Our Accidental Top Dog

A few weeks ago, our Irish Water Spaniel was just another young dog.  Now he is one of the top Irish Water Spaniels (IWS) in the world.  Here's how it happened.

The universe of show dogs is huge.  The IWS portion of that universe is tiny.  The Irish Water Spaniel is not a common breed; it is the rarest of the spaniels.  There are probably not many more than a thousand IWS in America.  The sheer numbers of dogs from competing breeds, and the rarity of the IWS, make any kind of win an unusual, and statistically unlikely, event.

Just over a year ago, our friend Marion McLeod, one of the most respected IWS breeders in the world, gave us a call.  She knew that we had lost all three of our beloved old dogs in the course of a few months1.  We were heartbroken, lonely, and needed a new canine member for our family.

"Larrey, I've done it.  I've got your puppy, and he's got it all!" Marion proclaimed over the telephone.  Marion is a retired science teacher.  She has dedicated her retirement years to breeding the ultimate Irish Water Spaniel.  According to Marion, this now six-week-old puppy was the one we had been waiting for.  But the road ahead would not be easy for this "perfect" little puppy.

When the puppy turned eight weeks old, Marion took him to Pat Hastings to have him evaluated.  Mrs. Hastings and her late husband Bob developed a widely used system for rating puppies for structural and behavioral potential.  (At eight weeks there is a structural "window"; the puppy's physical features are similar to what they will be as an adult dog.)  Mrs. Hastings was impressed by the puppy and thought that he might grow up to be an outstanding show dog.

Marion had to drive several hundred miles to meet Mrs. Hastings for the evaluation.  "Pat gave the puppy a great score!" Marion called to tell us right after the evaluation.  Marion celebrated the good news -- and, for her, made a rare mistake: she took the puppy outside to run around on the grass at the motel she was staying in.  The perfect puppy was infected with the parvovirus2.

Marion called us a few days later.  The puppy was near death.  My heart sank when I heard the news.  "Marion, we don't have the money to pay for the treatment," I told her.  "You should probably put him down"3.

"But he is your puppy.  I know it.  He is supposed to be yours."  The emotion in her voice was palpable.  "I'll pay for the vet bills.  If he makes it...you just have to buy the puppy.  You understand that there will probably be behavioral problems.  You will have to patrol the yard and sterilize his poop for several weeks -- so that the parvo doesn't infect your property.  But once you see him.... I know he is your puppy."

We bought the puppy.  We felt like we owed something to this breed of dog that had become so important in our lives -- and to honor the years of labor and love of Marion McLeod.

No sugar-coating what happened next.  The first several months with the puppy were miserable.  Among other problems, he was not housebroken.  I was facing spinal surgery and could not even take the puppy outside on a leash.  But Eileen's determination (and my wife's Irish indefatigability) proved more than sufficient for the troubles that came with the newest member of our family.

Our new puppy seemed just as bent on becoming an obedient pet as my wife was on getting him to that goal.  Eileen met his every misstep with firm discipline wrapped in a most forgiving love.  Every time he broke the rules, he looked at us with his warm golden eyes as if to say, "I'm trying."  We decided to name him "Croi" -- Gaelic for "heart."

We kept Marion informed of Croi's remarkable behavioral progress, although we were pretty sure he would never be a show dog.  He had lost most of his coat from the parvo. After about six months, when his coat grew back in silky dark chocolate ringlets, we started to change our minds.

It was not his coat that really impressed.  It was his movement and his temperament.  Watching Croi sprint across a golf course or seeing him tensed like a strung bow in "stay" -- right before he sprang into a pond -- was like seeing perfection.  I'd seen such purity of movement before -- but only on TV.  Croi carried himself like the dogs that had made it to the finals at the dog show of dog shows -- Westminster.

Marion asked us if we would enter Croi in the Idaho Capital City dog show.  This was not my decision -- Eileen would have to carry the burden of prepping a one-year-old dog, which had never been within a thousand miles of a dog show, by herself.  Eileen agreed.

Eileen and I are not dog show people.  We are both fairly competent trainers in obedience -- and we had entered some of our previous dogs in obedience competitions.  We had never participated in a major, or minor, interbreed dog show.

The Capital City show is one of the biggest dogs show in the Northwest.  There were over 1,200 dogs in this year's event.  Over 250 dogs competed in the "Sporting Group."  Sporting Group is made up of hunters and retrievers.  Irish Water Spaniels are in this category.  Croi would face 250 competitors.  Some of those dogs were already championed -- and several held the prestigious honor of "Grand Champion."  About a dozen of the best Sporting dogs in the country and been flown to Boise for the competition.  (We would discover that winning at Capital City was considered by the professionals in the dog world a solid stepping stone for participation in the big leagues of the dog show world.)

Croi, on the other hand, was champion of the pond behind our house.  He was the king of mud and the prince of cockle-burrs.  Thus, Eileen had always groomed Croi as a pet.  Before we left for the show, she spent hours reshaping his coat.  She turned Croi's casual and pragmatic haircut into something that resembled an IWS show dog.

There were only two other Irish Water Spaniels at the event.  And Marion had brought both of those dogs with her.  We needed three IWS so that we could meet the minimum number for the breed to be judged.  (Dogs must earn Best of Breed before they can enter Best of Group -- and a dog must win Best of Group before it can appear in Best of Show.  So there is a very steep ladder to climb.)

At dinner, the night before Croi's debut in Best of Breed, Marion was going over the program that listed the names of the judges.  "This is fantastic!" she exclaimed.  "Tomorrow's judge is one of the most respected Sporting Group judges in America.  This judge knows structure.  He knows hunting dogs.  He judges the dog -- not the owner or the pedigree.  If Croi wins Best of Breed, and if this judge pays any attention at all to him, we might want to enter Croi in Best of Group.  It would be a long shot.  But let's watch the judge carefully tomorrow."

Neither my wife nor I had been in the show ring, so we had hired a professional handler to guide Croi through the process.  We were given strict instructions to remain silent and out of sight during the judging process.  The handler was afraid Croi might try to look to us for commands -- or even jump out of the ring.  The handler had seen it happen before.  We were told to become invisible.

One at a time, the three Irish Water Spaniels trotted around the ring.  The judge watched their gait and noted their behavior.  He checked their teeth, rib structure, and all the other traits a judge looks for in a champion dog.  He pointed at Croi.  Best of Breed.

Then the judge did something unusual.  He called the three handlers over to him.  Peeking around our hiding place behind a cement column, we saw him whisper something to the handlers.  Our handler looked somewhat astonished.  She trotted over to us.

"I've been handling in front of this judge for almost ten years.  This is the first time I have ever heard him make a comment about a dog after his decision."  Eileen and I were still hiding behind the column, wondering what in the world had just happened.  Croi sat dutifully next to us.  "The judge told us," our handler continued, "'this dog has a future.'"

We didn't know what that meant, either.  (All dogs have a future.)  But Marion, Croi's breeder, knew.  "He's going into group," Marion announced.

The Sporting Group had 27 other breed winners.  This meant that every breed in the Sporting Group was represented.  (The list and pictures of each breed are here.)  That's right.  Croi was up against 27 other dogs.  Each dog represented the best of its breed, and some dogs had already won major shows.

We had to stay hidden a lot longer for Best of Group.  After examining all 28 entrants, the judge picked the top four finalists.  He didn't pick Croi.

Marion was right -- it was a long shot, I told myself.  Eileen looked disappointed.  Like many of the other owners, she had spent hours and hours with a comb and scissors.  Our assistant handler, who had fallen in love with Croi, started playing with him.  All that was left was for the judge to announce the order of the winners -- from fourth to first.

Eileen and I stood up.  We had been hiding behind a concession stand this time.  The judge had a puzzled look on his face, like he had misplaced something.  He glanced at the 24 dogs that had not been picked and pointed at Croi.

There was hush in the room.  This was not supposed to happen.  The professional breeders and handlers knew the other dogs.  They had no idea where Croi was from or why the judge had done a second take and picked a completely unknown quantity as a finalist.

"Fourth," the judge pointed at Croi.  Eileen and I just stared at each other.  We weren't sure what had happened.  Very soon we were surrounded by a small group of professional handlers and breeders who were congratulating us on, what was to them, a stunning upset.  One of them grabbed Eileen by the arm and asked, "Do you have any idea what a win this is?"  No, we didn't.  Fourth place wasn't even a "win" -- was it?

Once it all sank in, we were not in the least surprised.  We had seen Croi run, and retrieve, and leap into the water almost like an angel in flight.  Our dog loves life -- maybe because he has had to fight so hard to keep it.  And, after all, his name is "heart"4.


1 I wrote about the impending loss of one of our dogs here.

2 Parvo is contracted by contact with the feces of infected dogs or from the virus that remains in the earth from the infected feces.  The virus can live in the ground for months and is almost impossible to eliminate once it is in the earth.  Unless the ground is sterilized, the virus can last outside from four to eight months -- depending on the amount of sunlight that hits the infected area.  Direct exposure to sunlight eventually eliminates the virus.  The virus is deadly for puppies that have yet to be inoculated or that have been weaned and do not have access to the mother's antibodies.  If untreated, the contagion kills 90% of at risk-puppies.  There is a window of vulnerability for puppies from about five to nine weeks -- the time between being weaned and being inoculated.

3 Treatment for the parvovirus is expensive; it costs several thousand dollars, and the aggressive nature of the treatment can radically change the personality of the puppy.  At a critical stage in its development, the poor little creature is locked in a cage for several days while fluids are pumped into its veins.  This happens at exactly the time the puppy should be learning his place in the litter's pecking order, starting his house training, preparing to be separated from his litter, etc.  The behavioral problems can be severe.  They were in Croi's case.

4 Picture courtesy of Randy Roberts and Robert's Photos.