Thursday, April 24, 2014
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.
Maryterese Russo practices technique with her golden retriever Gabby at her home in York County. The details make the difference at the Westminster competition, Russo said. Every hair must be in place. Every movement practiced, every step that of a champion.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Dawn Eliot-Johnson sits with her five Dalmatians at home in Bryant Pond. The veterinary technician and her Dalmatian Ghost are about to compete at Westminster for the first time.
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.
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Amy Herbert of Otisfield has a quiet moment at home with Diesel, her 150-pound bull mastiff who will be competing at Westminster. Diesel is also a registered therapy dog.