Alxe Noden wasn’t planning to write a book when she started showing her blue Great Dane Kunga. She’d gotten him as a pet and made it clear to his breeder that she didn’t want a show dog. As he grew into a fine example of his breed, his breeder asked Noden to keep him intact until his sperm could be saved for future use. Because she was going to have an intact dog, Noden decided to give showing him a try. After negotiating the dog show world, she thought newbies needed a different kind of book to help guide them through such a unique universe. So she wrote “Showing Kunga: From Pet Owner to Dog Show Junkie,” published in May 2012 by Dogwise Publishing. Here we share an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Losing.”
Losing sucks. Everyone hates losing. But you do an awful lot of it when you’re showing your dog. In fact, the standard advice to every dog show beginner is: if you can’t stand losing, get out, because you’ll lose many more times than you’ll win.
I brought Kunga home as a pet and had no expectations about him as a show dog, which made me less invested in him as a winner. When I went to our first show in Denver, I didn’t think he’d win anything, and in fact he didn’t.
Our second show was in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and I had no greater expectations for that event than I did for the first time around. I figured it was a nice small show where I could get some experience handling so I would not look so inept down the road. My stepdaughter came along to give me a hand with moving all the show equipment and a large dog.
I was grateful for the help, since the amount of stuff you lug around to shows is staggering. It’s like traveling with a toddler, with lots of specialized gear. When I travel to shows, I pack not only Kunga’s crate, but also a pad and fleece for the inside; a blanket to cover the outside of the crate to provide a sense of security and some warmth; the dog bowl; food; toys; a grooming bag; a dog bed for the hotel room; Kunga’s favorite red blanket; special treats; paper towels; poop bags; and show clothes and shoes for me. I get one small tote bag for all my stuff.
When I got set up at the show grounds on the first morning of the show, Kunga didn’t like the crate in the open grooming area of the show and wouldn’t go into it without a fight.
He was mesmerized by the other dogs and wouldn’t pay attention to me as I tried to get him ready for the class. I couldn’t even get him to walk around the grounds without him hauling on the leash, much less practice stacking him. I had a very bad feeling about taking him into the ring at all.
Then, surprise! Kunga took Winner’s Dog on the first day of the show. I was so dazed and pleased I had to call Cindy, his breeder, to brag about this very first win. Though he earned only one point because there were so few dogs competing that day, I think I went on about it to everyone I knew for several weeks afterward. I could hardly believe my Dane had actually started on the long road to a championship.
After this one measly point, I suddenly became ambitious: maybe Kunga could be a famous, winning stud dog, going to Westminster or the Eukanuba championships and getting on TV! (Well, I could dream, couldn’t I?) That first win spoiled me for losing. It made the next day of the show bitter, when under a different judge Kunga lost to my friend Loren’s dog. For the first time, I lost when I thought I could win, and it was not nice at all.
There are many reasons to enter a dog in a show, and it’s not always for a win. Some people do it to build the entry numbers so that there is a “major” for the other dogs; some do it for handling practice, even if they don’t expect their dog is good enough to win. In these cases, people expect to lose and have no misery when that happens. But if you take your dog into the ring believing you can win, it’s pretty awful when you don’t. Most of us know our dog’s faults—we’d be nuts if we didn’t assess the dog before deciding to show—but still believe these faults are fewer than those of the other dogs in the ring. So when we lose it’s a real blow.
I’ve worried about whether losing will change my relationship with Kunga. At first when he lost I was disappointed, and when he misbehaved and lost, I got angry.
Our relationship as owner and dog was truly tested as we continued to show and lose. One of these trying times occurred soon after Kunga’s first win, at a show in Laramie, WY. Wyoming is not an especially warm place in May. The sky was growling with clouds and it rained on and off all weekend the first time I went to this show. This puts everyone in a nasty mood, since it’s hard to move clean, groomed dogs from the grooming area to the show rings in other buildings without getting muddy, wind-blown or soaked.
I even helped carry a 60-pound Bearded Collie with long, flowing white and gray hair over a muddy pathway so the handler wouldn’t have to re-groom the dog all over again at the ring!
The first day of showing, Kunga won his class and I found myself in the Winner’s Dog ring with my friend Kathryn, who was showing a Dane for someone else. When she won, I was disappointed, but not too upset. On Saturdays, losing is a bit easier. There’s always Sunday’s show to make up for it. Shows are almost always at least two days, with different judges on each day.
But on Sunday, something must have gotten to Kunga, because he was a lunatic on a leash. He wouldn’t settle down before the class, and since it was raining I didn’t have the option of taking him for a long walk to settle him down.
When we danced into the ring with him nearly turning circles around me, I knew things were going to be bad. And they were—Kunga wouldn’t stack properly, he wouldn’t be still during examination, he wouldn’t even trot down and back to the end of the ring without flinging his legs out everywhere and turning to look at the people outside the ring.
He lost, of course, but we were lucky not to be dismissed for bad behavior. My friend Carol watched the class, and asked, “Were you doing the can-can in there?!?” as we came out.
I was humiliated, and angry with Kunga, who didn’t know that he had done anything wrong. My only thought was to pack up and get back home as soon as possible, preferably without anyone seeing us. I pushed him into the car and stomped off to get the remainder of the show equipment, including the crate, which I had to drag across mud-spattered wood planks. By the time I got back to the car, there was a young man smiling at Kunga and pointing to him through the windows. As I came up, I recognized the guy as someone who’d recently lost his old dog to disease, and had come to the dog show to research breeds to see what kind of dog he should get next.
This is a great idea, by the way. Unless they’re about to go into the ring, nearly everybody at a show is happy to have you pet their dog and will tell you more than you could possibly need to know about the breed. Just don’t ask if you or your sticky-fingered child can pet the dog before it has finished showing.
The guy had fallen in love with Kunga on Saturday, and was back with his girlfriend to show her what he looked like.
He’d searched the entire show grounds and the parking lot until he found us. I was still upset at our loss but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use this guy’s muscle to help me get my crate onto the top of my car. I offered to get Kunga out and let them pet him if they’d give me a hand, which the man gladly did.
Then I put a lead on Kunga’s collar and he jumped out of the back seat, shimmying with pleasure. He leaned on the man as he accepted the petting and hugging and scratching, turning in circles with excitement. The guy was nearly out of his mind in dog love.
“Isn’t he just the perfect dog?” he asked his girlfriend.
And just like that, my anger evaporated. In fact, I do think Kunga’s the perfect dog. He is my lovely blue boy and I can’t get enough of him. He sleeps in our room at night and stretches out at my feet when I work at my computer, and he gives little leaps of joy whenever I come near him. So how could I be so pissed off at him? Just because for one 3-minute stretch he found it hard to contain his general joie de vivre?
I realized the expectation of winning a show could actually undo my whole relationship with him if I let winning become more than just some fortuitous thing that happens every once in a while. Losing shouldn’t make you angry at your dog. I stepped back as the young guy tried to convince his less-than-enthusiastic girlfriend that a giant Dane would make a perfect pet, and realized how incredibly lucky I was just to have Kunga in my life, win or lose.
My big blue buddy and me.
Excerpt printed by arrangement with Dogwise Publishing of Wenatchee, Wash. To see other titles in the Dogwise catalog, visit www.dogwisepublishing.com.