February 10, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Path to Westminster goes through Maine, wags say

Enough about the snow already.

Today's poll: Dog show

Do you watch the Westminster dog show?

Yes

No

View Results

click image to enlarge

Lush, a golden retriever, jumps for a training toy swung by owner Jill Simmons in their Falmouth driveway. Lush will be among the Maine dogs competing in the Westminster dog show in New York City this week.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Let's talk dogs.

Just about a year ago, the missus and I and our trusty golden retriever, Fairbanks, were snuggled around the woodstove watching live coverage of the 136th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show -- also known as the most dazzling and occasionally bizarre assemblage of canines ever to trot across the television screen.

"You should write about this sometime," said my wife as the climactic "Best in Show" competition neared its nail-biting conclusion. "I'll bet there are dogs from Maine down there."

She bet right.

As you shovel out from Maine's worst winter storm evah, take a minute to meet Henry, Tassel, Lush, Porter, Quincy and Fly.

Roads and runways permitting, they'll all be in New York City by Monday morning to see how they measure up against 3,021 other pooches -- sorry, I meant purebred masterpieces -- in what is by all accounts the Super Bowl of dog shows.

Henry (from Jay), Tassel (Lebanon) and Lush (Falmouth) are all golden retrievers. Porter (Cape Elizabeth) is a Cardigan Welsh corgi, Quincy (Washington) is a Newfoundland and Fly (Rockland) is an Australian shepherd.

Welcome to their world.

"Put it in perspective," advised Maryterese Russo, who owns Tassel and is the only owner among the six Mainers who will handle her own dog at Westminster. (The others hire professional handlers for this harder-than-it-looks task.)

"It's a dog," continued Russo. "It's a dog show. And it's supposed to be fun."

Easy for her to say.

For starters, Westminster is complicated. Very complicated.

It's called a "conformation" show, meaning the dogs aren't judged against one another, but rather against the standard for perfection in their particular breed.

It works like this: The dogs, all multiple-time winners on the show circuit before they can even apply for Westminster, first will be judged in the breed competitions at cavernous Piers 92 and 94 on Manhattan's West Side.

The winner of each breed will then go on to the "group" competition, in which types of dogs (hounds, herders, working ...) square off for a spot in the "Best in Show" extravaganza Tuesday evening at Madison Square Garden.

In other words, let's not get our hopes up here.

"Even if he were 3 years old, 'best in show' would be so far beyond my expectations," said Adrienne Harkavy, owner of 17-month-old corgi Porter. "It's not even an aspiration."

Or, as Harkavy's husband, Jerry, put it with a chuckle last week, "I just hope he doesn't pee on the carpet or bite the judge."

Still, Maine's entries aren't exactly lightweights.

Take Quincy the Newfie, for example.

"He was ranked 12th in the country in 2012," said Todd Bennett, who, along with his wife, Sue Mendleson, owns the massive, black beauty. "And he's beaten all of them at one time or another except No. 1 and No. 2."

Meaning Quincy, who likes to get muddy around his central Maine paradise when he's not trying to impress the judges, actually has a shot.

Then there's Fly, the Aussie shepherd.

On the one hand, according to owner Clara Gardner, Fly's favorite pastime is to hop up on the couch in her Rockland home and get her belly rubbed.

On the other, Fly and her professional handler get around.

"She went out on the circuit," said Gardner. "She started in Massachusetts and went to New York ... Indiana ... Salt Lake City, Utah ... Scottsdale, Arizona ... Southern California, mid-California, northern California ... Oregon ... back to Missouri ... back to Michigan ... and then she came home."

And, we can only presume, slept for a month.

Which brings us to, shall we say, the underbelly of the dog show universe: At some point during this week's competition, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will inevitably crash the event with its claim that dog shows and all they stand for are inherently wrong.

PETA also argues that purebred dogs actually cost shelter dogs their lives -- the idea being that if Westminster-type dogs didn't exist, the shelter dogs would have an easier time finding homes.

Try telling that to Jill Simmons, owner of Lush (aka "Lushie Plushie"), who regularly offers free scholarships to shelter and rescue dogs at her PoeticGold Farm canine training center in Falmouth.

Simmons, whose first word as a young child was "dog," is well aware of the controversy swirling around purebred dogs -- especially the "puppy mills and high-volume breeders" who pay no attention to the perils of inbreeding and thus give all purebreds a bad name.

But she insists that she and her fellow show-dog owners, far from being the problem, are actually a big part of the solution.

"The one constant in my life has been my deep love for this one breed," said Simmons, who sees responsible owners and breeders of golden retrievers as "trustees of the breed" rather than exploiters of it.

Newfie owner Bennett looks at it this way: If all dogs were allowed to run free and reproduce whenever and with whomever they wanted, there would be no more breeds.

"These guys wouldn't have enough food because they're too big," Bennett said, patting a well-fed Quincy's massive shoulder. "And the little guys would be food."

Leaving?

"Dingoes," replied Bennett. "You end up with a medium-size, dingo-like dog."

But enough about the controversy. Back to the wacky world of Westminster.

"Have you gotten used to people using the word 'bitch' yet?" asked Simmons.

Bless her for asking.

When you know next to nothing about dog shows, you simply don't expect to hear grown men and women toss the "b" word around without so much as a blush.

So yes, as Simmons assessed Lushie Plushie's home-state competition, it was still a little weird to hear her declare, "That Tassel is one beautiful bitch!"

(Having met Tassel, let me, ahem, second that opinion.)

But all the talk about bitches isn't the half of it.

With each visit, photographer Gabe Souza and I couldn't help but ask the dog owners if they'd seen "Best in Show" -- the hilarious 2000 film that takes Westminster and runs with it.

("Now tell me," queries TV announcer "Buck Laughlin" at one point, "which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?")

They'd all seen it.

And?

"I loved it," said Patty Richards, owner of golden retriever Henry. And yes, she added, "there are a few people out there who take it to that limit."

"I think it was spot-on," agreed Bennett. "What they did was take all the people you might meet over the course of a dog's career and put them all in one show."

Added Adrienne Harkavy, who will watch Porter compete with the other corgis from her home office via live streaming on her computer, "There's a lot of truth in parody."

But truth, just like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.

And as we traveled around these past two weeks patting all these four-legged wonders and chatting with their loving owners, Souza and I couldn't help but agree that we'd only just begun to cover this story.

So, fellow Mainers, good luck cleaning up after the blizzard.

We're going to Westminster. 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Gabe Souza

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Quincy, a Newfoundland, receives a hug from owner Todd Bennett while playing at their Washington home. Quincy was ranked 12th in the country for his breed in 2012 and will be competing in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

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Patty Richards plays with Henry, her 5-year-old golden retriever, at her Jay home.

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Maryterese Russo trains her golden retriever, Tassel, in the front yard of her Lebanon home. Russo will handle Tassel herself at the Westminster dog show this week.

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Vern Clark and his wife, Clara Gardner, hold a poster for their Australian shepherd Fly at their kennel in Rockland.



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Today's poll: Dog show

Do you watch the Westminster dog show?

Yes

No

View Results