I have a couple of alter-egos. One is the creative person who makes and designs customized show leads for dog show people. Another is a college English teacher (and let me tell you, that is one of my favorite alter-egos because I get to watch freshmen grow from barely being able to compose a complete, grammatically correct sentence to being able to put together a 3 – 4 page essay by the end of the semester). Still another is the author. But, the one I want to talk about is the collie fancier.
|one of the leads I’ve made|
I’ve said before that I grew up knowing I was going to have Lassie someday. I have long since learned that while Lassie is NOT a good example of the breed according to the standard as written by the parent club, the Collie Club of America, Lassie has been the best PR this breed could ever have. But, today, I want to tell you a story about a collie who didn’t look like Lassie and often was mistaken for a Doberman Pinscher cross. People who didn’t know the breed would even argue with me that this collie wasn’t a purebred and had to be a mongrel.
|Ch. Franchel’s Prince of Belmar|
Boots was known officially as Franchel’s Prince of Belmar, and later, added the CH for champion to the front of his name. I showed Boots for three months from the time he was eight months old to eleven months to earn his American Kennel Club championship. I then sent him home, with instructions to his breeder/owners that he needed to grow up before he could play in the “big dog” world of champions. Winning the points to earn his championship as a baby puppy was one thing—being able to win in the ring with mature champions would be a whole other ball of wax.
At eighteen months of age, Boots came back to my house. (And, just to let everyone know, he never left after that.) Boots became my constant companion to dog shows because he was campaigned into the top fifteen for three years straight, and missed the top ten for two years by one and two points. At four and a half years of age, I retired Boots from competition. He was heart-broken. For a long time, when I would load the van for the next dog show, he would wait in anticipation to be taken from his kennel run and put into the van. When it became apparent he wasn’t going to be loaded, he would walk to the end of his run and sit with his back to me. After almost a year of watching the younger dogs go, he stopped waiting and would just walk to the end of his run and present me with his back. He even started to ignore me when I would try to pet him before I left.
He was breaking my heart, but I had clients I was obligated to and by this time, I was his official co-owner.
When he was nine and a half years old, the Collie Nationals had a judge for the champions that I knew would appreciate his virtues, even if he was nine and a half. I debated back and forth whether or not I should enter him. He had arthritis in his left shoulder, and at times it was so bad he couldn’t bear weight on that leg. His canine teeth had been broken when he tried to chew on a very hard knuckle bone. At the very last minute (and I do mean last minute), I entered him through the show superintendent’s web site. Entries for dog shows close at noon on a certain day. His entry was time stamped for 11:59:59 a.m. Like I said—last minute.
Two days before we were supposed to leave—seven days before he would be in the show ring again—somehow, Boots managed to slice the large pad on the bottom of his right front leg nearly off his foot. I took him to my husband (who is also my “fur kids” veterinarian), sobbing hysterically, “I can’t take Boots. I can’t take him. Even if you can stitch this up, I can’t take him in the ring with stitches.”
My DH calmly told me to shut up and let him see what he could do with Boots’s foot. The man is a genius with silk suture and a needle. He used the smallest stitches I have ever seen, and the silk he used was so fine I swear he robbed a spider to get it. And, he used white silk and told me to just trim the ends when I trimmed Boots’s feet.
So, Boots went to Rochester, MN for the collie nationals. I took an extra-large crate for him (think big enough to house a small elephant), placed a ten inch thick foam cushion in it and his orthopedic bed on top of that, and made sure I had his arthritis meds with—just in case.
The morning smooth specials were judged, Boots was so stiff from his arthritis I didn’t think we were going to get him in the ring. Amy, the young woman, who was assisting me was certain he wasn’t going to walk his way out of the stiffness. Instead, we gently lifted Boots onto the grooming table, placed a heating pad over his shoulders, wrapped it with an ace bandage, plugged it in, and started grooming him. I gave him some “cookies” and then his meds.
When we had all the smooth specials groomed (I had more than one), I grabbed the catalog to mark the arm-band numbers I would need. Boots was in the first group of male specials, and he was the very first dog in the ring. I’d already shown several dogs at that national, and my stomach sank. The ring was at least one hundred feet wide by two hundred feet long. Boots would have to set the pace for the twenty four males behind him.
I sent Amy to get the arm-bands and loved on Boots. I remember telling him that it didn’t matter what he did, so long as he got to go around the ring once more and hear the applause.
When the announcer called for the first group of specials to make their way to the ready ring, Amy and I lifted Boots down. He limped all the way to the ring. If my stomach sank before, it was now joined by heart somewhere in the vicinity of my shoe laces. I remember looking at that ring and how huge it grew by the moment. I remember thinking, “Just let him take his lap around the ring, Joan. You don’t have to use him, just let him go around once more.” And, I remember leaning over to kiss him on the top of his head and whispering in his ear, “Just like old times, Bootsie. Just like the group ring.”
The ring steward called us in and Boots led the class. He hit that mat and I had to pull him off his front feet to slow him down. The limp was gone.
When the group of twenty five was in the ring, Joan walked up to me and said, “I hate to do this, but I was busy checking arm band numbers off. I didn’t see the class go around. Would you please take them around again?”
I laughed and told her, “I don’t know if I can make it around again.”
I was elated when Joan pulled Boots out and he made the first cut. We walked out of the ring and he started to limp again. I told Amy, as she handed me the dog I had to show in the next group to put rewrap Boots’s shoulder with the heating pad, make up an ice pack for his other foot and wrap that on the bottom of his foot, and let him rest in the exercise pen.
When I came back (as I didn’t make the cut with the second dog and had another group before I had to take my third smooth male champion into the ring in the fourth group), Boots was actually snoring in the exercise pen. I let him sleep.
After Joan went through all the male smooth champions, all the males making the first cut were called back to the ring. Once more, Boots had to take the class around. Once more, on the way to the ring, he was limping. And, once more, the minute he was in the ring, he refused to limp. Boots made a second cut.
Amy and I put Boots back into the exercise pen, heated his shoulder and iced his foot. I then went and showed my smooth girl, Magic. Magic made a cut. As Amy and I were walking back to our set-up, she asked me the question I knew I was going to have to face. If Magic made the second cut, which dog was I taking into the ring? As a professional handler, my commitment had to be to Magic, my client. I took a deep breath, and said, “I’m calling Diane, Magic’s owner.”
Diane answered on the first ring. She had been following the judging online, in real time. And, I will forever be thankful to Diane because the first words out of her mouth were “If Magic makes the second cut, you put someone else on her. There will be more shows for Magic. I know this is Boots’s last show. You stay on YOUR dog.”
Magic didn’t make the second cut, as hard as I tried. And, I know why. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it bad enough, because I did. I wanted a dog I bred and sold to be in the final standings, but I was also very aware that Magic’s front assembly just wasn’t good enough to go all the way. She was a beautiful girl, but she had a straight front.
There was a fifteen minute break before all the champions making the second cut would come back into the ring. I went back to get Boots and as we walked up to the ring, he was limping—painfully, slowly. But, as we approached the ring, I felt all the tension disappear from the lead. He had pulled himself up into the collar and if a dog can grit his teeth, Boots was gritting his. He had decided that he was not leaving until the last dog did and he was going to be one of the last dogs.
We took the class of the cream of the smooth collie world around the ring one last time. When we stopped, Boots pulled himself all the way up, tilted his head at me, and the eyebrow over his right eye twitched…as if he and I were sharing a private joke. In that moment, it was just Boots and me in that ring, and the dog he was in his prime, the dog who won herding groups, the dog who gave me 200% every time he walked into the ring stood before me. I stood there, letting him show himself and show his heart out, and I didn’t care that the tears were rolling down my face.
We didn’t win Best of Variety or Best of Opposite Sex (if a girl is Best of Variety, a boy has to be Best of Opposite), but we got an Award of Merit. As we stood, waiting to get Boots’s ribbon, I could see that he was standing on his toes, trying not to put any weight on the sutured foot and trying not to bear a lot of weight on the arthritic shoulder. His eyes were half shut and I could see the tension in his neck and back. When we were handed the ribbon, the first step he took out of the ring and off the mat, Boots sank into a sit, looked up at me, and sighed. As clearly as if he had spoken, it was as if he said, “I’m tired, Mommy. I can’t do it anymore.”
I bent down, gently hugged him around the shoulders, and told him, “You don’t have to, buddy. You did it.” I hung his ribbon on his collar, picked him up, and carried all eighty-five pounds of him back to my set-up.
Champions are determined by how closely a dog conforms, in the opinion of no less than three judges, to the standard of perfection. Champions are also so much more than a piece of pretty paper from the American Kennel Club. That day, Boots proved that champions are heart, and determination, and pure grit.
When I had to let Boots go to the Rainbow Bridge four years later, I knew it was time because he told me, just as he told me that day that he was tired and he couldn’t do it anymore. I sat on the floor with him, held him across my lap and cradled his head to shoulder, and told him exactly what I told him in Rochester, “You don’t have to, buddy. You did it.” He did everything I ever asked of him.
As my DH was injecting that final shot into Boots’s vein, Boots twitched his right eyebrow. Every time I think about him, I know we still share that private joke.