Recently, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to judge obedience at the 4-H Maricopa County finals (the Phoenix area).
The only thing I knew about 4-H was that my wife had been a member when she was a little girl. "What did you do in 4-H?" I inquired.
"I ruined lots of material, " she responded. Which was her way of telling me she was in the sewing program, and not very good at it.
Arrangements for my judging gig were made with one of the leaders who quickly let me know that I wouldn't be judging OTCH-level performances. "We base our shows on AKC standards," she told me, "although they are somewhat adjusted to take into account that these are children with family pets trained by children." Then she added, "We (those who are teaching the kids obedience competition) are trying to stay one step ahead of the children."
Some of the "adjustments" include: If a dog poops or pees in the ring, that's ten points off, not cause for excusal. If a dog breaks a sit or a down during the group exercises, it's up to the judge's discretion how to penalize that team. One girl whose golden retriever had done relatively well had her golden get up from the long down only seconds before I was about to say, "Return to your dogs." I deducted ten points. A little boy's dog went down on the sit almost as soon as the exercise began. The boy quickly got the dog back up again and the dog finished the exercise sitting. I took off 20 points.
By and large the individual exercises were an adventure. Tight leashes were the rule rather than the exception. Most of those kids talked to their dogs throughout the entire run. About 75 percent of the competitors made a left U-turn when I said, "About turn." Clearly one of the leaders who was "staying one step ahead of the kids" was teaching the about turn in the wrong direction. I quickly stopped scoring that; those kids were doing what they had been taught.
One little girl -- a kid so tiny we were shocked to learn she was 12 years old -- was cool as a cucumber. They were heeling quite nicely when her dog stopped in mid-pattern and pooped.
While the stewards were cleaning up the mess, I asked her, "Did you walk your dog before you brought him in here?"
"Oh yes," she said, "and he went. But he saved some"
All that, though, is incidental. What really knocked my socks off was the appearance, the demeanor, the overall quality of that group of kids.
Strikingly polite. So well-mannered. After I had finished judging one little girl, I paused to make a note on the scoresheet. I was so focused on my clipboard that I didn't realize she hadn't left the ring. I felt something tugging at my right hand. She was determined to shake my hand and say, "Thank you." Which she did.
And the appearance of those kids! Clean-cut. Clean, pressed pants and shirts. I didn't see one kid attired in a T-shirt emblazoned with an obscene message.
Later, driving home, an astonishing thing occurred to me: Across the five hours I was with that group, I didn't see one kid glued to one cell phone for one second. Stunning!
And the parents. There they were. At ringside. Cooking lunch. Running the bake sale and the silent raffle. And of course volunteering their time as 4-H leaders. Parents who were committed to raising good kids . . . and were putting in the time.
Tight leash: 10 points.
Talking to the dog: 15 points.
Fluffy's failure to stay put during the stand for exam: NQ
The life lessons those kids are learning: PRICELESS!