The Ticket Montgomery County Newspapers November 2013
She once honed her skills on a softball field. Not anymore. Most weekends will find 13 year-old Berkeley Thompson dressed in conservative blazer and skirt, hair pulled back, scooting around a ring with her Viszla, Paisley, at an American Kennel Club conformation show.
Thompson got started as a dog handler four years ago. In the show ring Thompson matches her strides to the trot of her elegant Viszla. She cajoles Paisley with body language and treats, even funny voices. It’s all aimed at drawing out the dog’s personality, and winning over a sharp-eyed judge in a two-minute showdown.
With Thompson’s win as a junior handler at the Devon Dog Show in Ludwig’s Corner show in October, she qualified for the Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Ranked as the number one junior Vizsla handler (2011-‘12), she has won seven other best junior handler titles. A handler of four show dogs, Thompson regularly triumphs over professional handlers.
"Berkeley is very competitive, goal oriented," observed her mother Susan Thompson, who lives in Limerick. “As a total novice she’s taken the dog world by storm. She walks into the ring, puts a smile on her face and win or lose she knows how to compete."
“In my first show at Oaks (2010) the judges saw something in Paisley and me,” Berkeley noted. “That boosted my confidence. I try to execute veteran maneuvers that the judges might not expect from me. I like that it’s all on me, win or lose. One of my goals has been to get Paisley and Dutch on television (as best in breed), hopefully we can do that.”
Thompson will pilot Paisley and a Leonberger named Dutch into the show ring this weekend (Nov. 16-17) at the National Dog Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pa. The competition will be condensed into a two-hour special to be aired on NBC-TV Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, (noon – 2 p. m.). The National Dog Show is the world’s most widely watched dog show, attracting an audience of 20 million viewers.
More than 2,000 of America’s top show dogs and 175 different breeds will take to the rings in a pair of all-breed, benched dog competitions at one of America’s largest and most prestigious dog shows.
Staged near Valley Forge, on Saturday the canine contenders will be judged individually in a dozen rings according to the recognized standards for the breed. Around 2 p.m. breed winners advance to group judging in the main show ring-- Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding. The group winners vie for the coveted title—“Best in Show.”
On Sunday the Kennel Club presents another competition with 150-plus breeds competing for Best in Show, and a wide variety of demonstration events such as agility trials, dog diving, entertainment and educational programs.
Sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, this year the National Dog Show benefits the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House. Philadelphia has one of only five benched dog shows left in America, meaning the dogs are on display throughout the weekend and large crowds come out to meet the canines and interact with the owners and breeders.
So why is one canine chosen over others in what seems a whisker-close competition?
“Judging outside the ring, we can all do that,” replies David Frei, the “dean” of television canine commentators. “It’s relating form to function. The job of an Afghan hound is to run down rabbits, so the judge needs to see those traits. All the right parts need to be in all the right places. It’s all about putting your hands on the dog and feeling what’s under that fur which helps to bring both the art and engineering together to find that star.”
Spring City’s Kirsten Becker has been showing Leonbergers since the late 1990s. Despite the breed's lion-like looks and large size, the Leonberger is calm and friendly, actually quite light on its feet and graceful in motion. A multi-purpose working dog, they excel as therapy dogs. Beckman will be showing her 4-year old male Rutger, Beckman’s third competition at the National Dog Show.
“At the Oaks facility folks get to see and interact with all these breeds side-by-side,” Becker noted. “You get your hands on the dog and ask questions of the handlers. When a family is thinking about a breed they need to meet that dog in person, especially if they have kids. I explain that Leonbergers need attention and moderate daily exercise. As breeders, putting that information out there is our number one job.”
Becker hired Thompson as a handler for her 2-year old male Dutch. Berkeley has put every point on Dutch on his way toward his championship.
“Berkeley has a natural rapport with dogs,” Becker explained. “For such a young age it’s quite remarkable. Dutch tunes right into her. She is very patient, but can be firm when needed. Dutch does whatever she asks. They make such a unique team. Dutch is almost double her size.”
The dogs may be the stars, but it’s their handlers that make it happen. Backstage, handlers can find themselves wrestling with large animals, grooming, primping and training, all while in dressy clothing. In the ring, handlers and dogs both must exude poise, perfection and showmanship. Some handlers also own or co-own the dogs they train.
It’s tough work, with long hours and loads of travel. Handlers work with their dogs every day to keep them sharp physically and mentally. Hours of practice teach the dogs to trot perfectly on a lead-- chin up, fluid movement and focused intent. Then, it’s Showtime!
“Know your dog’s strengths and faults and show the judge the strengths and be respectful of everyone else in the ring,” Becker said. “It’s a matter of timing. The dog needs to respond when the judge is looking.”
In February Berkeley Thompson, an honor student, will be competing at the Westminster Dog Show with Paisley in junior showmanship as well as the breed ring since Paisley is a grand champion.
“Since I first started winning in juniors Westminster has always been my goal,” she related. “It’s the Super Bowl. It’s kind of crazy to think I’ve done that in four years. The sport has made me much more mature as a person. Gracious when you win, or if you lose. I’ve always loved dogs, so being a handler is just perfect for me.”