About two and a half years ago, in February of 2014, I brought home my very first show puppy.
He was twelve weeks old, and perfect in every way. A handsome blue merle Sheltie, the pick boy of a lovely show litter with beautiful movement and a strikingly gorgeous face. I drove 12 hours round-trip to pick him up from his breeder in North Carolina on a cold, windy day. He slept curled in his crate in the back seat the whole way home, and I could hardly tear my eyes away from him to watch the road.
To say that I was excited would be an understatement. Embarking on any new adventure requires a great deal of research and preparation, and I was ready – for months beforehand, I had been reading up, watching videos, and asking advice from everyone I knew who was involved in conformation showing. Gatsby and I attended classes every week, learning to gait and stack for the judge. I bought his first show lead (after much deliberation about the color!), and amassed an impressive array of grooming tools so I could learn how to primp and fluff correctly.
With any show pup, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong. Despite great genetics and lots of early promise, things can happen – bites can go crooked, ears can fail to tip correctly. A well put-together youngster can grow into an awkward, ungainly adult. But in Shelties, size is the greatest heartbreaker of all – dogs must be between 13 and 16 inches to show, and adult height is notoriously difficult to predict in puppies.
We measured faithfully as the weeks went by, but he was a wiggly puppy and it was difficult to be exact. And in any case, everything else was going wonderfully – we were coming together as a team, becoming more confident every day and having a great time in our handling class. I sent off our first show entry in May with a mixture of trepidation and giddy excitement, ready to show off our hard-earned skills at last.
On the morning of our big debut, walking through the fairgrounds to set up, I got my first inkling that something was wrong. Some of the other two-dozen-odd Shelties that were entered were also milling around with their handlers, and they looked… different. Smaller, lighter, more petite than my lanky teenage pup. Not a huge difference, but definitely noticeable.
My sense of unease blossomed into full-blown worry when a friend who also had Shelties stopped by our set-up to chat. Her eyes lingered on Gatsby, standing proudly on the grooming table as we practiced our stack.
“How old is he?”
Just turned six months, I told her. Our first show.
She was silent. Looking at the size of his paws, the length of his nose. All a bit larger than expected.
“He’s… a big boy, isn’t he? Lots of bone.” She was choosing her words carefully. Very diplomatic, very kind. “What does he measure?”
The million-dollar question. I told her he was around 15 inches, maybe 15 and a half? In truth, I wasn’t sure.
She nodded. I’m sure she knew better, but like the good friend she was, chose not to belabor the point. “Well. He’s very handsome.” She scratched his ears and gave me a last, half-pitying wave before moving on. “Good luck today.”
As we entered the ring with the 6-9 month puppy class, it became painfully clear that there was a problem. Next to other pups his own age, the difference was impossible to ignore – he towered over the others, a hulking giant in comparison. We did our very best, and Gatsby strutted his stuff like we’d practiced so many times – gaiting around the ring like a Westminster winner, stacking and posing for his piece of cheese with a happy, wagging tail. The judge placed us last in the class with barely a glance.
It wasn’t hard to see why.
I have a very vivid memory of sitting alone in the car after the show, blinking back tears. The grooming table and show lead were folded up and stowed in the back, along with my newly acquired assortment of brushes and shears in their gleaming tackle box. The smart little suit jacket and armband I’d been so proud to wear, draped forlornly over the passenger seat headrest.
The drive home was long and quiet.
A visit to his breeder two weeks later for a hands-on evaluation confirmed what I already knew: at six months old, my beautiful puppy’s career in the show ring was over.
Disappointment comes in many different forms. Every new puppy owner has hopes and expectations for the future, and it can be a bitter pill to swallow when the dream doesn’t work out.
For show or sport dog owners, these goals are often very clear and quite specific. A handler who runs her dogs in high-level agility competition knows exactly what she wants, and chooses her puppy accordingly – her dog needs to be confident and fast with lots of working drive, intelligent and biddable. He also needs to be conformationally sound with good structure, to minimize the risk of injuries over years of running high-impact obstacle courses. Being highly food-motivated and at least somewhat toy-driven is also a plus.
With her list of must-haves in mind, she does her research and contacts a breeder. The litter that her puppy comes from is filled with solid performance prospects – the sire and dam are both titled in agility and obedience with beautiful structure and stable temperament, and the breeder is well-known for producing quality puppies that perform well in a variety of sports and activities. When her new pup comes home, she spends their first six months together taking him everywhere she can and introducing him to new environments, new surfaces, new dogs.
In short, she does everything right.
But the reality is this: all of her research, her pedigree analysis and temperament testing and even her intensive socialization program in no way guarantees that her puppy will be the agility champion she hopes for. The sum total of nature and nurture for every individual dog is always something of a crapshoot, despite our best efforts – there are things we can do to improve our odds of getting a puppy that suits our goals, but dogs are not appliances and cannot be custom-made to order.
And the conundrum is, of course, that we wouldn’t want them to be.
The very fact that each dog is a unique individual, with his own personality and character traits and unpredictable physical features, is a huge part of why we love them – we see in them the same unmistakable singularity that we value so much in ourselves. Every puppy at eight weeks old is an adorable bundle of unlimited potential and a thousand question marks, no matter how carefully selected. This is the half-terrified thrill of driving home with a new show prospect (or agility, or obedience, or working dog hopeful), and I can honestly say that it never gets old.
So what about pet dog parents, you might say?
If you’re like most dog owners, you may have no particular interest in competition sports or working titles – you just want a canine buddy to snuggle on the couch with, or a hiking partner on the weekends. No lofty aspirations or dreams of blue ribbons, and no specific list of needs. Nothing fancy.
In short, a companion – the oldest and most important role of all.
Does this mean that it doesn’t matter how your pup turns out? On the contrary – here, if anything, the stakes are even higher. This is your life together, day in and day out. Every puppy owner looks into the future and sees their ideal dog; the specifics may be different, but the universal experience of anticipation and unbridled optimism is something that all of us have felt.
So too, is the unavoidable sense of loss when things don’t go as planned.
Some time ago, I had a student in one of my classes with a two-year-old golden retriever. She was a lovely person, very nice and well-intentioned, and she loved her dog very much. Her golden was a great dog in many ways – very smart, and lots of fun to work with – but he had been somewhat reactive towards other dogs on-leash since he was an adolescent, and could be spooky and unpredictable when meeting new people.
Despite these issues, his owner had an unfortunate habit of allowing him to approach and interact with other dogs in class, with predictably poor results. She also often encouraged people to say hello and pet him, sometimes holding him in place by the collar while her poor dog tried everything he could to avoid the greeting – slinking backwards towards the floor, averting his gaze, and occasionally growling defensively as strangers approached.
We had talked with her on several occasions about managing her dog’s personal space and recommended avoiding these types of interactions, but they continued to occur with troubling frequency. At last, after a particularly difficult week, she stayed after class to speak with me.
I could hear the frustration in her voice as soon as she began to talk.
“I just don’t understand why he acts like this! My last golden, Jack, was never this way – he loved everyone. He was great with dogs, people, kids! Never met a stranger.”
She went on to tell me, with real emotion in her voice, that she couldn’t understand what she was doing wrong. Jack had always loved to meet everyone, everywhere they went – she was doing all the same things with her current dog, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Finally, she confided that she was planning to train him as a therapy dog and hoped to pass their certification test later that year – so it was really very important that he get used to greeting everyone he met, as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common – it can be hard to see what’s right in front of us, if we want very badly to believe something different. This lovely young golden had lots of great qualities, but he was not Jack. He was much more selective in which dogs and people he wanted to interact with, and needed plenty of personal space to be comfortable. In human terms, he was more of an introvert than a gregarious social butterfly – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
But for his owner, it was deeply disappointing to realize that her dog was not the sunny, happy-go-lucky extrovert she had tried so hard to make him. And unfortunately, that he was not a good candidate for therapy work – not because he wasn’t trainable, or because he was “naughty” and needed to be taught better manners, but simply because he was never going to enjoy the constant greetings and interaction with strangers that came with the job.
These qualities aren’t good or bad. They just are.
But if we were hoping for something different, that doesn’t make acknowledging them any less painful.
The truth is, we all have desires and expectations for our dogs – secret hopes for our future together, things that we want them to be. And regardless of what our goals are, it’s human nature to feel sad and frustrated when they don’t work out.
So if you’ve been there, don’t beat yourself up. It’s okay to be disappointed. It’s okay to grieve a little, in your heart of hearts, for the dog you thought you had.
But once you’ve done that, the best advice I can offer is this: Love him for who and what he is, and learn to accept what he isn’t. Find out what other things you might enjoy together instead.
Because at the end of the day, this is your dog. The dog you have right now. Not the dog your family had when you were young. Not your neighbor’s dog that you like so much, or the dog you saw on TV that first sparked your interest in a puppy.
Your dog. Warts and all.
And honestly? I would be willing to bet that your dog – the dog you actually have – is pretty great in his own way.
My boy Gatsby is not a show champion, and he never will be. Accepting that was hard for me at first – and occasionally still is, when I watch him move out at a smooth, easy trot in a wide open space and think what a spectacular show dog he would have been.
But as it turns out, he has lots of other talents in his genes.
We’ve spent the past two years training in agility and obedience, and he’s been an amazing partner… a precise and thoughtful worker, and he tries harder at any task I give him than any dog I’ve ever had. And more importantly, he makes me smile every single day – he does joyful figure-8’s in the bathroom and rubs his ears against me like a cat first thing every morning, plunks himself down with self-satisfied gusto directly on top of my face when he wants to snuggle, and insists on carrying his favorite blanket outside every morning to potty.
He has his faults, to be sure… but then again, so do I. He doesn’t hold mine against me, so I try my best to follow his example.
We do the best we can together.
And whatever your dog’s job might be – working dog or couch buddy, or anything in between – that’s all any of us can ask.