Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Westminster-worthy

   Westminster is already over, but as I was out celebrating Valentine's Day last night, I'm still catching up on night one. (Don't tell me who won!!!) I've enjoyed watching the dog show annually since I was about 12 years old, when I was working for a collie breeder and she welcomed me into her living room on just those two nights every year to root for the collie. The sheer number of breeds (174 recognized by AKC, including 6 new breeds this year, with many more recognized overseas) and the immense variety among them are fascinating testaments to centuries of selective breeding. As an artist, I'm hooked on dogs.
   Michael J. LaFave is an iconic announcer with a booming voice, part of the fun of watching Westminster. The Hound group was first, and the Basenji appeared early. Not surprisingly, I like Basenji—they share some Shiba characteristics, and in fact I've often had people mistake Aki for a Basenji. (Although when you compare them side by side the differences are quite obvious... just as with the fox!)
(HINT: NOT THE SAME)
   The announcer's description was as funny as it is familiar: "The Basenji is intelligent and strong-willed, with a mischievous sense of humor, who requires an owner who shares those traits." The co-host asked what was meant by "mischievous sense of humor." You only need to be around a Basenji—or a Shiba—to get it immediately.
   When I get home from work every day, the dogs have typically been alone in the house for 11 hours. And every day they greet me at the kitchen door, whining and howling and jumping and wagging and generally acting like fools, which, let's be honest, is exactly why people love dogs. Every single moment they greet you is the best moment in their whole lives so far. My dogs crank that up another notch. Aki usually "sings" with me (howls enthusiastically, exciting Taylor and unnerving the cats). Taylor shoves his way past her to get to me, to get some attention.
   Once outside, they really go nuts. Both race off the deck as fast as possible, chasing away any birds, squirrels or rabbits that had the audacity to set foot in their yard. Aki takes off to patrol the perimeter and ensure our safety. Taylor is always ready to play. I lunge toward him and growl, and he tucks his tail under and races around with his back legs moving faster than his front, ears back, eyes wild, teeth bared and tongue hanging out like a wildman. He runs loops around me in a ridiculous blur. I can't not laugh out loud every time. He's so chubby and cobby that you'd never guess he was fast, but there you have it.
   He's always mischievous and funny, but tonight he outdid himself. I fed them and we played for a bit, then I left for yoga. I came home a couple of hours later and headed upstairs. The dogs followed with me, wound up: snarling and tackling each other. They wrestled around the bed while I changed clothes.
   Suddenly and without warning, Taylor darted out from under the bed, straight toward me at top speed and attempted to grab my ankle, missed, sped past me, slid clumsily down the hallway, nails clicking on the hardwood floors, and spilled ungracefully down the stairs. He grazed the wall on the landing and kept running down the second flight, and I could hear him slide on the living room rug before coming to an abrupt halt by running into the couch. All of this happened in the span of about 8 seconds. If Taylor was a circus performer, he'd be the guy in the crash helmet firing himself out of the cannon.
   Aki's sense of humor centers more around her general refusal to do what I ask, when I ask. She is extremely smart, quick and capable, but she embodies the typical Shiba independent streak. When I ask her to sit, she'll do a long stretch forward and then backward, taking her sweet time in her own yoga practice. When I try to get a high-five it's rarely unaccompanied by a miserably pathetic whine. When I'm trying to eat my dinner, she frequently sits and stares directly at me, griping and snapping her jaws to indicate that she wants to go out, she wants her own food, or she just wants to interrupt my dinner because she can. She has the sullen expression to go with it, too, which is why I categorize this as a sense of humor. She also squints and smiles at me when she's happy. But bitching about everything is part of her "charm"!
Famous internet photo of grumpy Shiba pup
   They say dogs don't experience emotion, that pet lovers just project human feelings onto them. That may be true, but you will never convince me that my dogs aren't intentionally interacting with me in ways that they know willl get a reaction—usually hysterical laughter. Even if dogs don't experience joy (which I'd argue that they do) they sure know how to inspire it in others.
   My dogs were both rescues, unwanted by their original owners. I scratch my head over that fact every single day. Every Shiba I've fostered has been fun and charming. All dogs are, if we're sharp enough to recognize it and encourage it... and wise enough to choose a dog with traits and personality that complement our own. I like that Westminster helps spread that word, and if I can spread it one step further I'll have fulfilled an important purpose. I've grown up with dogs in my household and can't imagine it any other way.
Thunder, the winner of the breed this year