On Monday before the sun rises over Manhattan, Maryterese Russo’s pursuit of glory will begin with a rented bathtub and a $350 blow-dryer.
She’ll be deep in the bowels of a Seventh Avenue hotel with a golden retriever named Gabby. The dog will stand at the business end of a spray nozzle, sopping wet and wholly unaware of the pomp and circumstance only a few hours away.
Gabby is the culmination of 12 years of 12-hour days for Russo at her kennel in Lebanon, a small town in York County.
At the Westminster Dog Show, there are few guarantees. But one certainty is blow-drying – dog after dog, hour upon hour of cacophonous, high-powered blow-drying.
“We put ear plugs in their ears,” said Russo, a small-business owner. “I wear ear things. It’s loud.”
Russo is one of 17 owners, handlers or breeders with ties to Maine who will be in New York City for the two-day competition. The field of entries is the largest at Westminster in 24 years, with 2,845 dogs entered in 187 breeds and varieties. Before it’s over, one dog will be crowned Best in Show.
Russo won’t say so out loud, but this year, she’s nervous. Maybe that’s because everything seems right. The dog is right. The training is working.
Russo vacillates between Zen-like pride and fearsome competitiveness when she talks about her hopes for Westminster.
“Some of these people, this is it for them in their life. They have no husband, they have no life. It’s their joy,” she said. “I have plenty in my life. Everybody’s friends until you’re at the edge of the ring. It’s fun, but we’re all trying the hardest.”
The path to Westminster is as varied as the people and dog breeds that will show there. For Dawn Eliot-Johnson, showing dogs happened to her nearly by accident, and her trip to New York this year is her first attempt at Westminster.
From the first step into her living room, it’s obvious what breed she prefers.
On statues, in photos, on every wall, cabinet and surface, there are Dalmatians. Black spots adorn her rain boots. They speckle her soap dispenser and her doorstop – which is shaped like a Dalmatian. On her dog bed, kitchen jars and her sugar bowl – spots. Dozens of Dalmatian figurines keep watch from atop her kitchen cabinets.
And of course, there are five of them in real life, bouncing around their crates, pouncing over the furniture, and peeking through door windows.
Eliot-Johnson, 39, a veterinary technician and resident of Bryant Pond in Oxford County, has owned and bred Dalmatians for years, she said, but only recently began showing them competitively. She had enjoyed entering rally competitions, in which a dog and owner work as a team to complete predetermined agility tasks at stations along a course, and won titles with her oldest dog, Ghost.
A shrine to Ghost’s accomplishments adorns one wall of her bathroom. Photos of her dogs, past and present, dot her cozy, second-floor living room. Between two windows hangs an oil painting of several regal Dalmatians, each in a different state of repose, a gift from a fellow Dalmatian breeder, she said.
A svelte, muscular example of the breed, Ghost is nearly 9 years old, bucking the conventional youth of most show dogs.
Eliot-Johnson has been showing Ghost for a little more than a year. She said she enjoys the challenge and a new form of competition.
“This dog introduced me to a whole new world that I never knew existed,” she said.
Ghost’s primary skills are as a therapy dog, she said. Children at two local elementary schools practice reading to Ghost, and when they’ve each finished a passage, Eliot-Johnson has Ghost show off some of his tricks.
To coax the best performance from Ghost, Eliot-Johnson retrieves two sticks of string cheese and breaks off a piece. Ghost’s attention snaps her way and their eyes lock.
With a few hand signals, Eliot-Johnson sends Ghost flying through his acrobatics, running figure-eights through her legs, posing, stopping, standing and leaping straight up like a point-guard blocking a shot.
“He’ll do anything for cheese,” Eliot-Johnson said.
Her transition into formal showing came about a year ago, she said, when a friend urged her to enter Ghost against other Dalmatians in a veterans class. Before she could realize that the judges were focusing on her, Ghost was selected as the winner.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I put him in it for fun.”
Eliot-Johnson’s husband, Chris Johnson, said he was skeptical of the dog-show circuit when his wife started entering. The formality of the shows draws a different crowd than those at agility or obedience events, which tend toward more work-oriented breeds and don’t emphasize a dog’s appearance.
He, like many others new to the world of dog showing, recalls the 2000 “mockumentary” film “Best in Show” and its cutting, hilarious look at the personalities who populate the highest echelons of competitive dog showing.
“I always thought it was a selfish thing,” he said. “I watched that movie. I was like, ‘I know those people.’ ”
Although there are some people like that at the fringes, Chris Johnson said many participants are normal people who love their dogs.
“I’ve been turned around completely,” he said.
As for Eliot-Johnson, her goals for Ghost in New York are modest.
“I just hope someone notices him,” she said.
For all of the intensity, pomp and devotion that it inspires, showing dogs is not a lucrative business.
For every joyful moment under the glare of the show lights, breeders and owners spend hundreds of hours working in obscurity, poring over dog lineages, researching ancestry, practicing every movement a dog makes in the ring.
For most breeders, the goal is not simply to win, but to do well by the breed, said Amy Herbert, who breeds bull mastiffs and runs a grooming, training and boarding business from her home in Otisfield.
Match-making in dogs should not only produce attractive animals that meet the tight criteria required of a pedigree, but also attempt to expunge unhealthy or even dangerous genetic traits that can be specific to each breed, Herbert said.
Breeders take pains to ensure their dogs are healthy. After a litter is born, Herbert will have each dog examined by a veterinarian for obvious health problems before specialists look for degenerative conditions that will sometimes affect eye, heart or joint health.
Only after clearances from doctors will Herbert and other breeders like her pursue the costly competitive circuit, which can absorb tens of thousands of dollars per year in fees and costs.
Breeding is a genetic puzzle, she said, and for all the hours of preparation, a lot is still up to Mother Nature.
“There can never be zero imperfections,” Herbert said. “Whether it’s structure problems or health problems, every dog has a fault.”
Breeds carry their own risks, and depending on how frequently a litter is produced, it can take years to breed the dog that breeds a champion.
Herbert – who will travel to Westminster with Russo and another Maine entrant, Patty Richards of Jay – said it took her three years of failed pregnancies before her female bull mastiff produced a litter. The resulting two puppies included her current competitor, Diesel, a caramel-colored, 150-pound champion that dwarfs Herbert. Diesel’s sister suffered a knee injury and was placed in a home as a pet.
A massive, lumbering presence, Diesel has dark, wrinkled cheeks and a sloping brow that make him deceptively intimidating. But Diesel is also a registered therapy dog, seeking affection from anything with a pulse.
When he visits hospitals and nursing homes, his towering size lets him nuzzle over bed rails too tall for other breeds, Herbert said.
“Everyone who meets him, wants him,” she said. “He’s just a big goofball.”
Taking a dog from puppy to champion is expensive.
Herbert estimates that it costs $6,000 to $10,000 for a dog to “finish,” the term for obtaining a championship, and even more when a professional handler is employed.
During a weekend show, Herbert expects to spend $500 to $600 for travel, accommodations and entry fees, she said.
“If you’re doing it right, you’re investing a lot of money back into the breed,” she said. “They’re not objects. Their well-being should be much more important than getting a litter from them.”
Maryterese Russo is not going to make the same mistake twice.
Last year, after the pre-dawn washing and primping and blow-drying, Russo arrived at the show floor with Tassel, the dog she was showing that year, only to find that her assigned staging area was between two of the highest-ranked competitors in the nation, and Russo didn’t have a groomer’s table.
Her neighbors, eager for that last-minute polish, wet down their dogs’ coats for a blow-out. And water started to fly.
Russo remembered her $350 blow-dryer, but forgot the extension cord.
“It was stressful,” Russo said. “(Tassel) was already clean, and now they’re blowing water all over my dog.”
It’s the details that make the difference, she said. Every hair must be in place. Every movement practiced, every step that of a champion.
This year, in an instant, it will be Gabby’s turn to prance and play, and woo the judges with her expressions, and display that ephemeral quality that not even a bang-up blow-dryer can produce.
“The way she looks at people with her eyes, her eyes look like a baby seal,” Russo said. “The judges have seen it. It’s like you’re going into the depths of the ocean. She just mesmerizes you.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: