They say you should never work with animals or children. Today I am doing both. I have come to a dog show with the Black Dog and my mother’s pocket-sized Yorkshire Terrier. This is to be their debut on the doggy stage and I have some misgivings as, while they have buckets of cuteness, obedience is not one of their strengths.
We arrive with the handsomest dog event already underway and spot my friend leading her Schnauzer, a bold and muscular dog, in a jaunty fashion around the outdoor arena. The Schnauzer has done this before and it shows as he looks entirely at home parading in front of the judges. His moment of triumph when he wins, however, is somewhat spoiled – much to the embarrassment of my friend – when the Schnauzer, perhaps overcome by the excitement of the occasion, leaves an unedifying contribution on the grass as they collect his prize.
It’s a glorious afternoon. We squash together on large bails of hay amongst the bunting and tents and boil in the afternoon heat. The Black Dog strains at her leash, head darting back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match, trying to assimilate all the new sights and sounds. It’s almost too much for her to cope with and I worry about how much she’s salivating. By contrast the little Yorkie sits on my mother’s lap unfazed.
The prettiest bitch category turns out to be a very popular event. A large, red-faced judge holds court and approaches each dog owner with a microphone for a chat. Unfortunately, none of the spectators catches a word as the mike doesn’t appear to be connected to the speakers. When it’s our turn I discretely wipe away the drool and smile enthusiastically, hoping to aid the Black Dog’s chances.
We continue to parade round the ring, following a grotesquely large poodle. I am not a fan of poodles and this one has been manicured and clipped to the point that it resembles a moving topiary bush. The dogs’ owner wears the smug look of someone clearly here to win and I can’t say I blame him. Even to a novice like me there’s no doubting the dog’s pedigree. But here? Really? Wouldn’t it be better suited competing at Crufts? The Poodle displays the same disdainful superstar manner as its name; Lady Gaga and we keep a sedate and respectful distance.
Then, out of the blue, Lady Gaga spins round and launches herself at us, her attack aggressive and sustained as she tries to bite the Black Dog. I am almost upended as the Black Dog attempts to escape Lady Gaga’s teeth while dogs around us start up a chorus of excited barking. The Poodle’s owner is quick to get her under control and order finally prevails, but the damage is done. Lady Gaga has shown her true colours and gets her just deserts, leaving empty handed. The Black Dog, however, walks away with third place, earning herself a rosette and a congratulatory hug from my younger son.
Winning rosettes becomes contagious as my mother’s little Yorkie bags second place in the Child’s Best Friend category. This is somewhat ironic as, with my son already committed to The Black Dog, my mother asks a complete stranger (an obliging girl of twelve) to take The Yorkie instead. Such is my mother’s delight when they return with their prize you’d think The Yorkie had just secured a double first at Oxford University.
Later, while the Southern Golden Retriever display team demonstrate how it should be done, my friends and I duck out to give the two big dogs a much needed walk. The dogs pull hard at their leads like eager toddlers entering a playground and, once released, promptly disappear. Trees crowd around us and ahead a small lake emerges. It is a romantic and tranquil spot, sunlight piercing the gloom and highlighting the lake’s green-laced surface. I’m too busy chatting to notice the warning signs until, that is, I hear a loud plop followed by the all too familiar sound of splashing.
‘Come!’ I shout, fearing the worst. ‘Here! Now!’ We whistle and call. Moments later the dogs reappear and my fears are realised. Normally obscured by soft clouds of fur, the Schnauzer is transformed, trotting stiffly on now absurdly skinny legs and wearing what appears to be a moss-green coat. The black dog, bedraggled and panting heavily, looks delighted and sprays pond water everywhere.
We cannot take the dogs back to the show in this state. Apart from their appearance they stink to high heaven so we make a beeline for the neighbouring garden centre and spot a hose. We ask a member of staff if we can use the hose to clean the dogs.
‘I’ll have to check that,’ he says in the tone of someone who has just been asked to serve vodka to an underaged child.
The second he’s out of sight my friend grabs the nozzle and, with her husband holding the wriggling Schnauzer, unceremoniously hoses him down. The Black Dog suffers the same cold fate with resigned acceptance.
Back at the show a new event is already underway. We discover that the schedule has been changed, bringing forward musical bumps by half an hour. Disaster. This is the event my son had earmarked me for (you’ll be good at the disciplined ones, Mum) and one look at his crestfallen face tells me I cannot disappoint him. I quickly slip into the arena with my very wet dog and join the group walking round to music. No one seems to notice our late arrival or the smell we bring and so when the music stops I snap at the Black Dog to sit. Fortunately this is one trick she can do well and appearances, in this instance, don’t count. My son materialises at my side and pushes treats into my hand.
‘Everyone else is doing it,’ he whispers when I start to protest. And suddenly I notice the bulging belt bags worn by most of my competitors. Doggie treats are being dished out like sweets at a children’s party.
One by one dogs drop out until it comes down to the last three. We are guaranteed a rosette but I realise, absurdly, that I want to win and avoid eye contact with the judges. Don’t pick us, I say in my head as they cast their critical gaze on whose rear is slowest to descend. We lose out to a golden retriever but I cannot begrudge the three blond-haired girls accompanying the dog as they skip happily back to their parents with first place.
We all throw our caps into the ring for the last event; the egg and spoon race. There are so many takers that the judges have to run heats. The challenge is being able to hold the egg and spoon and dog lead in the same hand while negotiating an obstacle course. I partner up with the Yorkie and wait our turn next to a barrel-chested man covered in tattoos and studs.
‘Where’s the best place to hold this?’ he asks me nervously. His dog is almost as small as mine.
‘Further down,’ I advise. ‘The egg doesn’t wobble as much.’ Not that it does him much good as he drops it the moment he moves.
A fair bit of chaos ensues. Eggs fall like autumn leaves and suddenly no one can walk in a straight line. The Yorkie’s so light I practically carry her round the course and end up going over the hurdle myself as she’s too small to jump. In the next heat, the Schnauzer breaks free from his collar after the egg (uncooked) lands on his back and cracks open prompting mayhem. Finally caught, he trots back round the course, pausing to eat a stray sausage and still wins his relay, (though I suspect the stressed and over-heated judges had, at this stage, hit the bottle so the placings might not have been entirely accurate). The Black Dog and my son race through to win their heat incident free, then go on to clinch the final by a hair’s whisker. I feel a pang of guilt as the boy who looses out to them walks away looking inconsolable.
We’ve cleaned up, my friend comments as we leave with a collection of rosettes, doggie treats and soft toys. I laugh. Who’d have thought it with our motley lot. It’s been a good day. We all climb into the car, the dogs weighed down by their booty and fatigue and as I shut the boot, I catch sight of Lady Gaga being chauffeured away in the back of a shiny Range Rover. The owner has the look of someone who has just eaten something deeply unpleasant and accelerates away in a cloud of dust. How the mighty have fallen, I think, watching them go. And with that I put the car into gear and head for home feeling happy, proud and ever so slightly smug.