"I like the smell," says a bright-eyed woman with fluffy ginger hair whose hobby it is to create and sell earrings in the form of loyalty and unconditional love: tiny, full-color Dalmatians, beagles, border collies, and Chinese Shar-Peis meant to dangle cheerfully from dog-loving lobes. "You know what they say, 'Happiness smells like a warm puppy.' " I am not familiar with the axiom.
"I think Snoopy said that first," she suggests. Credibility is established.
Founded in 1910, the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show is one of the largest and most prestigious two-day competitions in the country, and, even at $21 to $28 dollars per dog, its entry positions close out three months in advance. Unlike most large competitions, this is a benched show, and the regulations are clear and numerous: According to the American Kennel Club Rules, Chapter 13, Section 1, "At a Benched Show to which admission is charged, every dog twelve months old and over that is entered must be on its bench throughout the advertised hours of the show's duration." No dogs owned by the hosting club's members or their families may be exhibited at the show. Dogs are to be benched in their natural show state: Curlers, rollers, or other beauty aids are not permitted. No prizes and ribbons may be displayed on the bench, except those won at this show. Alcoholic beverages, balloons, and unentered dogs are not allowed.
The rules for judging are far more complex. There are seven groups -- sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting, and herding -- and six classes -- 6- to 9-month puppy, 9- to 12-month puppy, novice, bred by exhibitor, American bred, and open class. The winners from each class compete for the title of winners dog or winners bitch. These winners compete for best of winners, which will in turn compete with certified champions for best of breed. The best of breeds compete within their groups, and those seven winners compete for best of show. Of course, winning best of show does not automatically make your furry-footed friend a champion. To be a champion, your dog must have two major wins and 15 accumulated points under his collar. Points are determined by the AKC according to the popularity of the breed and number of dogs entered. The dog-show judges are also certified by the AKC -- on a breed-by-breed basis, making an all-breed judge a very rare commodity indeed. Because of this, judges must be brought in from all over the country and hired as early as 18 months prior to a show.
"Vince won best of breed," says Liz Leo, the proud owner of Wendyhill Basset Hounds in Modesto. "Vinnie won best of winners, and DD won winners bitch. I have a lot of champions." Leo strokes the velvety ear of a sad-eyed basset hound that rests in her lap. Liz Leo has the noble air of an Egyptian princess, with charcoal-lined eyes and thick, henna-hued tresses; the floppy animals that languish on the bench beside her seem incongruous somehow. It might be an insolent notion, but Leo looks like a cat person. Her daughters put a stop to such foolish reflection.
"I've been coming to dog shows my entire life," says 14-year-old Jennifer Leo, "usually two shows a month." Jennifer's 11-year-old sister nods seriously.
In the South Hall's "Grooming Area," a number of flat-coat retrievers and bearded collies stand on individual grooming tables, being detailed for impending judgment. Scissors flash, brushes bristle, and fur flies. Nervous breeders pace the floor and the dogs stand at attention, happily enduring their owners' aspirations. Amid the fracas, one sweet-faced champion bearded collie lies down with his paws dangling off of the table and his large head resting on his chin. His grooming done, Aellen Tried & True, or Truman as he is called at home, seems overcome by tedium. He watches his owner flit back and forth like a nervous stage mother and lets out a large canine sigh.
"I get so nervous before we go out," says Truman's owner, Carol Colavecchio, who talks to me while swishing homeopathic drugs around in her mouth. Truman raises an eyebrow and switches position as a fellow breeder passes. Colavecchio and the other breeder exchange banter regarding homeopathic "calming remedies" and the colossal stresses of the day. Truman eyes the "Exercise Area" -- euphemism for sawdust-covered-area-where-dogs-do-their-business -- and again lowers his big head onto his front paws in a resolved look that says, "It will all end in tears."
In the main arena, which has been divided into eight competition rings, each large enough to accommodate 15 dogs, their trainers, and a judge, things are surprisingly quiet. Not a single bark breaks the tension. Handlers stand in line, sweating with their dogs, as the judges coolly examine each animal's eyes, teeth, coat, muscle tone, and bone structure. There are no signs, no facial ticks or expressions of admiration, to spoil the impartiality of the judges' countenances. Each stands with his hand on his chin, looking through his spectacles until a puritanical flick of his wrist sends the handlers and their winning dogs trotting across the ring. It looks ridiculous, but the judges are impassive as they make notes and pull winners out of the line.
"Sometimes, you get a judge that you know just doesn't like you or your dogs," says a breeder who will not give his name, or his breed, for fear of future reprisal. "That's when it's really important to know ahead of time who will be judging your category. It's just like any other competitive sport: The thrill of victory (people hug each other and jump for joy), the agony of defeat (people get drunk and sulk)."
In Ring 3, the judging of the Yorkshire terriers, Pekingese, Maltese, and Shih Tzus comes to a close. The crowd claps politely for the winning canines and moves around the concourse to a ring where a more popular breed is scheduled. The bearded collies enter Ring 7. Truman is completely in his element: He looks exceedingly handsome under the bright lights, and, in contrast to his mien in the grooming area, he appears bouncy and high-spirited. Colavecchio appears nervous. The dogs are examined and put through their paces.
When Truman doesn't place, I am visibly crushed.
"There's more to a fine dog than personality and a pink tongue," admonishes Charmaine Locke, a frequenter of dog shows whose gold-braided suit indicates her own lofty class. "There's dignity and pedigree and form." Attributes that a stoic giant schnauzer from Sebastopol named CH Kansen's Tristan II seems to have in abundance, earning it this year's best of show, while Truman, though a champion, dreams of bounding through sawdust.
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By Silke Tudor