Thursday, September 14, 2023

Heeling down memory lane

I spent last weekend at the Des Moines dog show cluster held annually in early September in (surprise) Des Moines, Iowa. Sitting in air conditioned comfort at the show site, listening to the drone of the ventilation system and eating chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the concessionaire’s oven, I couldn’t help but think back on the first time I attended those shows.

I showed at the Varied Industries Building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds for the first time in 1977 with my beagle. I was 11. She was 9. We got our 2nd CD leg. It was a huge, open-air building back then, dark and industrial, with exposed steel roof girders and a cracked cement floor that would send the unwary sprawling. The local Boy Scout troop ran the concession stand and you could get anything you wanted as long as it was a hotdog or homemade sloppy joe. 


If I remember correctly, there were six obedience rings, three to a side on the east end of the building, separated by a central aisle. This was back in the days before agility, nosework, dock diving, barn hunt, herding, lure coursing, earthdog, FAST CAT and all the other sports dog trainers can explore today. There was just obedience. And it was big.


For many years, there were two sections of Open B at the Des Moines Obedience Training Club’s Saturday trial because it was not unusual to have an Open B entry of over 100 dogs. The trial was considered one of the largest in the country. I’m proud to have shown eight generations of dogs there. In spite of frequently being too hot, too cold and always plagued with sugar-crazed yellow jacket wasps around the trash cans, it was a September pilgrimage I made through high school, college, as a young adult, a newlywed and still now, 47 years after the family beagle started it all.


Exhibitors and spectators alike sat on gray-painted wooden benches around the rings, waiting their turn or just watching. This ringside seating was popular and it wasn’t unusual to strike up a conversation with a total stranger, either to discuss a judge’s heeling pattern with a fellow exhibitor or explain in layman’s terms to a family from Indianola how the dogs were expected to perform. The building was enclosed at some point in the early 2000s and is now climate controlled with a bright, white interior and glossy smooth floor. The chipped gray wooden benches remained for a few years. They’re gone now.


So are the Boy Scouts. Now, the food vendor serves chicken strips, tenderloins, nachos, cinnamon rolls, breakfast sandwiches, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. There are three obedience rings instead of six, and one of them is for rally only. The vendor booths, which once easily numbered in the double digits, take up only a fraction of the space they used to. My friends and I used to make shopping lists of supplies we needed to purchase at that cluster because the wonderful variety offered nearly everything dog people needed in an open air market. My favorite vendors were Dogwise and J and J Dog Supply (the original Jack Godsil business). Oh, how I looked forward to buying the latest titles from Dogwise and drooling over the beautiful leather goods at J and J. Both are gone now. Time marches on.


When I started showing dogs as a renegade 4-H kid in the 1970s, cluster shows were virtually unheard of. We went to Show A on Saturday and schlepped all our stuff into the site. At the end of the day, we schlepped it all back out to our cars and drove to Show B on Sunday in a different town where we did it all over again. I think we were all skinnier back then because we got more exercise hauling metal crates around (cloth crates hadn’t come into fashion yet) and food vendors weren’t hawking ice cream and nachos so we ate homemade ham sandwiches out of a cooler at noon.


What an awesome idea it was when clubs starting joining forces to hold multiple shows at a single site. Joy! The stuff-schlepping was cut in half, praise Jesus! Don’t laugh—it’s a big deal and the older I get, the bigger it becomes. I loitered at a recent trial for several hours, visiting with friends and eating cookies, while I worked up the ambition to load up all my stuff and haul it back out to my car.


We showed outside back in the day, too. (Cue dramatic music. Or horror music. Your choice.) I know in some parts of the country where Mother Nature does not routinely try to kill you, outdoor trials are the norm but you’d be hard pressed to find many in the Midwest. 


You knew you loved the sport if you were willing to be wet, cold and miserable to play it. Not to dis today’s exhibitors but some of you have never shown in the snow in late October in an open-sided, dirt-floored cattle barn at a county fairground on the Illinois prairie and it shows. The survivors of that era are today’s trial chairs who organize events in climate-controlled buildings with rings covered in sport turf or cushy foam matting.


I saw someone earn a 200 for the first time in the early 1990s. Back then, 200s were unicorns—mythical creatures that allegedly existed but few of us had ever seen one. When I was showing my first Sheltie, you could win an upper level class and go High In Trial with a 195 or 196. A score of 197 or 198 drew gasps of admiration when the judge announced it. Nowadays, 200s are almost commonplace and a 198 may get you little more than a green qualifying ribbon. I recently attended a trial where fourth place in Open B was 199, after run-offs. I’ve seen 4 200s in the last few months alone. The sport has evolved that much.


Equipment has changed, too. Wooden article boxes gave way to cloth bags. I wish I’d kept my wooden box. Yeah, it was big and clunky and hard to pack in the car but I was so proud when I carried it into a show site. It was a status symbol. I had a Utility dog! Cloth bags are much more user friendly but don't carry that same vibe of achievement.


Custom dumbbells in all colors of the rainbow and scent articles with specialized artwork are now the norm. Few exhibitors use six-foot leashes beyond the Novice group exercise requirement and you can order leashes in custom lengths, colors, braiding styles and even made out of kangaroo leather. Bling-y collars, some woven from intricate beadwork or sparkling with Swarovski crystals, have replaced the standard slip chain. None of this makes our dogs work any better but pretty things make the sport more fun.


I could go on and on with memories of show sites that no longer exist and favorite trials that have faded into the sunset but this has gotten plenty long enough. Go train your dogs—see you later.



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