Conformation–n: 1. manner of formation; structure; form, as of a physical entity. 2. symmetrical disposition or arrangement of parts.
Aoife is a joy; she’s the Yin to Enzo’s Yang, bold and saucy whereas he is soft and gentle. Yet both dogs are clever and comical; I delight in their differences as we work and train together. Aoife is also beautiful. If her formation of structure continues on its present trajectory, there’s a very good chance she will be shown. In a ring. Competing against other white Bull Terriers. In what I consider a beauty pageant. But please, before you bristle- no disrespect is intended. I have never shown dogs, nor have I been interested in doing so. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t understand. I prefer activities with my dogs that honor their genetic heritage. What they were bred to do? Enzo was bred to hunt, to be able to point, flush, and retrieve fowl. It’s one of the many reasons I hike and track with him: he is using his nose, he’s outside in a field, or in the woods, traveling over distances while delighting in smells. It simply never occurred to me that dog shows actually protect and preserve the lineage of purebred dogs.
As a school teacher in my previous life, I know the importance of preparing my students for what they need to know in order to be successful in our world. However, before one can understand the complexities of algebra, a foundation in mathematics must be laid. Learning occurs when there’s exposure to the end goal in small, manageable chunks. So for a child to fluently multiply, the concept of addition, repeated addition, and equal groups must first be fully understood. Optimal learning occurs when it’s also fun and stress-free. This concept holds true for all species. Consequently if I wanted Aoife to understand what was expected of her in a show ring, she needed to experience some facsimile thereof in small, manageable chunks while having fun. Remember Enzo’s hunt clinic? I was off to find a breed handling class!
I located one about an hour away (nothing is near to me, nothing). I was told to bring poop bags, small treats she really likes, and to wear something with pockets. Did I have a lead? Yes. Did she have a collar? Yes. We apparently had all that was required. We arrived in a timely fashion so that I could potty her before taking her inside. The place was HUGE–VAST–all black mat rubber flooring, the walls soaring up and up to the overhead lighting, with white lattice fencing strategically placed to create enclosures in various areas. We were directed to a corner lot where two dogs, a large English Mastiff and a midsize Australian Shepherd, both wearing slender choke leads, sat quietly next to their persons. Aoife bounced gaily forward, straining her halter, while she shouted out a boisterous “HELLO! I am HERE! Look at meeee!” Yep, she was that kid- completely and wonderfully comfortable in a completely wonderful new place. I did nothing to tamp down her enthusiasm.
Soon other handlers began arriving with their dogs; Aoife was simply delighted to see everyone. This was shaping up to be a splendid evening in her opinion. She could have easily been mistaken for the hostess such was her greeting to all who entered; all were friends, all were welcome, ‘so glad you could make it’ her wide bully grin and furiously wagging tail seemed to say. I was relieved when friends of Aoife’s breeder showed up. It was comforting to have warm, smiling faces and another Bull Terrier puppy in the group. I found myself relaxing. This was going to be fun… until it wasn’t.
The instructor was a no-nonsense woman who took her role seriously. I could tell straight away she did not find Aoife’s jumping, hopping, or leash climbing even remotely amusing. My approach to leash climbing is to ignore it, but as soon as Aoife walks (or trots) beside me appropriately, I reward her with both praise and treats. She is a puppy. She is learning. Learning takes time; it does not occur overnight. Plus, I knew Aoife was excited. And in my experience whenever young children (or puppies) are excited, they often do naughty things.
We were instructed to line up along the inside ring, then one-by-one we took turns, as the instructor critiqued each team. Until it was your turn, your dog was expected to stand facing you. If your dog could perform something called ‘free stacking‘ all the better. Sitting was frowned upon. Aoife sat. As I watched the other handlers and dogs moving together, it became glaringly apparent that we were the novice team. No, I take that back, we were the pre-novice team. But we were still having fun, learning, and being offered advice and encouragement by my new friends.
There was a lot to this! How to hold the leash and my arm while moving quickly and smoothly across the ring, all while looking straight ahead, not at my puppy, who was bouncing happily beside me. I was told I was moving well, but I was not to allow Aoife to jump, hop, or bite at the leash. I nodded and did nothing to correct her. Instead, I looked for the behavior I wanted- polite walking, then quickly marked, “Yes! Good Girl!” rewarding with treats. The instructor yelled, “NO treats.” Hmmm, fun was fast fading. We’d also been at this for nearly half an hour; it was time to call it a night. However, since we were up next, it made sense to finish before taking a seat to watch until class ended. But that’s when Aoife jumped up and nipped the instructor’s bum. She yelped in surprise, then began berating me for my ill-behaved puppy. Aoife promptly peed on the floor.
I took full responsibility and apologized… to my puppy. I know the best training and learning occurs in small, manageable doses. Yet here it was, nearly 7:00 pm. We’re typicallly home on the couch, cuddling while we watch The Great British Baking Show. I cleaned up Aoife’s accident, thanked the instructor, and headed for the seats, scooping my wonderful girl into my lap.
Will we go back? I’m not sure. Will we give up? Absolutely not. I have found an instructor in another town who offers half-hour private lessons. I think that may suit us pre-novices just fine. Aoife and I will let you know; we’re trying it out next Wednesday.