Birthday gifts come in all sizes and shapes. For his fifty-fourth, Willistown's Steve Sansone received a Giant Schnauzer named Baccus. Robust and powerfully built, the canine's long, bushy whiskers, beard and eyebrows make for a striking figure.
Sansone's wife Cynthia purchased Baccus when he was nine months old from the prominent Skansen Kennels in Sebastopol, Calif. Believing he had champion potential as a young pup, the Sansones hired a handler and began competing in various shows throughout the country, including the 2010 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Baccus won a first award of merit in his breed class-- a nice showing for a rookie-- and was the third highest rated dog of the eleven entries in his breed class at Westminster.
Baccus went on to rack up a string of top-flight show awards. Then came Skansen Havannah. He won the breed class in the 2013 National Dog Show and was retired last year as America's No. 1 Giant Schnauzer.
"It's kind of funny, both the sport and the breed found us," relates Sansone, a thoroughbred horseman for 25 years. "As for the competitions, you're subjected to the judges' opinions and they are going to vary from week to week. You just have to go into it for the fun and sport, and if you win, enjoy the achievement. You meet some wonderful people and it's a great social life. Cynthia and I hope to do it for a long time."
One of the oldest and most prestigious competitions, the National Dog Show is hosted by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia (KCP) whose two all-breed dog shows are held in Oaks, Pa. on November 14-15 . On that Saturday more than 1,500 of America’s top show dogs will take to the show rings. Sunday’s show offers enhanced athletic dog exhibitions plus family-friendly activities. Top agility dogs will also perform at the shows each day. Diving dogs will leap for distance into a 20,000 gallon vat of water in regional competition on Sunday.
Saturday afternoon's Group and Best in Show competitions will be taped and then broadcast at noon by the NBC network right after the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on Nov. 26. It’s the world’s most widely watched dog show — doubling the combined audiences of the next two most popular dog shows. The two-hour 2015 special, The National Dog Show Presented by Purina is expected to reach an audience approaching 20 million total viewers.
Staged at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center near Valley Forge, from early Saturday morning more than 175 breeds and breed varieties will be judged individually in twelve rings according to recognized standards. About one o'clock, 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.” Four-year old bloodhound Nathan took home the title at the 2014 National Dog Show.
John O’Hurley hosts the NBC broadcast. A winner in “Dancing with The Stars” and a veteran actor, O’Hurley is joined once again again by David Frei, “the dean” of canine expert commentators. An AKC-licensed judge and host of USA Network’s prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Frei has enjoyed his own competitive success with the family's Afghan hounds and Brittany spaniels.
“Just as in any athletic endeavor there is an air of confidence about these dogs, a certain swagger,” Frei explains. “Some dogs just have a presence in the ring. Kind of like the dog saying ‘I own this ground I’m standing over.’ But like all top-level competitions they have to back that up with performance.”
So why is one canine chosen over others in what seems a whisker-close competition?
“Judging outside the ring, we can all do that,” Frei replies with a laugh. “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.”
The Kennel Club of Philadelphia held its first show in 1879 and even pre-dates the American Kennel Club (AKC) which was organized in 1884. In 2015 the National Dog Show will introduce seven new breeds for AKC registration: the Lagotto Romagnolo (Sporting), Berger Picard (Herding), Miniature American Shepherd (Herding), Cirnecco dell’ Etna (Hound), Boerboel (Working), Bergamasco (Herding) and the Spanish Water Dog (Herding).
Malvern, Pa. resident Shira Barkon got her first Siberian Husky as a rescue dog. Her first show dog was Kotch, acquired from a breeder in Allentown, Pa. in 2001. Kotch became a multiple champion, including a score in obedience. Quick and light on his feet, the Siberian Husky is free and graceful in action. A nicely furred body, erect ears and brush tail showcase his Northern heritage. A breeder for a number of years, Barken will be showing her females Jewel and Beatrace in the junior competition.
"Siberians are a very intelligent, very independent, intuitive dog," Barken observes. "They have this beautiful wild spirit that man hasn't changed. Their original function was in harness, carrying a light load at a moderate speed over great distances. I have to say, this breed is an obsession with me."
At Oaks, the Siberian Husky is one of the most popular breeds: typically, 50-100 dogs will be entered.
"I think Oaks is one of the best dog show facilities in the country," Barken observes. "Folks come by my station while I'm grooming the dogs and it's a wonderful meet and greet. When a family is thinking about a breed, they need to meet that dog in person, ask questions see if it's a good match. Siberians are a high-energy dog, but they are also wonderful companions in the home. As breeders we have an obligation to educate people. It’s our number one job."
The National Dog Show is just one of six benched shows held annually in the America. Spectators can stroll backstage to watch a myriad of breeds get pampered, coddled and primped for the show ring. Some dogs simply sleep in their crates between showings. Most surprisingly, there is very little barking considering how many dogs are in one exhibit hall. But best, visitors looking to acquire a certain breed can quiz devoted dog handlers about a breed’s energy level, intelligence, or potential health problems.
The dogs may be the stars, but it’s their handlers that make it happen. 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. They are grooming gurus, constantly perfecting their dog's gleaming coats.
Most weekends they're out there traveling with their canine companions in cages and crates. Handlers drive hundreds of miles and then spend hours sitting backstage before the animal goes on for its 60 seconds or so of fame.
Owner of Good Spice Kennel in Cochranville (Chester County) since 1980, Marge Good is one of the most sought-out dog handlers in the nation. She was named the 2010 AKC Terrier Group Breeder of the Year. In March of 2009, Charmin, a 5-year-old Sealyham Terrier beat out more than 20,000 other canines, snatching Britain’s-- and the dog world’s-- most prestigious prize: Best in Show at the Crufts Dog Show.
Except for two weekends at the end of December, Good and her assistants live out of suitcases, carting up to 14 dogs in her Chevy box truck. It’s outfitted with a generator, dog crates and all kinds of grooming equipment. Good arrives at the show venue at 6 a.m., starts showing at 8 and closes down by late afternoon.
Good chose to work with terriers because she loves their spirit, their individuality and willingness to work with her. Hours of practice teach the dogs to trot perfectly on a lead-- chin up, fluid movement and focused intent. In the show ring she matches her strides to the trot of her spunky terriers. She cajoles them with body language, treats and 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.
“It’s a matter of timing, the dog needs to respond when the judge is looking,” Good explains. “Treats work but I use my chirping sounds to get the dog to cock its head, prick its ears or show off an expression. If I can get the judge to smile, he’s on our side.”