Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Dog days of summer

It has almost been two years since I moved to Chicago, so I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the high points of my time here. When I first moved to the city, I put together a list of all the things I wanted to do, key attractions I wanted to visit, important experiences I wanted to… experience. And all in all, while I’ve still barely scratched the surface of what Chicago has to offer, I’m pretty pleased with my progress in accomplishing my list.

Let’s see just a sampling:
  • Take a bartending class – check!
  • Learn to tap dance – check!
  • Spend an hour in sensory deprivation tank – check! (I’ll tell you about that someday)
  • Discover Chicago’s best hot dog – work in progress!
  • See what a Chicago Police Department looks like at 2:45 am – check!
  • Attend dog show – check!
Ahhh, yes. The dog show. Of the vast array of activities on my list, I think this was the most highly anticipated of them all. I remember it like it was yesterday: I was eating lunch at Boston Market, reading the Chicago Tribune, when I saw it – a quarter page ad for the upcoming dog show at McCormick Place Convention Center!

I immediately whipped out my cell phone and called Natasha.

“Nat. It’s Jenny. What are you doing on March 6th? It’s a Saturday.”

“March 6th? Uhhh… I’m not sure. Hang on – let me ch-“

“Don’t bother. If you’ve got plans, cancel them. We’re doing it. We’re going to a dog show! Just listen to this: ‘Thousands of dogs, hundreds of different breeds, agility competitions, chance to speak with breeders…’ Did you hear that? Agility competitions! I’ve never been so excited!”

“You sold me. Count me in! I’ll tell Seamus the good news!”

So there we were – McCormick Place Convention Center. The International Kennel Club Annual Dog Show. It was everything I had ever dreamed of... or was it?

Do you know how sometimes you build something up for so long that the reality cannot possibly live up to the fantasy you’ve created? No, I’m not talking about my job search, although you make an astute analogy. I don’t know, I guess maybe I just had too many images of the Westminster Dog Show and scenes from Best in Show running through my head before going to a real dog show.

Maybe we were there on the not-so-fancy dog day, but it just seemed like every single dog was a golden retriever. Nothing against retrievers – heck, they’re really cute, friendly dogs, good with kids. But I see them all the time. Where were the afghan hounds? The dachshunds? The Russian wolfhounds? The Lhasa Apsos? Stage after stage was filled with golden retrievers. I mean, how can you even tell golden retrievers apart? They look absolutely identical. It wasn’t like one trainer was bringing out the three-legged golden that he rescued from the Humane Society. That actually might have been interesting. For a while, I thought that maybe I had the competition all wrong – maybe it wasn’t the dogs that were being judged, but the trainers. Maybe the dogs were just there to lead them around. At least there was some diversity in the trainers.

When it comes right down to it, I guess I really wanted a scene. I wanted to see trainers sabotaging one another. I wanted to witness an owner burst into tears as her pomeranian lost out to a pekinese. Where was it? Where was the drama?

I asked that question just a bit too soon. Our first taste of dog show drama came after Natasha, Seamus and I determined that we had seen enough identical retrievers trotting around in circles. We took a seat in the bleachers to watch a little of the agility competition – I had seen similar competitions on TV and was amazed at how talented these dogs were. Running through tunnels, balancing on balls, climbing up ladders, mastering rudimentary sign language – it was mind boggling!

Well, the agility course at McCormick Place left a little something to be desired. It looked kind of like a haphazard jungle gym that you might have played in as a kid at your dad’s company picnic. But, I was keeping an open mind. The first round began with the A-list dogs - the border collies. These dogs were born to run obstacle courses. One at a time, on the judge’s command, the dogs leapt out of the starting gate, flew over hurdle after hurdle, raced through the treacherous “weave poles,” and then sprinted to the finish.

After a few rounds of the really talented, speedy dogs, the judges would do a round of the slower, smaller dogs. It was actually pretty charming to see these short-legged pugs trying to work their way over the hurdles, which had been lowered substantially to accommodate their tiny little bodies. These dogs would just half-heartedly trot back and forth through the weave poles while their eager trainers would cheer them on with squeaky toys and encouraging shouts of “Get the squirrely! C’mon Roosevelt! Go get the squirrely!”

But the crowning glory, and the drama, arrived when one trainer brought out an enormous sheepdog. They had to pull back the dog’s hair with a big barrette so he could actually see the obstacle course. As this colossal beast lumbered his way over the first jump, he slowed down a bit, and then just stepped over the second jump. Then he stopped. Right in the middle of the course. A hush swept over the crowd, which was quickly replaced by our collective gasp as the dog – how can I put this delicately? – took a huge dump in the middle of the floor. Oh the humiliation! The trainer just looked away in horror as some staff members handed her a plastic bag, some disinfectant, a bucket, and her self respect.

At Westminster, something tells me they hire people to clean up dog poo.

This put a bit of a damper on our enjoyment of the agility competition, so the three of us started to wander over to the grooming area, where we could get up close and personal with the dogs as their trainers were shampooing, blow-drying, crimping, and powdering these championship dogs.

Seamus seemed unusually excited at this opportunity, and it wasn’t until it was too late that I discovered why. It seems that Seamus had been trying to earn extra income by moonlighting as a talent scout for commercials, and talented dogs are in high demand these days. While Nat and I were simply there for the sheer appreciation of canine beauty, Seamus had an agenda – to meet his next superstar. Apparently one of his clients was on the short list for call-backs as Reese Witherspoon’s miniature Chihuahua in Legally Blonde 2, so he was pretty bitter when he lost out to that hack that played Bruiser.

In any case, it’s kind of an unwritten rule that you don’t bypass the owners by speaking directly to the dogs, but Seamus was never one for following rules. While Nat and I were oohing and ahhing over some adorable 12-week old pug puppies, I turned around to see a security guard asking Seamus for some ID. Apparently, Seamus had been caught handing out his business cards to some of the more prominent pooches. My only souvenir from the event is the image below that was captured by the security cameras just as he was soliciting a prize toy poodle.

Seamus meets a new client Posted by Hello

Needless to say, Seamus’ indiscretion got us thrown out of the dog show, and blacklisted by the kennel club community. I learned a lot from this experience, though. I learned that you have to be careful about building things up too much in your head, because you often set yourself up for disappointment. I learned that if a dog doesn’t want to jump over a stick, maybe there’s a good reason. And I learned that when I go to the Cat Show in December, I most definitely will not be inviting Seamus.