The dog show is at the Hacienda Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The Haci, as it's usually called, is not exactly Caesars Palace. But it's not a Motel 6, either. You get free drinks if you play blackjack or poker, but not if you play the quarter slots.
Not that I mean to put down the dog show. This is no cocker spaniel specialty event. This is the 1988 Gaines United States Dog Obedience Classic—the annual national dog obedience championship, a dog world Final Fur. At the Haci you can find the Orel Hershiser of heeling, the Wayne Gretzky of dumbbell retrieving, the Steffi Graf of scent discrimination. Probably there is no canine Ben Johnson, although at one point I overheard the following exchange about a Doberman pinscher:
"That's a big bitch!"
"She's on steroids."
I didn't go to spend three days with 190 dogs because I'm a longtime dog obedience aficionado. I doubt I'll be at this years Obedience Classic, which begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving at the Odeum near Chicago. The reason I traveled to the Hacienda was that I fell under the influence of a dog obedience guru. It began innocently enough. Every few weeks I went out to watch her teach a bulldog named Bandit to sit, come, stay and not to threaten the neighbors. In the course of these visits, something happened to me. I began to believe, as does this trainer, that obedience training is not just a matter of teaching sit, come and heel but that it is also ennobling and fulfilling for both the dog and the trainer.
I should mention, I suppose, that the trainer's name is Vicki Hearne, that she is not only a dog trainer (she would object strongly to that only) but also a poet, essayist, novelist and has been a visiting professor of English literature at places like Yale University and UC Riverside. She is best known for the book Adam's Task, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of dogs, horses and cats, and of the morality and meaning of training the first two of these creatures.
It did occur to me after some of my visits with her that perhaps it was not dog training itself but her poetic analysis of it that entranced me. That's why I ended up at the Classic. I figured that I would see plenty of obedience, but also that Vegas is about as far as you can get from poetry, except maybe limericks.
Presumably, as long as people have kept dogs, deep into the recesses of prehistory, they have done some dog training. (Whap! "No! That's my bison gristle!") Formal obedience trials are a more recent invention. The first American Obedience Trial was held by Mrs. Helene Whitehouse Walker on her father's estate in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1933. Blanche Saunders, Mrs. Walker's kennel manager and dog trainer, later wrote a book called The Story of Dog Obedience. The old pictures in this book—particularly of Saunders in riding breeches—give the enterprise of dog training the feel of a P.G. Wodehouse novel—estates, horsiness, kennel managers. (If I had a kennel manager, my dogs would be obedient too.)
Today, the world of dogs and dog obedience is essentially middle class, and it is vastly more active than it was in the early years. More than 1,500 obedience trials are held each year by various dog clubs under the aegis of the American Kennel Club, and more than 115,000 dogs are entered in the trials. They try to qualify in three classes: Companion Dog (CD), Companion Dog Excellent (CDX), or Utility Dog (UD). Many of the obedience trials take place as part of larger shows and exist in the shadow of the breed competition, which is about looks, not performance. At most obedience trials the dogs are somewhat less polished than those who enter the Classic. They're more like the dog I heard about from Jim Dearinger, former AKC obedience director.
"There was this basset in Long Island whose name was George," Dearinger said. "His owner was Lou Blum. George was entered in Utility class 74 times and never earned his Utility title." In failing to get that title, George performed a number of legendary feats, such as pushing a dumbbell along the ground with his nose instead of picking it up to retrieve it. Once, when he had a good chance to qualify, he fell asleep and fell over during an exercise called the long stand. But his most memorable performance was in an exercise that requires a dog to retrieve, at the direction of the handler, one of three gloves dropped in different parts of the ring. "George went to the correct glove," Dearing said, "but his ear fell over it. George picked up his ear and returned it to Lou."