Photography By Jim Graham

Feature

National Dog Show

1,500 stellar canines strut their stuff.

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Birthday gifts come in all sizes and shapes. For his 54th, Willistown’s Steve Sansone received a Giant Schnauzer named Bacchus. The canine is robust and powerfully built; his long, bushy whiskers, beard and eyebrows make for a striking figure. 

Sansone’s wife, Cynthia, purchased Bacchus at 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 events nationwide, including the 2010 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Bacchus 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 11 entries in his class at Westminster.

Breeds on display at last year’s National Dog Show included the Australian Shepherd.

Bacchus went on to rack up a string of top-flight show awards. Next for the Sansones came Skansen’s Havannah.
She 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 that both the sport and the breed found us,” says Steve, 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, whose two all-breed dog shows are held in Oaks, Pa., Nov. 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 each day. And on Sunday, diving dogs will leap for distance into a 20,000-gallon vat of water in a regional competition.  

Saturday afternoon’s Group and Best in Show competitions will be taped for broadcast on NBC following 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 events. The two-hour 2015 special is expected to reach an audience approaching 20 million.

Starting Saturday morning at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center near Valley Forge, more than 175 breeds and breed varieties will be judged individually in 12 rings according to recognized standards. About 1 o’clock, 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 in 2014.

Canine expert David Frei will return for his 14th year as expert analyst for NBC’s telecast of the National Dog Show. He also handles USA Network’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Frei has enjoyed his own competitive success with his 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,” says Frei. “Some dogs just have a presence in the ring—kind of saying, ‘I own this ground I’m standing over.’ But, as in 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?

“You just have to go into it for the fun and sport. And if you win, enjoy the achievement.”

“Judging outside the ring, we can all do that,” Frei says 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, pre-dating the American Kennel Club. In 2015, the National Dog Show will be introducing seven new breeds: the Lagotto Romagnolo (Sporting); the Berger Picard, the Bergamasco, the Spanish Water Dog and the Miniature American Shepherd (Herding); the Cirneco dell’ Etna (Hound); and the Boerboel (Working).

Malvern, Pa.’s 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, Barkon will be showing her females, Jewel and Beatrice, in the junior competition.

“Siberians are a very intelligent, very independent, intuitive dog,” Barkon says. “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,” says Barkon. “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 high-energy dogs, but they are also wonderful companions in the home. As breeders we have an obligation to educate people. It’s our No. 1 job.”

The National Dog Show is one of just six benched events held annually in the U.S. Spectators can stroll backstage to watch myriad breeds get pampered, coddled and primped for the show ring. Visitors looking to acquire a certain breed can quiz devoted dog handlers about energy level, intelligence or potential health problems.

Between showings, some dogs simply sleep in their crates. Surprisingly, there is very little barking, considering how many dogs are in one exhibit hall. 

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 dogs’ 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. 

Named 2010 AKC Terrier Group Breeder of the Year, Marge Good has been the owner of Good Spice Kennels in Cochranville, Pa., since 1980. In March of 2009, Charmin, her 5-year-old Sealyham Terrier, defeated more than 20,000 other canines to win Best in Show at Crufts, the world’s largest dog show, staged in England.

Except for two weekends in 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 manner 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 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, with fluid movement and focused intent. In the show ring, she matches her strides to the trot of her spunky terriers, all the while cajoling 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 chirping sounds to get the dog to cock his head, prick his ears or show off an expression. If I can get the judge to smile, he’s on my side.” 

The Hunt Fall 2015  Issue

This article was published in Feature from the Fall 2015 issue.
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