By Julie Reardon
THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION
Could you identify a Bergamasco? How about a Cirneco dell’Etna? A Lagotto Romagnoli or Berger Picard? Most people don’t know what a Xoloitzcuintli is, much less how to pronounce it. Even I couldn’t have identified the first four, although I had the chance to see all five at a recent series of dog shows we entered in January. They’re all new breeds recently recognized by the American Kennel Club although all have ancient origins abroad. Over 100 breeds were represented at the five days of shows, ranging from tiny toy breeds such as Chihuahuas and Pomeranians to tall, regal Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds and the ever popular Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Many beloved breeds are instantly identifiable; but a fair number aren’t, because a long coated, groomed for the show ring coat may make a dog look totally different than what we’re used to seeing. But that’s part of the fun—and dog people are nothing if not proud of their dogs. They’re usually more than happy to tell you about their breed when you ask.
No species on earth comes in a greater variety of sizes and shapes than our best friend, the dog. From the earliest prehistoric days when the first wolves started following humans around and warning them of dangerous predators in exchange for scraps, we’ve had dogs in our lives. And over the years, we selectively bred them for different jobs, such as guarding, hunting, herding, draft and police work and of course, to be lap dogs and companions, until the original canine evolved into the tremendous variety of sizes and types we now have.
Today, there are some 400 different breeds recognized by different registries around the world. Here, the oldest and largest registry for purebred dogs is the American Kennel Club, founded in 1884 to promote the study, breeding, exhibiting and advancement of purebred dogs. In addition to maintaining registration and ancestry records of the over 160 recognized breeds, the AKC is the governing body for over 21,000 events for nearly two million purebred dogs annually: dog shows, obedience and agility trials, herding and coursing tests, coon hound and earth dog trials, hunting tests and field trials, and more.
Shows, and performance events, were originated and continue today as a means to identify the best dogs for purposes of breeding. Most people have heard of Westminster, the superbowl of dog shows held every February in New York City, February 15th this year. But there are thousands of shows held across the country, and showing dogs has become a popular sport for people from all walks of life. Most have classes for all recognized breeds, and some offer special divisions for puppies, junior handlers, as well as obedience and agility trials. Dogs compete against those of their breed and sex to earn points toward their championship. Owners as well as professional handlers can show the dogs: there are classes for amateur owner handlers, young and novice dogs as well as open classes for both sexes. For some, especially long coated breeds, presentation is important, requiring hours of grooming before the appointed ring time. Sometimes there is only one dog of a breed. Whether there is just one or 40, at the appointed ring time, dogs and handlers are called to the ring by the steward and they line up by armband number. Handlers stand or “stack” their dogs to present the most appealing picture to the judge, who will go over each dog, then direct the handler to jog it around the ring (this is called gaiting) to determine how well it moves. If there are multiple dogs in the class, the judge will usually have them all move around together at some point so he can compare and determine which one best meets the breed standard, as determined by the breed’s parent club, before picking the winner. After all the class winners have been picked, those dogs come back in the ring so the judge can select the one he likes best of the winners—this is the one that will earn championship points. The more dogs present, the more points the winner can earn; up to a maximum of 5 per show. A total of 15 points earned under different judges are needed to earn the Champion title.
Shows follow an elimination format to determine the prestigious Best in Show award. The breeds are divided into seven groups: sporting, herding, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting and hound. The best dog of each breed goes to its respective group to be judged. Then, each of the seven group winners goes on to vie for the Best in Show class to earn the coveted Best in Show award. All of these—best of breed, group wins and placings, and of course, best in show, amass points for the dog for various rankings like high point show dog in several different categories, and to qualify it for prestigious invitation-only shows such as Westminster.
Our two entries were homebred Chesapeake Bay Retrievers for the five days of shows. It had been over 12 years since I’d shown dogs, since mine are primarily hunting and performance dogs, but we’d like to put a show title to go with the field titles on our young male Silas, who hunts waterfowl and already has his AKC Senior Hunter title. Tanzy, the female, went for fun. She nearly died in an accident two years ago and had to be retired from hunting and in fact, any retrieving, so only has a Junior Hunter title. The accident left her paralyzed in all four legs from two shattered vertebrae in her neck. She underwent surgery at a veterinary neurology specialist practice in Leesburg, where the surgeon opened up her spine and removed blood and debris from bone fragments. Her prognosis was guarded—there was no guarantee she’d be able to walk again. But in a near miraculous recovery, she stood and walked less than two weeks from surgery, although it took extensive rehab and a year until she would regain full mobility.
The judges seemed to like Silas, the male Chesapeake; and he did well for his first show experience, actually picking up some points toward his champion title. Tanzy won a few ribbons, but no points: she is at the small end of the breed standard, and a color not favored in the show world (although highly prized in the duck blind). But she strutted around that ring like a boss, tail wagging the whole time. None of the judges, of course, knew anything about her, especially not how close to death she was two years ago. And in any case, they are there to judge looks, not heart. If heart could be judged, she would have been the winner. But we already know she has the heart of a champion, so we were happy with her results. And she was a great ambassador for the breed, as she is very social and makes friends with anyone she meets.
Space prevents me from describing the newly recognized AKC breeds, but you can find descriptions of them (and all the other breeds) by visiting www.AKC.org/dog-breeds.
Publishers Note: Watch for Julie’s March column for the update on spring steeplechasing in the Blue Ridge. We let her go off the chain with this month and write a fun article about pooches.