As I was flipping the kids' pancakes and thinking through my roster of dog training lessons, I caught the headline that Sarah Palin had been released from Fox Network's line up. Sarah Palin... Sarah Palin... Now there was a name I hadn't heard in a while. My thoughts drifted to an expression I'd learned as a press escort for the Westminster Dog Show. Back then, breeds known as "showboaters" were all the rage--feathery, high-stepping, confident dogs who'd win the crowd's favor, but who may not have a champion's conformation under the exterior dazzle. Sometimes the showboaters would get the nod, and sometimes they wouldn't.
And then I checked the calendar. Yikes! February. In my dog-centric world, February is Westminster Dog Show month. Routinely held in New York City on the second Monday and Tuesday--this year, February 11th and 12th, it was less than two weeks away.
Had my publisher mailed my tickets yet? Though I could watch the final judging on CNBC and USA networks, Westminster is more fun to experience live. Family-friendly, fans of all ages cheer on their favorite breeds at ringside or mill about behind the scenes, visiting with the dogs and handlers in person.
Perhaps you're wondering what's going on at a dog show? What's being judged? It looks like fun. My dog is adorable. Where can I sign up?
Well, it's a little more complicated than that.
The Westminster Dog Show is put on by the American Kennel Club (AKC), which registers purebred dogs born in the United States. All purebred dogs were genetically engineered through selective breeding to fulfill a specific purpose, such as herding livestock, hunting small prey or pulling sleds.
The purpose of a dog show is to judge each breed individually, and to select winners--both a male and a female, whose form, personality and mobility most closely meets the breed's ideal--or its standard. Though it may sound confusing, it's meticulously organized, and for dog people--breeders and breed advocates--a dog show goes way beyond the sparkle and fluff of a show ring. For them, the purpose is to choose breeding stock.
To truly appreciate a dog show, though, think back a century or two, when a dog's involvement supported our livelihood; when agriculture and hunting were mainstream. Now in 2013, it's a little more subjective. The purpose of dogs in the public eye has shifted for many, from a utilitarian purpose to aesthetic pleasure and breeding for profit. Although these developments have sparked controversy and aggravation for breeders devoted to maintaining their breed's form and functionality, our own technological advancements have been hardest felt by dogs who still take their genetically engineered passions very seriously, though unemployment is at an all time high.
In my quarter of a century helping dogs and people live together, I've seen nearly all the breeds, and I'll be the first to tell you that bad behavior is rarely a sign of a bad dog. It's a sign of a bored dog. And while I can't magically produce flocks to entertain an errant Border Collie, or shoot birds from the sky for the restless Retrievers, I often coach dog owners to consider their dog's breed and to offer them a task that's reflective of their passions. No geese falling from the sky? A retriever will be happy to fetch your slippers or the kids' baseball. No vermin scurrying beneath your floor boards? A squirrel in the backyard will do just fine. No estate to guard? An unemployed guard dog can be taught, with proper guidance, to alert unfamiliar activity with three barks--then to displace his residual frustration onto a ball or toy.
The first effort in rehabilitating a recalcitrant dog is to empathize with his restlessness, study the breed (or mix of breeds)--the AKC has a useful section on its website -- and then to use these genetic insights to craft games and displacement activities to help relieve some of your pet's tension. As a trainer, who also tries to apply these philosophies to my kids, I encourage my clients to use positive reinforcements to inspire their dog's cooperation.
So how about that temporarily benched showboater Sarah Palin? What sort of behavioral diversions could we offer to inspire her if she were, say, an Afghan hound? A rogue independent breed, more ambitious than submissive, I'd venture to guess she'll prefer hunting adventures to fireside reads and self-introspection. And while I'm certain she'll wow us with her next move, perhaps we could suggest a few activities to keep her busy in the interim...