It's five o'clock in the morning and it's cold and dark. I thought there was only one 5am - the one when you're at a party and not feeling any pain. This was altogether more bracing. I am off to Wolverhampton, to a dog show - the Great Eastern Dachshund Show to be exact, with Rovi, my long-haired standard dachsie, of whom I have high hopes. We are going to an unknown place and entering an unknown world, a world I only really know about from watching Best In Show, Christopher Guest's wonderful"mockumentary" on the subject. I used to call it a satire. Not any more.
This story starts in September. For months, people had been stopping me in the street and admiring my dog. "Isn't he gorgeous," they would say, stroking his noble head as he stood stock still, graciously accepting the waves of compliments that washed over us. (I say "us", but no one mentioned my gorgeousness.)
It got me wondering: what if Rovi really had star potential? Wouldn't I be negligent not to find out? He was young enough (nine months old) to have a great career in front of him, he was a bona fide pedigree dog (Melminds Memorys Made is on his birth certificate), unlike most of my friends' dogs who have dodgy pasts, and he was intact. Only intact animals (those still in possession of their reproductive bits) can be entered in dog shows because, of course, these things are all about the breeding.
I called Hazel Watkins at the National Long-Haired Dachshund Club - every permutation of every breed has an association - and she suggested we make our debut at the Bedford and District Canine Society at the end of September. It was an open show, a low-key affair with classes for all types of dogs. I sent off the application form and began my research.
The first thing I discovered is that while there may be all types of dogs, there are only two types of dog people. There's the vet group, who see dogs as pets who should be happy and healthy and allowed to sleep on the bed, and then there are the breeders, who keep dogs in kennels and drive them the length and breadth of the country every weekend in the dim hope of winning a show. If they produce a champion, they can breed from it and so continue the cycle. Of course, breeders will charge you a few hundred pounds for a pedigree chum, but the money that they make can hardly cover their expenses. I don't think it's their motivation. They are not like that.
I had nothing to guide me in my first attempt to cross the narrow but cavernous divide between these groups, other than a book called The Dachshund - A Dog for Town and Country. The actual mechanics of a dog show are simple enough: you walk the dog back and forth a few times in front of the judge and then small dogs, like dachshunds, are put on a table and examined to see how closely the teeth, bone structure, muscles and coat texture match the breed standard. I practised putting Rovi on the dining table. He looked at me as if I were quite mad, but did not demur. This will be a cinch, I thought; he has the right temperament.
We got to Bedford at nine, when the doors opened. Although it was a mixed show, the dachsies get their own ring as there are more varieties of dachshunds than any other breed - two sizes in three finishes. Rovi looked lovely, slathered in Aveda hair conditioner, and compared very well to the competition. In fact, there was no competition. The other dogs in our class were a no-show so the judge awarded us the rosette for first in our class, another for best puppy, an engraved glass, a bag of dog food, and automatic entry into the best hound puppy group.
The ladies around the ring-side gathered to give us advice. One of them said it was important to get the measure of the judges. "This one's supposed to be very nice," I said. "He's my husband," she said. When Mr Sams had finished judging the rest of the dachshunds, he very kindly showed me how to walk Rovi up and down correctly. He wished me luck in the next round, adding amiably: "You don't stand a chance."
There were 15 dogs in the hound puppy group and we failed to place. I was crushed. I realised I was out of my depth in dog world, a land populated mostly by large ladies in slacks who take it all very, very seriously. I called Melanie, Rovi's breeder, to tell her how we got on and she consoled me by saying: "Whatever happens at a dog show, you always go home with the best dog." And then she riveted my attention by telling me about the show at Wolverhampton in November. "If you come first, second or third," she said, "you get an automatic entry into Crufts." Crufts! Best In Show! Yes!
I approached this new challenge more doggedly. At Bedford, one of the ladies had said to my husband: "Nice dog, shame about..." so I decided to get an experienced dog-handler. The obvious person to ask was Rovi's dog-walker, Chamois. We met Chamois at puppy school. She is only 21, but she walks dogs, boards dogs, trains dogs - in fact, there is nothing about dogs that Chamois doesn't know. And she has a cute name. One day you will see her on TV; she is almost certainly going to be the next Barbara Woodhouse, only without the choke chains.
And this, dear reader, is how we came to be driving out of London at 5am, heading for Wolverhampton, but in our heads merely stopping off there, en route to Crufts and doggy stardom. I watched Best In Show again the night before we went and realised that if Chamois was the professional handler, I must be the strung-out bimbo.
There were 408 dachshunds in Wolverhampton, all barking their heads off in an echoing leisure centre. I had bathed Rovi in tea-tree oil this time, a tip I learnt at Bedford. Chamois looked fetching in a neat black suit, her red hair matching the dog's, and had no obvious respiratory problems - unlike most of the other handlers who wheeze their way up and down the ring.
There were six in our group, and we went fourth. I stood discreetly at the side, so as not to distract my boy as he went through his paces. He appeared to be perfect. When all six had been examined at length, the female judge walked slowly up and down the ring, scrutinising them one by one. Finally, she had made her decision. Just like in the film, she pointed "one" (not us), "two" (not us), "three" (not us). While the winners, with their crucial entry to Crufts secured, stood around congratulating themselves, she placed the rest. "Fourth," she said (not us); "fifth," she said (not us); and then "you can leave the ring" (us). Sixth out of six. Worst in show.
It was demoralising. Chamois' tail was down, her angulation and top-line shot to pieces. We knew we were outsiders, we knew it was a long shot, we knew we weren't really show people, but still we had dreamt of success. Rovi himself was blasé.
A dog show is not a beauty contest; you don't get plucked out of a chorus line. You only win "if the face fits" my fellow competitors told me. It's only 10 per cent about the dog, the rest is about you. It's a clique. Do the judges know you, and do you know the judges? Are you, in fact, a judge yourself? We will have to get Dog World when the Great Eastern Show is reviewed, to see the judge's comments on our performance. Maybe Rovi has a hump, an imperfection that we can't see.
If it is only a question of experience and familiarity, we have all of next year to qualify for Crufts 2007. Are we bothered? Well, I am a bit. In Best In Show, the Norwich terrier wins the Mayflower show and his owners make a record called "God Loves a Terrier" to celebrate. I quite fancy "The Sausage Rock 'n' Roll".Reuse content