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No dog whisperer needed here

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published January 15, 2007


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Maltese Marlo, 2, is experiencing her first show, says owner Glynette Cass of Fort Lauderdale.
[Times photo: Edmund D. Fountain]
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[Times photo: Edmund D. Fountain]
Darwin Delaney of Essexville, Mich., shows Sparkle, a smooth coat Chihuahua, Saturday at the Florida Classic Clusters dog show near Brooksville, where more than 2,500 dogs were competing. The show continues through Sunday; no show Wednesday.

BROOKSVILLE - At the Florida Classic Clusters - billed as the largest dog show in the state. Geneva, a 5-year-old female German shepherd, took Best in Show on Saturday, beating a field of more than 2,500 dogs from 157 breeds.

As night closed in, Geneva clinched the win over six other competitors, including a genial 15-inch beagle, a trim red vizsla and a poised Doberman pinscher. She beat out a seven-dog field, jogging alongside James "Jimmy" Moses, co-author of The German Shepherd Today and a top German shepherd handler.

The daily shows continue through Sunday as thousands of dogs compete for Best in Show, many of their owners hoping to generate some buzz going into next month's Wimbledon of dog shows: the 131st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.

"It's what you hope for," said co-owner Janet Lange, watching her slope-backed shepherd crouch on her carefully posed pasterns. It's Geneva's second year of showing and her 13th Best in Show, Lange said. Last year, Geneva - whose full name is Kaleefs Geneva Aeval-Achtung - climbed to No. 2 herding dog in the country.

* * *

The Florida Classic Clusters shows work almost like a presidential primary, with the same complex political calculations coloring the outcome.

Owners spend tens of thousands of dollars on magazine advertising to jump-start positive press for their champion. Handlers might switch off according to who has the better history with a particular judge.

A well-respected handler like Moses lends his own luster and clout to the dog on the end of his leash, said Bruce Walsh, a Lakeland resident who has shown dogs for 35 years. One woman at Saturday's show led the Westminster Best in Show two years running.

Every day is a complete one-day show; dogs can compete every day.

A dog's standing within its breed depends on how many other dogs it has defeated. Repeat wins advance a dog's standing. Any dog that sweeps its breed day after day - and clinches higher honors like Best in Group and, of course, Best in Show - earns celebrity status.

"A dog builds momentum like that, and there's no stopping it," said Kathi Lehman of Gainesville. Lehman has raised Afghan hounds for more than three decades because, as she put it, "I didn't know any better."

Show dogs

Pets - one professional dachshund handler unceremoniously instructed - are flawed dogs.

A show dog starts out a "class" dog and needs 15 points before it's "finished," making it a champion or "special," said Mary Jo Corpi, a show steward. The points must include two "majors." The system of points is set by the American Kennel Club and differs according to breed and even region where the dog competes.

Show dogs are judged by breed standards like height, weight, color, size of eyes, length of muzzle and temperament, among other characteristics. For example, the wavy-haired white Kuvasz - a large Hungarian working dog bred to protect livestock and horses - should be suspicious of strangers.

Good groomers can shape the dog, especially the fluffy ones, into the desired shape. But judges get their hands into the fur, feeling the shoulders and hindquarters, getting down to the "real dog."

Dogs aren't supposed to be altered to help them conform to the standard. That means no hair dye, no bleaching, no powders. But it happens - as evidenced by the embarrassing puff of white powder shaken loose by a champion Sealyham terrier competing in the terrier group.

A week of shows

The dog show includes a lot of attractions for the amateur. There's a $4 parking fee, and no charge for admission. If Darwin Delaney's enthusiastic Chihuahuas were any indication, children are welcome.

Beginning at 8 a.m., dogs start to compete in 16 rings for Best of Breed.

The class dogs - those still hunting for their 15 championship points - compete by gender, broken into age groups and other categories.

A class dog of each gender is selected to compete with the champions for Best of Breed and a chance to advance to Best in Show.

And if that isn't complicated enough, the breed winners then advance to Best of Group: sporting, hound, non-sporting, toy, working, herding and terrier. Geneva, for example, is in the herding group.

The group winners then compete for Best in Show.

At the end of Saturday's competition, the tall Pete Dawkins stepped into the ring wearing a light blue blazer and a cowboy hat to judge Best in Show.

"He's kind of a no-nonsense judge," said Lehman, the Gainesville Afghan hound owner. "He likes a clean, sound, balanced dog. What they call the 'honest dog.' "

Lehman thought about this a minute while Dawkins perused the proffered champions.

"Then again, I never really understood that," Lehman said. "Is there ever really a dishonest dog?"

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127.

If You Go

More dogs

The Florida Classic Clusters dog show continues from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Tuesday, plus Thursday through Sunday; no show Wednesday. Parking is $4. Admission is free. Seniors park for free Tuesday. The show is at Florida Classic Park, 5360 Lockhart Road, south of State Road 50 east of Brooksville.

[Last modified January 14, 2007, 21:18:16]


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