14 years, and thrive on the love and affection that only belonging to a family or special someone can provide. Bingo, like some of my other show dogs, does not live with me (though he often visits) but instead has his own family for whom he is a cherished pet. As a long-time breeder of Cairns once said, "Remember, dog shows are for a fleeting time in a dog's life. The walk in the park is all the rest."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito