We like playing sports, much better than we like watching most professional athletes, but we are always willing to make exceptions. This conforms with the tastes of a border collie of our acquaintance who has learned to lie quietly only through a lifetime of exertion. We took him to a dog agility course once, and he tried to use the teeter-totter to launch his tennis ball. He likes games of his own devising and given time, he would probably reinvent the V-2 rocket.
So Charlie the collie had little idea about the big doings last week at the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual agility competition. The contest, which takes place just before the club’s famous dog show, in New York, is one of several prestigious agility trials. Unlike the dog show, any dog can compete, even and especially border collies.
Dogs in the show, where Siba, a poodle with a pompadour took top honors this year, must be purebred. They are partly judged on conformation, which tries to make scientific what is not: a set of standards for a dog’s looks. This, for example, is from the American Kennel Club’s Dalmatian standard:
“Abnormal position of the eyelids or eyelashes is a major fault. Incomplete pigmentation of the eye rims is a major fault ... The nose is completely pigmented on the leather, black in black-spotted dogs and brown in liver-spotted dogs. Incomplete nose pigmentation is a major fault.”
What about the spots? “Color and markings and their overall appearance are very important points ... The ground color is pure white. In black-spotted dogs the spots are dense black. In liver-spotted dogs the spots are liver brown. Any color markings other than black or liver are disqualified. Spots are round and well-defined, the more distinct the better. They vary from the size of a dime to the size of a half-dollar. They are pleasingly and evenly distributed. The less the spots intermingle the better.”
We know a reporter who was covering a dog show once, poking around in the handlers area backstage, when he came upon a woman frantically touching up her Dalmatian with a Sharpie – which probably says all we have to say about eugenics today. The game is rigged.
The agility competition asks any dog to race through an obstacle course with jumps, a tunnel and weave poles, for a timed finish. All dogs compete in five classes by height.
This year, in the 24-inch class, Punk, a golden retriever, won in 36.05 seconds. Lili Ann, an Australian shepherd, took the 20-inch class in 35.04 seconds. Pixel, a miniature American shepherd, triumphed in the 12-inch group in 36.4 seconds; and in the eight-inch class, Fortune, a papillon, won in 36.73 seconds. And this was all well and exciting. But what got our attention was P!nk, a border collie from Pickerington, Ohio, in the 16-inch class, because she was looking for a three-peat.
Watching P!nk at the start, you knew she knew it was her time. She was locked on her handler, Jennifer Crank, as Crank walked out to the first jump, called “Stay!” over her shoulder to steady P!nk, and then “Jump ... jump ... jump.”
And boy did she, in a near-blur, barking all the way to a 29.35-second win.
The late David Foster Wallace wrote about the kinetic beauty of Roger Federer’s tennis. That is what P!nk was barking about: She was experiencing her own supersonic grace. Did she know what she had done?
Yes. Because P!nk knows one big thing: She is flawless in motion.