Noel McLaren held up Labrador puppies less than a day old, and while he would never admit this, there was a glint in his eye as their mum, Rio, watched.
It’s what dog lovers do; the most hardened of them are reduced to a slobbering mess all because of the love of a dog.
Now, more than 40 years after entering a Labrador at his first dog show in Broken Hill, Noel, 55, is the convener of this crowd-favourite event that returns to Port Elliot on the Saturday of its Show weekend, October 11-12.
According to Noel, people who see a dog show as simply a day where dog breeders and enthusiasts turn up to show off their dog are really barking up the wrong tree as the work and expense behind the scenes remain significant.
Noel, who is convener for the fifth time and has judged dogs overseas, has already began processing the expected 400-plus entries expected for the dog show, which is run under the auspices of Dogs SA, while the Southern Agricultural Show Society must pay for the flights and accommodation to bring seven judges from Victoria to officiate on the day.
Finding available judges was one of the key reasons why there was no dog show last year, and naturally Noel believes this year’s event is a huge plus.
“Port Elliot is not a huge show compared with kennel dog club shows, but a lot of people come down here from the mid-north, especially from places like Lewiston and Two Wells which is closer to the city, just to support Port Elliot,” Noel said. “They spend money here and tell people back home about Port Elliot.”
Noel’s passion for dogs really emerged as a 13-year-old living in Broken Hill when, as a huge favour for his sister, Sally-Ann, he entered her Labrador, Tarry, in the local dog show when she was sick.
“I took Tarry into the show and won just about everything,” Noel said. “I guess the winning bug got to me. I then got my own Labrador, and while she wasn’t much of a show dog I bred from her and had success. I have been showing dogs ever since, including Beagles and then going back to Labradors.”
Noel also became a judge in group three – the pointer breeds – and for the past 13 years has ran a business, Sagewood Boarding Kennels and Cattery, on Mosquito Hill Road off the Goolwa-Mount Compass Road.
“Dogs have always been my life,” Noel said. “There are seven groups, and I judge in only one – group three – and I’m quite happy doing just that for now. It takes two years of study for each group.
“You can get to see a big part of the world as paid holidays being a judge at dog shows, and some who are coming to Port Elliot from Victoria have done just that. Being a dog judge has taken me to New Zealand a few times, and I have been around Australia to towns that you just bypass. Dog shows take you countryside, and they are all a great experience.
“The Port Elliot Show is special because there is only one other agricultural show in South Australia outside of the Royal Adelaide Show – in Mount Gambier – that shows dogs.
“I guess in a sense people who show dogs are in a breed of their own too. It’s different. You have to get up early and travel to dog shows.
“It can be expensive too; dog trailers are $10,000 and the leads aren’t cheap. Then there are those, especially the women, who must have the outfits to match their dog. It’s part of the showmanship; you have to impress the judge.
“A friend of mine, Erin, who has an American Cocker Spaniel, starts working on a Tuesday for a show on a weekend; grooming her dog, which is a long coat breed. Some people chalk the dog to get the coat up – heavier, fluffier – and condition the coat. Some spend their whole time preparing their dog for a show from one weekend to the next.
“People may think the dogs must lead a weird life, but they don’t. They are specially treated; absolutely pampered. They are bathed, cleaned and presented a lot more than your average dog. They get all the additives in their food to make them spot on.
“The dogs absolutely love it, just like a thoroughbred loves to race. Shows are in their breed; that’s what they do. I only need to grab a lead for my dog Wizard and all he wants to do is run as if he were performing in the show. Some days he gets into the ring and says to himself, ‘I am not going to do this’. Yes, they each have their own personality, and they can make you melt.
“Showing and breeding dogs makes you tough too; you have to learn to take criticism. You have bred a dog and someone tells you it’s not much good. You have to make a call; do I listen to this person or do I stick to my own ideas?
“You can grow attached and love your dog, but can you break that bond and let it go to someone else? You breed a litter of pups and you have the owners come and take one. Everyone asks the same thing; do you find it hard to let them go? Yes, I do.
“In my mind I ask whether I am letting the pup go to the right home, is it going to be looked after? Do they really know what a Labrador is all about?
“Yeah, I feel it every time one of my pups goes, and it hits me hard every time one of them passes on. I still remember Tarry (tears emerge). There are people out there tough as nails, and the one thing that breaks them down is the death of their dog.
“I remember Jess and Bell, who were a few years apart, and Jess had to be put down. Within a week Bell had to be put down too because she wouldn’t eat and became so ill… he missed her soul mate so much.
“Dogs have been my life. They have cost me money, but I would spend every cent and more over again. They have taken me to places that I probably would have never been able to go.
“I look after other people’s dogs too, and I love them and treat them as show dogs and as if they were my own, simply because they are dogs. I would rather be around a dog than a human.”
On a cool summer’s night you can often find Noel sitting on his back verandah talking to his dogs.
“I tell them secrets,” Noel confesses. “I tell them everything and I know they are not going to wag their tongues, just their tails. You’ve gotta love ’em, don’t you?”