Everything in life that is worth anything at all requires the belief that, if you persevere, you will eventually get wherever you are headed. The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” While I am neither a Taoist, nor a “religious” woman (“spiritual” would be a better word to describe me), still I find much wisdom in his counsel.
For the last two years, I have been trying to achieve a small but nevertheless important goal that, at the outset, seemed within my grasp if attended to with patience: an American Kennel Club championship for the most handsome puppy out of Breeze’s last litter. The litter itself was small–a quartet solely of boys that we nicknamed “The Fab Four” after the Beatles.
I believed that, considering his impressive pedigree and striking physical attributes, a championship for “Paul” would be achieved in four or five shows, or a few months, or at the very least, before his first birthday. Brad and I gave him the new name “Mac” when we decided to keep rather than place him, and registered him with the AKC as Literati’s Paperback Writer, because Paul McCartney’s famous song seemed to fit both dog and owner well.
Showing my dogs has always been one of my most treasured hobbies, while Brad’s is to while away the hours in our sailboat on the San Francisco Bay. We alternate weekends between going out on the water and competing in dog shows. When Mac turned six months old, I was eager to begin his show career in the conformation ring.
It developed, however, that a quick championship was not to be. One show weekend after another passed, but the special title eluded us. I resolved not to be discouraged, but his first birthday came and went with only eight points of the fifteen necessary for the magical CH before his name.
Over the following year, it seemed as if Mac would never mature physically, and become a dog who commanded attention as he trotted around the ring, though he continued to accrue points gradually. Sometimes a delay like this happens with even the best of show dogs–but I was beginning to wonder whether Mac would be of that sort. Yet, I never questioned our decision to keep rather than place him. He was a sweetheart: an affable and happy-go-lucky dog who fit into our pack with ease. I focused on the ways in which he enriched our lives, reminding myself that he was a dog first and a show dog last.
In December, his second birthday approached, with the requisite number of points finally achieved, but he was still without the last of the two “major” dog shows required for the championship title. “Majors,” in which the number of males and females necessary is determined by the AKC, were very difficult to win. Repeatedly, we got beaten and though I always left the ring with a smile to show my good sportsmanship, I was growing bitter. I had ceased to see the smaller path leading up to the bigger goal I’d set nearly two years ago, and had almost lost the joy of hanging around with friends ringside, and my love of being a team with my dog.
Even while I was taking immense pleasure in the success Cody and I were experiencing in the obedience ring, I yearned for something similar for my younger dog in conformation. I continued to take Mac to classes to improve my handling skills and practiced with him in the backyard. But the shows of February passed, then those of March. And by the time late April arrived, I was incredibly frustrated.
Last weekend there was a major at a show that was an hour and a half away, and on Saturday I made the trek to the fairground with Mac. I used every superstitious trick I knew to help us win–selecting a blue dress that morning because it was the color of the prized ribbon I craved, and then wearing my “good luck” rubber bands that had held my ring number on my arm during other wins. Unfortunately, Mac caught the irresistible scent of a female “in high season,” and refused to behave, dancing in place as he tried to reach her.
Predictably enough, with all his masculine antics, Mac and I did not triumph. Back home, I scarfed down a pint of ice cream with fudge sauce, a plate of chicken salad thick with mayonnaise, three wedges of cheese and several large glasses of red wine. I didn’t care if I put on four pounds. I was depressed and truly on the verge of giving up. Who cared about all this anyway?
Sunday morning came upon us fair and warm, and I made yet another three hour round-trip within one day. On the wise advice of a professional handler, I coated Mac’s nose with pure vanilla extract three times, hoping to make him think more of chocolate chip cookies than girls.
The show on this day was not a major “in dogs,” (males)–but rather a major “in bitches,” (females). This meant that in order to capture the final major required for his title, Mac and I must beat not only all the dogs in our classes, but all the bitches as well, by winning the coveted “Best of Winners” award. Many dogs never achieve what is called a “cross-over” major as they complete their championships or grand championships. In desperation, I kept Mac as far away as possible from the bitches waiting to enter the ring, but once at my position in the line-up, I was wedged between not one girl, but two, both ready to be bred.
Mac gave it his all and I, resolving not to be as nervous as usual, bore down on the task at hand, setting his feet with care and gaiting him as fluidly as I could. The vanilla appeared to do the trick and he never once sniffed the wind. And so, at last, despite the long-shot odds, it was to us that the judge pointed as we made our final lap of the ring. Mac had earned that precious blue and white striped ribbon and I hugged him hard as he rose on his hind legs to give me a giant sloppy kiss.
It occurred to me as I drove home that we had actually made many small, but nevertheless important, steps along our way, as I waited for Mac to grow up enough to catch the judge’s eye, and as he waited for me to be proficient enough to handle him well. In the photo below, our judge stands by my side displaying our ribbons, a handsome Mac poses with pride on the stand, and I look up toward the heavens as if to show my gratitude to God, or Mother Nature, or perhaps even, Lao Tzu.
Two hours later, as I turned down the driveway, I realized that if only I’d seen our progress as we took those baby steps, I might have given, to both my dog and me, the joy that comes from persevering toward what can sometimes feel like an unattainable goal. Maybe next time I’ll be able to better watch my feet, wherever they carry me, on any journey of a thousand miles–even if it is a small one.