There were paw prints in the snow outside the doors of Exhibition Park last weekend. Hundreds of dogs made their way over snow banks and past what must have been an achingly tempting arena full of soccer balls to Exhibition Hall where, full of dogged doggy hope, they attempted to paw their way to victory in the show rings of the Halifax Kennel Club All Breed Conformation Shows & Obedience Trials.
The last time this many bows were wowed at Exhibition Park was when the Super Dogs hit town for the Maritime Fall Fair. As any Super Dog super fan will know, an afternoon with those über-mutts means a frantic MC working hundreds of screaming fans into a Fido-loving frenzy during a rabid flash of everything from Pug vs. Pekingese
obstacle races to Beagles and Boxers jumping over vertical bars like tiny, tail-wagging horses.
A dog show is nothing like that. A dog show merely judges dogs against their own breed’s standard. It’s like each judge has a thought bubble with a mental image of the perfect dog—the Bo Derek of the breed, if you will—and they measure each dog against that image, rather than measuring them up to the next dog that trots around the ring. The official standards for a breed are produced by kennel clubs and tend to include stipulations for things like structure, gait and temperament. Basically, the dog needs to look pretty, walk pretty and act pretty. It may not sound exciting, but it is. Especially if you like puppies. And who doesn’t like puppies?
Without the convulsion of delirium of a Super Dogs show, or even the pristine razzle-dazzle of a competition like the Westminster Kennel Club Show in New York, the Halifax Kennel Club show finds its footing in congeniality. Sure, the dog handlers busted out a stylish combo of hairdryers and Tip Top fashions, but instead of cautiously guarding the secrets to Haunch Glistening Formula #9, teaching impressionable collies “The Art of War,” or doing whatever super-competitive dog trainers do, they all treated the competition like a day in the dog park.
Mary Taylor, who brought her six-year-old English Staffshire Bull Terrier, Beryna, to compete in Obedience, was fine with the laid-back competition. “I don’t want her as a Super Dog. I want her to do this as fun. It keeps her fit and it exposes her to people who realize they’re not mean, ugly dogs like everybody thinks they are.”
The puppy love was contagious. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was 12 years old, so it’s been a long, long time for me,” said Jan Castleman as she navigated her eight-month-old French Bulldog, Rico, a competitor in the puppy category, between two rings of competing dogs and a spread of cages and grooming stations.
“I think they’re really nice and it’s cool to show the dogs, they’re very intelligent and stuff. They’re pretty cool,” Colton McGuire said, over the din of rattling cages, guttural yapping, and the soft thwacks of arrows hitting fake deer in the potentially dog-distracting archery competition only yards away (hidden behind a cheesecloth-like partition). There with his stepdad Mike McGuire, Colton, a pre-teen Junior Handler, showed Grace and Trigger, two German Short Hair Pointers who won three ribbons and a Best of Breed in their combined outings. “We just got him involved with it last year, and he seems to really enjoy it, so it’s good for him,” beamed McGuire.
“It’s an addiction,” said Isabelle Hoyt, who offered her Rottweiler puppy, Cruise, up for cuddles. “It’s a real bond with you and your dog and it’s a great sport to get into.”
Henry Morin, Education Director of the Halifax Kennel Club, agrees. “I’ve always had dogs, my parents had dogs, so the dog thing was the way to go,” he said, standing by his eight-month-old black Labrador Retriever, Stanley, who was there with a family of show dogs. “My goal is Westminster and Crufts in England. Those are the two big shows.” The dogs know it, too, as they bide their time, watching Westminster on television every year. At the end of the weekend it wasn’t a Lab, Rottweiler, Pointer, Bulldog or Terrier, but a hairy little Havanese who twice took the title of Best in Show, leaving a sea of lesser dogs in his wake. But when it comes to dogs there are no losers. After all, they all go to heaven.