It must have been in the 5th grade that I decided I wanted to breed and show dogs. I’m not sure exactly why I made this decision, or what informed it. I was raised in a small working-class farm community in rural east Tennessee—though there were dogs around, they were viewed more as livestock than pets. Before I volunteered to raise a guide dog puppy as my 8th grade 4H club project, I cannot remember ever seeing a dog being walked on lead. Of course people had dogs, but breeding was strictly the domain of Mother Nature. The local humane society or a shotgun provided population control.
As a “sensitive” child, I struggled with much of the unkindness towards animals. On more than one occasion, I got in trouble for reporting a neighbor to local authorities for animal cruelty, violating the tacit understanding that children should respect authority and that everyone should mind their own business. On several occasions I convinced my parents to allow me a puppy from one of the local litters—only to have it “disappear” when it became too much of an inconvenience. Eventually, after enough of these heart breaks, I decided that an imaginary dog would be preferable to the loss of these real ones.
When I was fifteen, I began working in a local store to earn money to buy my first car—a ten year-old Mercury Lynx station wagon-- so that I could drive myself to dog shows. It was about that time I met a local Belgian Sheepdog exhibitor who convinced me to take the pick male puppy from her next litter. At our show debut, I had no idea what was happening when, though the only Belgian entered, the judge brusquely said to me that he was “withholding ribbons,” and excused me from the ring. A tearful visit to the breeder confirmed that my dog’s bite had gone off, disqualifying him from the show ring.
Heartbroken, but undaunted, I decided to find another way. I baked cookies each night for weeks to earn enough money to pay shipping costs for a show-quality male Finnish Spitz puppy offered by Dr. Tom Walker, of Finnkila fame, to any junior willing to show the breed. I was thrilled when, at our first show, I walked out of the ring with a point—my first ever. Unfortunately, this was the only time in the next two years that I could find another Spitz with whom to compete. When it came time for me to go away to college I made the devastating decision to return Tikko to Dr. Walker so that he could be shown, rather than leave him in the backyard with my family. It was with bittersweet feelings that I turned on Westminster a couple of years later to see that TIkko had won the breed. Thrilled for his success, I was sad that it was not me on the end of his lead.
Tomorrow morning, I am leaving for Westminster, showing a Skye for my dear friends and breed mentors. Reflecting back, it has taken over twenty years, lots of perseverance, hard work, and support for this moment to arrive. I have barely “made it” in dogs, having yet to breed a litter, win a BIS, or make an impact on the sport. But I celebrate this small piece of my dream nonetheless. Usually judging success by wins, I am reminded that sometimes the greatest victory is not in where we are, but in how far we have come to get there.