I like the early morning hours.

Before the sun comes up, there’s a calm stillness to the air that’s filled with quiet anticipation. This is especially so on dog show days, when the alarm goes off at four a.m. and I’m on the road long before sunrise.

With the dogs and their gear loaded and a full tank of gas in the van, a certain kind of excitement takes hold as I turn on the ignition and pull out of the driveway.

Traffic is usually light as I head toward the highway that will take me away from the urban sprawl and out onto the open road. My enthusiasm for the coming day builds with every passing mile, and I search the radio to find the local country music station.

I never listened to country music until I began going to dog shows. It wasn’t long after I started traveling to National Specialties that I discovered most Americans enjoy listening to songs about dogs and trucks sung by homegrown heroes. Pretty soon I did too, and now I associate this music with early morning excursions to some of my favorite dog shows.

Sometimes I wonder why someone in Nashville hasn’t written a hit song about this?

The open road beckons. Photo by Anton Maltsev/Dreamstime.com.

When I’m traveling, I don’t use a GPS. Instead, I rely on MapQuest and good old-fashioned maps should I need them. Because I’m a visual person, I find maps to be reliable for getting me just about anywhere. And once I’ve been to a show site, I can pretty much find my way there the following year.

I’m simply not interested in traveling with a synthesized voice that tells me where to go!

Unencumbered by heavy traffic, early morning driving is a pleasure. This is especially true of those long trips to show clusters several states away. The beauty of America seems to go on forever, and around every curve in the road, a new surprise awaits.

I recall heading to a show in southern Virginia and seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time. In the light of a new day, the hills did, indeed, appear blue, even through the mist that hung all around them.

I don’t remember if my dog won or lost that day, but I certainly remember the sunrise.

Years ago, I drove north toward New York’s Fingers Lakes. The Wine Country Circuit, I was told, was not to be missed for its large breed entries and beautiful local scenery. I left home late at night, driving through the darkness until I caught a glimpse of Seneca Lake, just as the light of day began to show itself.

In the waking hours, the water appeared dark and forbidding, but the many local vineyards along its banks seemed to reassure with their arbors lined up neatly in rows. The promise of a new day never seemed so well-organized.

I do remember this particular weekend. I arrived at the show grounds long before most exhibitors and had plenty of time to exercise the dogs. Sampson State Park has many paths that crisscross their way through fields of wildflowers and shaded woodlands. These provided the perfect excuse to rise early each day and spend some quiet time before judging – and socializing – began.

Arriving early to a show is not only useful for exercising both the dogs and the mind, it’s also a good way to find the perfect place to set up – assuming the handlers who arrived in their RVs the night before haven’t taken all the choice spots.

As everyone unloads their crates and ex-pens, vendors serve up fresh cups of coffee with breakfast sandwiches and pastries. The dogs are exercised and put on grooming tables in preparation for their ring times.

Almost imperceptibly, the quiet of the morning disappears, replaced by the camaraderie and the competitive energy of the modern American dog show. The peaceful calm of the morning’s drive is now a memory. It’s time to focus on the job at hand.

For many exhibitors showing dogs is a hobby. For others, it’s a lifestyle. Breeders enter their dogs to have their stock evaluated by experts whereas owners may enter their dogs as something to do together. Whatever the reason for entering, dog shows bring people together to celebrate how we all feel about the dogs that share our lives. We enjoy being with people who understand our devotion, and we can appreciate and support the progress others are making with their own dogs.

At the end of a hurried day, only one dog will be selected Best in Show. But in the early morning hours, every exhibitor has the chance to enjoy the calm, knowing that his or her dog is ultimately the “best.”