The world of the dog show is as fascinating as the ocean floor and the things that live there. Trouble earned her Canadian Championship as a young thing, but last summer she set foot in the ring again as a Veteran Female at the National Specialty. She won an enormous ribbon for placing second. It was really just an excuse for me to catch up with the Toller people I’d met during my brief career as a dog handler, if showing one dog to a championship can be called a career.
Tollers are relatively easy to show: their coats are to be left natural, though everyone primps before entering the show ring. Those coats must be clean and smooth: waves which might impede a judge’s view of a straight topline may be weighted down with a damp cloth. Very thick fur behind the ears can be thinned, and paws neatly trimmed to reveal their shape. Henna shampoo may bring out the red of a coat. The use of chalk to brighten the required white bits is not unknown, but really, this is nothing in the world of the show ring.
Everyone has seen poodles with their bobbles and cuffs; afghans bagged to protect their comb-out, and yorkies with their ribbonned topknots. Wandering around the grooming tables at a dog show is an eye-filling view of weird and wonderful, and that’s just the handlers. A visiting alien might be forgiven for wondering if Poms and Saint Bernards, Chinese cresteds and Rhodesian ridgebacks are really the same species. All those breeds were developed to serve a purpose, whether to herd, hunt, protect or cuddle. The breed standard spells out the features and qualities that fit the dog for its purpose, and at the dog show, the judge assesses how well the individual dog conforms to the standard in structure and gait and personality.
Unless you actually read the breed standard, it’s not easy to see how all those canine variations are actually functional, but they are. A terrier’s forelegs allow it to dig, often in close quarters. A British bulldog’s face allows it to sink its teeth into a bull’s nose and hang on, while still being able to breathe. A lab’s otter tail and a Toller’s webbed toes obviously assist in swimming, and their double coats are the canine equivalent of a wetsuit. Even some of the apparent excesses of appearance have their origin in function: a poodle’s lion clip keeps the chest and vital organs warm, while leaving the legs free to move.
Genre is to writing as breed is to dog. A particular function is easier to perform if there is a recognizable, even a standard, structure and style, because reader and writer alike know what they’re dealing with. An apprentice writer, or a junior handler, may find some features peculiar, but the more they know about function, the more they come to appreciate the sense behind the standard – and to realize that conformation doesn’t preclude personality. Just watch my vintage bitch, I mean, my veteran female.