Primped pooches line up for their chance at canine glory

ajames@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2012 

— Wrapping up the Tarheel Labor Day Cluster dog show at the State Fairgrounds on Monday, hundreds of canines more meticulously manicured than actresses on the red carpet showed up to strut their style.

Unlike the red carpet, the dog show is not the place to win a superlative regarding uniqueness. The canines who were competing in the conformation event were bred, bathed, brushed, trimmed, toned, and, for some, blow-dried to “conform” to the standard for a dog in their breed.

“We are looking at how close the dog is to the perfect, or ideal, dog for that breed,” said Robert Slay, who was in charge of Monday’s event, the final session of the four-day event, part of the largest dog show series in the state.

“The dogs are not compared to each other,” said Slay.

The standards are determined by the American Kennel Club and are written, not illustrated, leaving room for interpretation. That means what one judge deems “Best in Breed” may not be the same verdict from a different judge.

For the untrained attendee, this can make it a real challenge to appreciate what makes one dog win over another dog. Lining up to go in the ring Monday, each Boston terrier had ears that stood up firmly, a shiny black and white coat and an equally light-footed and energetic gait. But for the scrutinizing judges – some who flew in from as far as California to offer their specially trained eyes of discernment – no two look the same.

“I’m looking for a square shape to the body, made by the legs and back, not a rectangular shape,” said Joan Scott, one of the judges at the competition, when describing one of the many ideal standards for a toy poodle. As owners and handlers – professionals paid to show dogs – lined up with their pooches inside the ring, Scott ran her hand along the poodles’ backs and checked for flatness, or a lack of an upward curve.

Similar to an NCAA bracket

The rounds of the competition are similar to the NCAA basketball tournament.

First there is the competition for Best of Breed, similar to the Sweet 16. The winning dogs advance to the variety competition, similar to the Elite 8, where dogs compete in one of seven variety categories: terrier, sporting, herding, working, nonsporting, hound, and toy. Four category winners advance to the final round to compete for Best in Show.

“There are no dogs here,” said one of the judge’s assistants, Amy Kneiffel, as she watched four female poodles compete for the “Winner’s Bitch” award. “It’s a whole other language here.”

Points add up to champion

“I’m ecstatic,” said 22-year-old Tiffany Turner of Sanford, who came to show her two English bulldogs with her father, Neil Turner, who breeds them. One of their bulldogs, 14-month-old “Pi,” just earned the last point he needed to be a Grand Champion, which requires a total of 25 points.

The number of points a dog can earn in a show depends on how many other dogs he or she is competing against. More dogs bested means more points awarded. And, for each breed, there is a certain number of competitors that the dog must beat in order to win a “major point.”

Pi had already won two major points by showing down more that 17 other dogs on two occasions to win the big title on Monday.

“He’ll get a steak dinner tonight,” said Turner. “He’s earned it.”

Turner said she has spent the summer traveling to dog shows with Pi, carting him back and forth to Pennsylvania for nearly a month. After this win, she plans to take a break from the dog show circuit and focus on school as a student at North Carolina Central University.

For some dog enthusiasts, showing is bred in the family.

Eight-year-old Ariel Hullender of Newport News was too young to compete in the Juniors competition, so she competed alongside her mother, Adrienne Hullender, in the adult competition.

Donning silver, sparkly shoes, she straightened the neck of her Boston terrier, Peter, as her mother instructed, allowing the judge to inspect its mouth. She proudly earned a ribbon for “Best of Winners” before her first day of fourth grade starts tomorrow.

Along with the conformation event, the dog show also included obedience trials.

4,000 dogs compete

Competing over the entire long holiday weekend were about 4,000 dogs from 135 different breeds, including family dogs, such as golden retrievers and dachshunds to more exotic breeds, such as the chow chow.

According to judge Dennis McKoy, about half of the dogs that attended will attempt to make it to the big leagues at the Westminster dog show in New York City. One that will definitely be at Westminster is the “Best in Show,” a Whippet named “Bahama Sands” from Toms Brook, VA.

A change in the rules will allow up to 3,200 to enter the Westminster dog show, about 1,000 more than years past, he said. Dogs that have not yet earned a champion title also will be allowed to enter.

That means, for some of the dogs who showed their stripes – and spots – in Raleigh this weekend but didn’t take home a ribbon, there’s still time to improve before they are asked to be “perfect” again.

James: 919-829-4870

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