The Dogged Pursuit Of Excellence

Mike Little

, Entertainment

Two locals were among the contenders at The National Dog Show. Our reporter finds that they’re not much different from the family pet.

 

Most dogs are just like us. Given their druthers, they’re content to sit on the sofa watching TV all day, taking only the occasional break to give their owners some exercise by playing fetch with them in the backyard.

Your show dogs are a more ambitious breed altogether. Dog shows are the canine equivalent of Harvard—only your best and your brightest get in. These canines are well-bred, have snooty names like Ch Emerick V Ashgood (Ch stands for champion), spend a lot of time beneath blow dryers and know how to comport themselves before TV cameras. And they rarely bark unless barked at.

So, what better way to explore the rarified world of this doggy elite than by attending a dog show? Especially a snazzy, world-class affair like The National Dog Show, which was held on the weekend of Nov. 17-18 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pennsylvania?

As a writer, I went to the show to observe. But as a proud Delawarean, I went to root for the home pooches, and I got to meet a pair of them: Ch Rapscallion’s Biden My Time N’Money (he’s a basset hound) and Twilight’s Fairy Princess (she’s 100 percent Tibetan terrier).

$20,000 in Prize Money
Hosted by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, the National Dog Show has been an annual event since 1933, and it’s a very big deal indeed; this year more than 2,000 dogs representing 192 breeds showed up. And that “National” doesn’t do the competition justice; competitors jetted in from as far away as Brazil, Macau and the Philippines.

As for the stakes, they were anything but penny ante. Entrants were vying for some $20,000 in prize money and an array of honors. And the finalists were doing so before an immense television audience: The National Dog Show has been an NBC Thanksgiving Day mainstay since 2001. Small wonder I saw many a jittery pooch during the course of the day.

But what really makes the event a Mecca for dog enthusiasts is the fact that it’s benched, which means both dogs and owners are required to make themselves available to the general public over the course of the competition. 

A Komondor, also known as a Hungarian sheepdog, was among the more hirsute competitors. Photo Sherri Bihl-Sobocinski

Two large halls of the Philadelphia Expo Center were set aside for these meet-and-greets, giving celebrity-struck attendees the opportunity to rub elbows with the canine crème de la crème, from that familiar and beloved standby the Labrador Retriever to such exotic newbies as the Nederlandse Kooikerhondje and the Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen. Like everyone else, I did a lot of excited dog gawking. Look! A dreadlocked Bergamasco! And over there! A simply adorable teacup chihuahua, biting someone!

Waterproof Dog Panties
Fifty-five vendors also were in attendance, selling such canine comforts as custom wooden crates, waterproof dog panties complete with tail holes, and dog beds far cushier than my human equivalent. You could also buy expensive trimming shears and other grooming goods, sleek steel bowls, dog art and photography, hands-free walking devices, and all manner of human clothing (who doesn’t want a “dog-walking utility jacket”?). Wine was also being sampled, although I didn’t see any tailed attendees partaking.

Oh, and dog restrooms (metal cages with sawdust floors) were conveniently located to make sure the day’s pampered contestants didn’t have to venture into the cold to do their show business. Lines for the female facilities were, of course, much longer than those for the male.

The preliminary judging took place in small rings far from the glare of the bright lights and television cameras. Here the fates of the vast majority of your four-legged entrants were decided as they competed for points (a score of 15 makes the dog a champion and the right to put a “Ch” before its name) in an effort to qualify for the big ring, where the highest awards (Best in Breed, Best in Group, and that holy of holies, Best in Show) were to be handed out.

Finding a particular pooch in the midst of all this hubbub wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to locate one of my hometown faves, the lovable and very long-eared Ch Rapscallion’s Biden My Time N’Money (that’s Joe to his friends). And I discovered that just as dogs come from all walks of life, so too do their human parents.

Take Joe’s owner, Newark’s Heidi Sarver. She couldn’t be at the show because she was directing another show—the University of Delaware’s Marching Band, no less. Fortunately Joe—a show dog baby at 17 months but already a champion—was in the capable care of his handlers, the mother and son team of Erica and Tyler Cross.

Erica Cross with Ch Rapscallion’s Biden My Time N’Money—Joe to his friends. Photo Sherri Bihl-Sobocinski

Highs and Lows of Dog Handling
Dog handling is as much show biz as science, and I asked Erica if she ever got nervous. “Not so much,” she told me. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. But I still get all of the highs, all of the lows, and all of the thrills.”

Had anything out of the ordinary ever occurred while she was in the ring? “Sure,” she replied. “When Tyler was 3-1/2, he ran into the ring to say hi. That was an interesting moment.”

I spoke to Sarver later by phone, and learned that unlike many show dog owners, she doesn’t breed them. “The dog shows are a hobby,” she told me, “and I’m not in it for any grand stakes. Dog breeding doesn’t interest me, and my busy life style precludes me from giving the dogs I’d breed the time and loving attention they deserve.”

That said, she might be receptive to allowing someone else “borrow” Joe—her only show dog—to sire a family. “People are interested,” she told me. “But I won’t be raising that litter of puppies!”

And here’s another thing Sarver won’t do: handle Joe herself. “I hired a handler because I’m not getting in that ring,” she said emphatically. She also admitted to being as confused by the arcane nuances of dog show judging as I am. “No sooner had I figured out the point system for calculating a champion,” she laughed, “than they told me there was more. And I was like, ‘Come on!’”

Joe came up empty-pawed at the National Dog Show, but Sarver was philosophical. “He’s young,” she told me. “And he’s having fun. He lights up when he’s in the ring. We’re both having a good time.”

I also looked up Florence Barczewski, owner of the beautiful Tibetan Terrier Twilight’s Fairy Princess. Unlike Sarver, Barczewski—who lives in Wilmington and works at a major financial organization—does breed dogs, albeit on a small scale. And she handles “Tink” (short for Tinker Bell, Twilight Fairy Princess’ everyday name) herself.

Dog breeding may be just an avocation, but it still consumes a lot of Barczewski’s time. “It’s important work,” she says, “because you want to make sure your puppies are going to a good home, and they’re a good match for the family.”

As for handling Tink, she says, “I used to find it nerve-wracking, but I’ve been doing it for over 14 years. I’m out there to enjoy myself with my dog and make a connection.”

Tink is just over 2 years old and not yet a champion, but, Barczewski says, “We’re working towards that. She’s a class lady.”

Like Joe, Tink didn’t walk away with any points or honors at the show, although Barczewski intimated she should have: “I thought she did great at the show. Sometimes you wonder what the judge is looking at.”

Barczewski is anything but one of those insanely competitive show dog owners satirized in the 2000 film Best in Show. “We’re just there to have fun,” she says, adding blasphemously, “After all, it’s just a dog show.”

She also rejects the notion that a show dog leads an odd and pampered existence. “Most of your show dogs are family pets,” she says. “They just get to go out and do this thing too. My dogs [she has five] live in the house, sleep in my bed, and are all over the furniture. They’re like my kids.”

Off-Camera Dramatics
Of course, no trip to the dog show would be complete without spending some time in the big ring, where the day’s chosen engage in a very adorable fight to the finish. I got a great view from the press section, and took special delight in watching the feisty toys (I’m a Chihuahua man myself) take their strut around the ring.

And I witnessed some just-off-camera dramatics when a simply massive example of Canidae Ferocious slipped away from his owner and made a mad dash for the entrance to the ring. His motives will remain forever murky; was he looking to eat one of those toy charmers, or just making a desperate bid for some undeserved television time?

The quadruped berserker was within 5 feet of the ring and dog show infamy when his owner made a successful lunge for his leash. The near disaster led to a lot of excited shouting, and I’m dead certain some NBC editing had to be done, because the response of one of the very proper judges (I was standing directly behind him) was to wheel around in his chair and snap, “What the hell’s going on?”

That canine’s dogged determination reminded me of just how much like other dogs—and people, for that matter—show dogs can be. The heart wants what the heart wants, and there isn’t a leash in the world strong enough to prevent it. 

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