Reality has a way of intruding on our illusions. Ever since Laila started on her terrific run to attain her Grand Championship, I felt that I was missing something by turning her over to professional handlers. After all, shouldn’t I really be the one who guides her through her paces as she competes in the ring? My illusion was tested, and shattered, by my experience at the Specialty shows held in Vallejo, California under the auspices of the French Bulldog Club of Northern California.
My quandary about the handling actually started five months earlier when Laila won her Championship title. The Wornall team, Wood, Jennie and Andrew, had rapidly guided her to the championship by garnering the points needed by scoring in four of five shows (all majors). Due to Wood’s incipient retirement, I was told that Laila would need another handler to show her as she continued on in her quest for the Grand Champion title. They took good care of us by introducing us to Renata Drummond, who handled Laila to awards in five of her next seven shows (all majors) which qualified her for her lofty title. With this accomplished, I decided that Laila would be entered in regional Specialty Shows as she prepared for the even bigger National Championship shows that were to follow later in the year.
Neither Renata nor Team Wornall would be able to perform the handling duties for me at the two shows in Vallejo. I was actually elated to have the opportunity of showing her in these contests, for she would be competing against some outstanding contestants, so we practiced for ten minutes each day for the two weeks preceding the shows …. and I thought that we were doing pretty well. I obsessed about finding a stimulant to catch her attention and rouse her from her normal casual attitude. Food, noise, toys as well as my smelly socks were all tried in an attempt to keep her focused and alert.
We arrived in Vallejo, with Laila and Mother Modi in tow, the day before the shows, and checked into our hotel, which was adjacent to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. An oddity about the suite that we occupied was that it used a curtain to cover a large portion of a wall that should have been a window. A first for me.
Modi was on the trip, not as a contestant, but as a companion for her daughter, who, when you really think about it, has never been left alone. Laila has always been with at least one of her family members at all times. Just as the great racehorse, Sea Biscuit, traveled with a goat, whose presence settled the great champion’s anxieties, so will Laila always travel with her mother and never will she need to be left alone in a strange environment.
We had a pleasant evening the night before the show. Dinner at a terrific Italian restaurant on Vallejo’s waterfront, capped off by our first ever visit to a Walmart store, where we bought two canvas chairs to be used ringside at the shows the following day.
The conformation Specialty shows started at nine the following morning at a hall on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. There were about sixty six entries in each show but what made these shows different was the large percentage of the entry that was made up of Champions and Grand Champions. Twenty of the contestants would compete in the Best of Breed class! There were a couple of other things that set these shows apart. The Open classes were split into color groups, brindles in one and creams and pieds in the other. There were also more age categories in the puppy classes. In addition, there were also separate categories for Veterans, dogs between seven and nine years and one for dogs over nine years. When the elders were being promenaded around the ring, I asked Susan, the show Chairperson, what was the point of this category. The answer made so much sense. These dogs were being shown to demonstrate the soundness of their lineage to the other breeders. I told her that I wished that I could show the magnificent grandparents of Laila, Fessie and Gadi, but lamented that they had both been spayed and neutered respectively. To my surprise, I learned that Veterans could be shown even if they were not intact. I am going to be so excited to show them off at the next Specialty in Santa Barbara, three months hence.
Before the showing commenced, I asked Jenny if she would be so kind as to keep an eye on me and tell me the two worst things that I was doing in the ring. I also asked my friend Arlie to critique my worst faux pas. Linda and I settled into our ringside chairs with Laila and Modi sitting in our laps. Finally, the judging of the Best of Breed was called. Laila and I entered the ring with the other entrants. Normally, it takes ten minutes to judge this class, but today, because of the large size of the group, we were in the ring for close to an hour! I found the experience exhausting. While most of the handlers conserved their movements, I spent most of the time in a squatting position trying to micromanage Laila’s posture. I hadn’t spent that much time in a crouched position since I played catcher in Little League! By the time we left the ring, empty handed, my hips, knees and muscles were aching. Several months earlier, Jenny’s dad, Wood, had confided that one of the reasons he was retiring from handling was the physical toll it was taking on his legs. At the time, I thought he was using that as a “lame” excuse … I know better now.
As I exited the ring, I was met by my biggest fan, my wife, Linda. “You don’t know what the f—, you’re doing!” she cheerfully exclaimed. “You go left, others go right and no one else was squatting like you.” Alas, maybe she was right. Jenny came up to me and said that the number one thing that I needed to correct was the placement of the leash on the neck. I had the leash in the middle of Laila’s neck but it should have been placed right behind her ears for better control of the head and as a prop for keeping the ears erect. Arlie also offered a helpful hint in how to position her hind legs when she was placed on the judging table.
After a two hour lunch break, the second show began. This time, mindful of the critiques I received, we did a little better. The judge, who had flown in from England to do the show, pronounced Laila as “lovely” as he examined her on the table. I asked him not to “hold me against her.” We made the first cut, remaining as a contender after ten of the Champions were excused from the ring, but failed to secure any of the coveted titles.
With me as a handler, Laila may be “lovely,” but nonetheless she was just part of the pack. With handlers like Jenny or Wood or Renata she has a chance to be the Champion of Champions that she should be. As I pondered this reality on the way home, I wondered whether I would continue to aspire to be Laila’s handler. When we arrived back in Los Angeles after a seven hour drive and related the events of the trip to my daughter Melanie, she offered the best observation: “Dad, she’s never going to listen to you. You’re her friend; not her boss.”
And that was a little hard to handle too.
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More story material — Laila Tov becomes a Mommy!