As a very thoughtful gift, my parents got me a spot at the first ever Pure Dog Talk retreat. If you haven't given Pure Dog Talk (which is a podcast about anything and everything purebred dog) a listen, I cannot recommend it enough. The host, Laura Reeves, is a long time German Wirehaired Pointer breeder, AKC judge, and retired professional handler. He insight is incredible and I respect her knowledge and experience immensely.
COVID has been rough on everyone and I have been looking forward to getting away from everything at Hardscrabble Ranch outside of Bozeman, Montana since my parents told me I'd be attending. It was roughly a ten hour drive. I took all three Azawakh, who were very good (as usual) in the car. I picked up a dog friend at the Bozeman airport and then we carpooled the rest of the way to the ranch.
The ranch was absolutely stunning and on arrival we hung out (masked and with social distancing) while everyone arrived. Dinners were home cooked by Laura herself and Julia Gritten, who organized much of the event along with Ingrid Hackett-Mayer. We talked around the campfire and I learned about a variety of other breeds. It was all much needed relaxation and camaraderie in a COVID safe manner (hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes everywhere and we even got cute masks.)
The classroom and hands on segments were truly where the seminar shone. Laura encouraged us to ask questions and many of them led really interesting places and sparked fascinating conversation. There was a really nice, very knowledgeable reproductive vet in attendance for the classroom portion and hearing a knowledgeable vet's take on dogs and reproductive issues is always fascinating.
But why I came away from the seminar beaming was because of how much my dogs adored the hands on section of the seminar. We went through three sections in the hands on segment: hand stacking (I set the dog's feet in a standing position), free stacking (the dog sets their own feet), and gaiting (movement). I had three dogs with me, so I used one dog for each segment.
I took out Amalu first. She's my COVID puppy. She had been through one handling class before the shut down and naturally my most people avoidant of my dogs. We'd practiced conformation but had done little more than that. Additionally, since she doesn't have a three-generation pedigree behind her, she can't show in AKC, only UKC (United Kennel Club) shows, so conformation has been less of a focus. We hadn't done much hand stacking and definitely none under pressure, so I free stacked her. When Laura came up to examine her, a placed a steadying hand on her rear end and kept light tension on her lead, not to restrict her, but to remind Amalu that I was there. I mentioned that she was my COVID puppy, as so many people have these days. Alu handled the exam with such grace and I dearly wish every judge we showed to was as savvy about guarding breeds. She slipped a hand under Alu's chin and then slid her hand down her neck, back, and legs, never breaking contact, always letting Amalu know exactly what she intended. After she finished her exam, Laura spoke to the room reminding them that this was a breed you wouldn't want to meet the eyes with and I released Amalu with a happy Okay! And she recovered her prance and happy bounce almost immediately.
Next I took out Amidi, expecting her to be rusty. Our task was to gait our dogs and land them in a free stack. Ami has always been showy and a bit sassy. She's my dog that is really fun to show. As we pulled out of gaiting it brought her around, signaled her stack, and she completely nailed it, placing all four feet emphatically and tossing her head up to look at me. People applauded, she held it beautifully, then again with an Okay! I released her and we finished gaiting back to where we'd started. She was quite proud of herself.
I ended with Anubi, who very much knew exactly what we were doing. We waited our turn to practice gaiting. When we were up, I told him Let's Go and he bounced to the end of the line in a gallop. I had to laugh. I've written about his ups and downs in the show ring before and to see him so happy to be doing conformation warmed my heart. The feedback I got - good speed and stride length made me so grateful to every other exhibitor and judge who took the time to help me improve my gaiting.
I've always been terribly self-conscious about my handling skills. I'd been anxious about the hands on section, but I walked away feeling so much more confident. And that was very much on of the biggest themes of the weekend: handle yourself with confidence and grace. Your dog will follow.
Saturday evening we had Italian food, one of my biggest sources of allergens. So Anubi was on duty for Service Dog work. He hadn't done any public access service dog work since Orlando the previous December. I rarely need it, but I did then, so he was on duty for three straight hours despite not having formally worked in eight months and me having forgotten his vest at home.
He soft alerted (gave me an alert but looked slightly unsure) to basil today. I do have an allergy to basil, but it's reasonably mild. I've never trained him to alert for it since I don't need it, but I think since he's smelled it paired with pine nuts so often, he alerted to the basil too. It was convenient because it meant I didn't eat the food with the basil.
While I did dishes Anu camped on his mat for an hour in the hallway as all sorts of strangers and even dogs walked within a foot of him. Afterwards, he curled up in a blanket as we talked about canine reproductive issues around the campfire.
On Sunday morning we had the "Hardscrabble Classic". We were judge on Junior Handling rules, meaning that instead of the dog's conformation being judged, our handling skills were on display instead. I wanted to use Anubi because he's a seasoned pro, but my friend reminded me that Amalu very much needed the practice, so I put on her show lead, wiped her down with a baby wipe and headed to the make-shift ring. We were divided into 7 large dogs and 7 small dogs and then all entered the ring. It was honestly the first time Amalu had ever strung all the elements (gaiting, stand for exam, showing her bite, down and back, and free stacking) together and with six other dogs in the ring it was a lot all at once. But she stood for exam very nicely and let me mouth her easily and her gaiting was truly beautiful. I couldn't have been more proud at how she handled herself.
After the mock show finished, we received awards and more excitingly, critiques of our handling. I waited patiently until there were only two more critiques left in our group, meaning we had to have "placed". We took second in our "Group" and I glowed when I was told I had wonderful focus and engagement from my dog and that our gaiting had been excellent. Beyond that, we took second overall. This feedback was even more important to me that breed placements because it meant that finally, I had learned to support my dogs, to showcase them as best I could. It gave me a sense of security in my handling that I'd never had before and hopefully gave me confidence for the next time I step into the ring (this Saturday).
It truly was an incredible weekend of community and I learned so so much.