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The Big Show

by Lese Dunton 5 months ago in dog · updated 4 months ago
First Place in Life Unleashed ChallengeFirst Place in Life Unleashed Challenge

Girl and puppy go for it

“You can have the pick of the litter,” they said.

“Great,” I replied. “What does that mean?”

It meant that my parents had successfully arranged a romantic encounter with our Labrador retriever and their friend’s female Lab. Both dogs had pedigrees and were beautifully black. The reward for this marriage? A five year old, that’s me, got to choose any puppy she wanted. The cutest one would belong to me and no one else. A little girl’s dream come true.

I remember being surrounded by soft, cuddly puppies jumping for my attention. As their bodies stumbled and tumbled, falling all over each other, their big brown eyes remained focused in my direction, steady and calm. This was the most difficult and fun decision I had made in all of my five years.

Just as the choice seemed impossible, a little guy from the back caught my eye. He was shimmering with joy. There was an air of mischievous confidence about him, as if he were laughing inside, knowing our destiny was at hand. It was merely a matter of getting his brothers and sisters out of the way.

Heading straight towards me, he wiggled to the left and to the right with great force, as only a Labrador can do, bumping aside his siblings one by one. When he reached the front of the pack, he looked up at me with deep love. I pointed my finger at him to clearly signal my choice to the adults. And when a girl says, “That one,” she really means it.

My parents lifted him into their arms high above me. I was horrified when they used a big pair of scissors to snip off a chunk of his hair. Mom reassured me this was simply a way to separate him from the others; it wouldn’t hurt, and his hair would grow back. Good information.

Still, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable again until his furry little body was sleeping on my lap as we sat in the back seat of our Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon heading home. His little whiskers were itching my leg but I didn’t dare move; his well-being became my life’s purpose from that moment on.

We named him Paddles because all Labradors like to paddle in the water, any water. My first suggestion was to call him Blacky, for obvious reasons. He was black, plus children have a tendency to add the letter “y” to things they like. My parents said “no” for vague reasons I didn’t understand, but the name Paddles seemed right, so I didn’t argue.

By the following day, it became clear to me that this little angel with teeth and a tail, who appeared in my world so sweetly, had talents best revealed in a dog show. Convinced he would win first place, I announced this plan to my mother and she agreed. When I was older, she made a confession: “The only reason we let you do it because we wanted to show you that it’s not that simple. You can’t just think up things and do them and always expect they’ll work out.” I’m grateful she held off on telling me this.

I remember training Paddles every day. The book said not to go more than five to ten minutes at a time because puppies don’t have a long attention span. Day after day, we worked on his ability to sit motionless, head up, paws just so, looking straight ahead. Then we practiced walking back and forth briskly without a leash, close to my leg but not touching. My initial assessment was correct, he was really good.

My mother had to attend all the official pre-dog show meetings which she told me did not allow little girls. What an unfair rule! I had to watch her drive away in the station wagon and disappear. She did bring me back a pen that said Rockland County Kennel Club on it, which I held onto tightly in my little hands. It became one of my most cherished possessions.

By the time of the big show, I was a six-year-old, love-filled dog trainer, and my one-year-old Paddles was a master of his craft. Highly intuitive, he knew just what you wanted. His moves were impeccably graceful and solid. His kind face was sleek, as though a sculptor had carefully made it smooth. I loved kissing him on the forehead, but not when there were people around.

“Look at the little girl! Look at the little girl!” I kept hearing people say. I guess compared to our final competitor, a gray-haired man with a poodle, I must have looked kind of young.

Perhaps competing against a child created too much pressure for the opposing team. When it came time for the walking-briskly-back-and-forth-close-to-the-knee routine (the hardest one), the gray-haired man’s dog jumped up and down nervously. Major demerits.

Paddles and I, on the other hand, appeared perfectly composed. No doubts or fears. I couldn’t believe how elegantly he executed all the right moves. His body trotted alongside me at just the right distance and pace, with head held evenly, and then we stopped in unison, paw to foot. Amazing.

When they handed us the trophy, it sparkled in the sunlight. The ribbon said, “Best of Show, Puppy Division.”

As we pulled into the gravel driveway, my mother honked the horn over and over, sounding a victory to my father and brothers waiting for us at home. No one thought to have a camera ready because no one thought we would win – except Paddles and me. It didn't matter. I have the picture in my mind forever.

After that, we both relaxed. The restrictions of dog show rules gave way to unrestrained excitement. I tried to run after Paddles, but he was too fast. He’d leap in the air to catch a tennis ball or jump in the water to make a big splash, and then paddle back to shore so he could do it all over again. In the years ahead, he would gaze at me with compassion if I cried and wiggle with love when I laughed.

Moral to the story: go after what your heart imagines would be fun, and don’t listen to the doubts of sensible grownups. A dog can teach you that.

Paddles passed on when he was thirteen and I was eighteen. Whenever he appears in my dreams now, he is shimmering with joy.

dog

About the author

Lese Dunton

Reporter, author, essayist. Like writing about children, dogs, love, and everything in life.

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