Competitive local canines and their owners gear up for the National Dog Show.
Main Line Today October 30, 2009
Maybe it was his dazzling snow-white coat, bearded face and the tousled hair between his eyes—or the raised paw as the judge was preparing to give him a final once-over. Whatever the case, Charmin, a 5-year-old Sealyham Terrier from Chester County, beat out more than 20,000 other canines last March, snatching Britain’s—and the dog world’s—most prestigious prize: Best in Show at the Crufts Dog Show.
“We were the first ones to be judged in the finals, so we entered the ring under a spotlight—which only happens a couple times in a lifetime of showing,” recalls Cochranville owner/handler Margery Good. “Charmin responded with almost a professional march, neck held high. The crowd went crazy, clapping and cheering. He usually enters the ring with a lot more speed, so it’s like he read my mind and my body language. He knows when it’s a very prestigious event, and that’s when he steps up and performs his best. He is in a league by himself.”
Indeed. Bred by Frances Bergeron of Québec, Charmin is one of the most recognizable show dogs in the world and the winningest Sealyham in the history of the breed. Winner of California’s AKC/ Eukanuba National Championship (and $50,000 in prize money) and the World Dog Show in Sweden (in front of 50,000 people), he’s garnered a remarkable 94 AKC all-breed Best in Shows and the most wins in dog-show history.
Charmin, who lives with Good and sleeps on the floor by her bed, has gone out on top. He retired last spring. “He’s zipping around getting dirty in the yard, wet in the rain,” she says. “He’s just a regular dog. He goes to the shows with me, since so many folks want to see him and rub on him.”
Waiting in the wings, however, is Charmin’s full brother, 6-year-old Merci, who earned the No. 1 all-breed title in Canada. “Merci is very generous and consistent in the ring,” says Good. “He’s not as proud as Charmin and is very content with himself, so he doesn’t need to show superiority. That’s why both dogs get along so well at home with me.”
Merci is expected to be a strong contender in the National Dog Show Nov. 14-15 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks. Roughly 15,000 fans are expected to turn up to watch more than 2,000 premier canines compete for Best in Breed, Group Winner and the coveted Best in Show.
The National Dog Show has become as much of a TV fixture on Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie and the NFL. When the event was first televised in 2002, executives had to rub their eyes just to be sure they were seeing the surprising rating numbers. It’s the world’s most widely watched dog show, with over twice the audience of the next two most popular such events combined. This year, the two-hour taped NBC special is expected to reach 20 million viewers.
John O’Hurley—who played the Jay Peterman character in the hit TV series Seinfeld—will again host the special. A passionate dog lover, he’s authored two books on the subject.
“When you’re watching these dogs—all the best of their breeds—it’s like watching thoroughbreds walk down toward the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby,” says O’Hurley. “You get the sense that this is the best of what it could possibly be.”
O’Hurley will be joined by David Frei, the dean of canine expert commentators and co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club show for the past two decades. He stepped into the judging ring last year for the Afghan Hounds, a breed he raises.
“Just as in any athletic endeavor, there is an air of confidence about these dogs—a certain balance,” Frei says. “Some just have a presence in the ring—kind of like the dog saying, ‘I own this ground I’m standing over.’ But they have to back that up with performance.”
Frei explains how one dog is chosen over others, in what typically seems like a whisker-close competition. “Judging outside the ring—we can all do that,” says Frei. “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 has presented dog shows since 1879. Sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, the National Dog Show will help raise money for the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, with support from Purina.
Any dog registered with the American Kennel Club can enter to compete. It’s a “benched show”—one of six held annually in the U.S. Spectators can go backstage to watch a variety of breeds get pampered, coddled and primped. Some simply sleep in their crates between showings.
Very little barking occurs behind the scenes—surprising when you consider how many dogs are back there. Visitors looking to acquire a certain breed can even quiz handlers about energy level, intelligence or potential health problems.
And while the dogs may be the stars, 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. And they’re nothing less than grooming gurus, constantly perfecting those gleaming coats.
Most weekends, handlers are out there on the road, their companions confined to cages and crates. They drive hundreds of miles, only to spend several hours sitting backstage before the animal goes on for its 60 seconds (or so) of fame. For a top-notch handler, it’s a 24/7 routine requiring detailed organizational skills and a savvy knack for strategizing.
Glen Mills’ Tina Sterling has been hooked for two decades. Her first litter of Cavalier King Charles spaniels was born in 1991. One was named Best Stud Dog at Sterling’s very first National Specialty Show in 1996.
Sterling’s daughter, Stephanie, landed her first championship with an English toy spaniel at the Staten Island (N.Y.) Kennel Club. She and her mother will present an English toy spaniel and a trio of Cavalier King Charles spaniels at the National Dog Show.
Many show dogs begin their training as early as 12 weeks. “It’s never too early to start,” insists Stephanie. “You want your dog comfortable on the lead (leash). It’s the same with being in a car or getting a bath. We work on stacking (positioning) the dog on a table, so he’s not afraid being up off the ground. At shows, the judge puts his hands all over the dog and checks his teeth. They must be at ease with all that.”
Owner of Good Spice Kennel in Cochranville since 1980, Good is one of the most sought-out dog handlers in the nation. She trained America’s top-ranked terriers in 1981 and 1991, and her Lakeland terrier, Flirt, was named Best in Group at the Westminster show in 1987.
Susan Tiller of Piscataway, N.J., has been showing Airedales with Good for nearly two decades. “Margery gets into the mind of each dog,” Tiller says. “A lot of handlers try to mold the dogs to themselves. Marge is exceptional at analyzing a dog’s behavior, whether it’s timid or wild, and turning them into champions. It’s not magic; it’s Marge.”
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.
Other than the Eukanuba event, big prize money is rare. Owners take home the ribbons, cups and trophies. Handlers are paid a fee ($75-$100) for most shows and earn bonuses for winning a dog’s group ($100) and best in show ($250).
A tall woman with an easygoing manner, Good was raised in University Park, Md., where she began showing dogs in obedience competitions in 1964.
“I got my first dog worthy of showing in 1968,” Good recalls. “I’ve spent a lifetime doing this, and I learn something new each day.”
“I love their spirit, their individuality and their willingness to work with you,” she says.
In 2006, Judy Carter fell terminally ill with cancer. She asked Good if she’d put her Sealyham Terrier on the fast track. Good did just that, and now she co-owns her former client’s dog with her father, Richard, and Sandra Middlebrook.
“I intended to show another dog, but Judy really wanted to watch him in the ring,” Good says. “She only got to see him for a month, but I know Judy’s watching from heaven, cheering us on.”
As for her prized Charmin, what made him a world champion?
“He has strength without coarseness,” she says. “He’s alert, very sensible and has tremendous power in his movement. He’s got tremendous eye appeal. Everything I asked him to do, he did—in spades.”
After hours of practice, the dogs trot perfectly on a lead—chin up, with fluid movement and focused intent. In the show ring, Good 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 what amounts to a two-minute showdown.
“It’s a matter of timing, the dog needs to respond when the judge is looking,” Good says. “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.”