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Friday, 29 July 2016 13:45

Burlington Kennel Club: Pawing their way to the top

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Countless hours of preparation go into the few minutes that a show dog and its handler spend in the show ring. Look for plenty of capable and coiffed canines at the annual Burlington Wisconsin Kennel Club Dog Show, held Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, at the Walworth County Fairgrounds. Countless hours of preparation go into the few minutes that a show dog and its handler spend in the show ring. Look for plenty of capable and coiffed canines at the annual Burlington Wisconsin Kennel Club Dog Show, held Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, at the Walworth County Fairgrounds. Terry Mayer/staff

ELKHORN -- The stars of the dog show -- that poofy-haired Pekinese, the easygoing beagle, the eager-to-please golden Labrador -- make it look so easy, posing for the judges while their handlers accept the ribbons and accolades.

But organizers know that to put on a good show, it takes dedication, a lot of behind-the-scenes work and sometimes even a little bit of string cheese.

That rule includes the annual Burlington Wisconsin Kennel Club Dog Show, held this year on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, at the Walworth County Fairgrounds in Elkhorn.

The planning process is more complicated than you might think. Delbert Thacker, this year’s event organizer, said besides the paperwork involved -- from the American Kennel Club applications and fees to insurance policies -- there’s contacting vendors and fairground officials, renting tents for outdoor events, inviting judges, hiring cleanup crews, making hotel and transportation arrangements and setting up catering and food options.

"The Elkhorn Area Fire and Rescue Department is there for two days," Thacker said. "And we have a vet on call in case there should be a need." 

While Thacker and the other members of the Burlington Wisconsin Kennel Club -- which has been around for more than four decades -- can’t compete in the show, they will have a hand in the event, assisting in the readying of trophies and ribbons, serving as ring stewards, participating in some setup, collecting fees and making announcements. 

The Burlington Wisconsin Kennel Club Dog Show is one of more than 22,000 annual American Kennel Club events that often draw dog owners from all over the country and the world, including countries like Taiwan, Japan, Russia and Italy, according to the AKC website.

The AKC, a nonprofit group formed in 1884, promotes canine welfare and responsible dog ownership.

According to a 2015-’16 survey by the Humane Society of the United States, 44 percent of all American households own at least one dog. That’s up from 36.5 percent in 2012. But while dog ownership is on the rise, show dogs aren’t.

"The dog show world has seen a drop in entries," said Thacker, blaming a still sluggish economy and rising costs for the decline. 

Arguably the holy grail of shows, New York’s famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show drew 2,752 entries in 2016. By comparison, this year’s Burlington Wisconsin Kennel Club Dog Show will have about 700 entrants, Thacker said.

AKC dog shows are called conformation events because they evaluate a dog’s overall appearance to see how the animal conforms to its breed standard. Only AKC-registered purebreds can compete in the shows.

There are more than 180 breeds recognized by the AKC.

"Every breed has what is called the standard, the bible of the breed that describes the perfect dog for that particular breed. Every breed has a parent club that’s the keeper of the standards and any changes to those standards," said Thacker, who is an AKC licensed breeder judge. "A judge’s license is tested on the standards. And judges carry the standards with them for reference."

Thacker, a retired speech pathologist from Burlington, Iowa, who now lives in Union Grove, also is a dog owner and handler. His dog, Karnovanda’s Stephen Coldbear, was one of only three Siberian huskies to receive a best in show at Westminster in 2015.

"I’ve been showing since I’m 26 and I’m 64 now," he said.

Thacker said owners and handlers -- the people who lead dogs around the ring -- are just as preoccupied with preparation for shows.

"You’re always watching even when you’re not showing," he said. "You’re constantly watching the conditioning and the weight and the general physical condition of your dog. You’re always grooming and have a regular routine of bathing to get the old coat out and the new coat in. You’re making sure toenails are trimmed and teeth are good. You’re always looking for hotels -- and the premium lists for dog shows usually list the hotels that take dogs. You’re checking the crates that they ride in, all of the food. You’re looking at your own personal items like show outfits and the proper shoes. You’re thinking about the whole process of loading your vehicle with everything."

Then there’s bait -- small bits of food handlers keep on hand to get a dog’s attention in the ring.

"Every dog is different," Thacker said. "Luckily mine loves string cheese. He also loves chicken, seasoned and baked pretty dry.

"A lot of people do beef liver -- boil it, put it on a cookie sheet, season it with salt and bake it until it’s almost hard. You want something drier because it’s hard to carry something like raw hot dogs in your pocket.

"Certain foods appeal to a particular breed. Some dogs like olives, carrots or apples. My dog wouldn’t even look at an apple except to play with. He’s a total carnivore."

Pork chops are a favorite bait of Holley Eldred’s Rottweiler, Gameguards I’ll Have Another V Braeside, called Indy for short. Eldred keeps a supply of chops in the refrigerator of the motor home she uses to travel to dog shows, then cooks them on location on a portable grill.

Eldred, who is also a professional show dog handler for breeds as varied as poodles and mastiffs, lives just south of Chicago, near the Indiana state line. She estimates she’s at dog shows--including Burlington’s--some 48 weekends a year and spends hours grooming and exercising dogs.

She’s also got the awards to show for it, including Indy’s best in breed award in the 2015 Westminster show, and a third place in the working dog group in 2016 -- the sixth Rottweiler to get a group placement in more than 140 years, she said. 

"I gave up a really good job in advertising, gave up a 401K plan and five weeks of paid vacation to show my own dogs and handle dogs for other people," Eldred said. "But I still think it’s fun. I’m excited to go to work every day."

Thacker said he was hooked with his first dog show, when he won a blue ribbon for his 6-month-old Siberian husky, then proceeded to win a best in class, best in breed and No. 1 Siberian husky in the country.

"I thought, ‘Wow, this is easy,’" he said. "Obviously, it wasn’t, but I’m a competitive person to begin with. Of course, I had no idea that I’d eventually be president and membership chairman of the Siberian Husky Club of America, and even co-author a chapter on a book about Siberian huskies."

Thacker was introduced to the breed at 11, when his father brought home a Siberian husky he’d found at a Wisconsin interstate rest stop during a snowstorm. The dog eventually was returned to its owner, but not before young Thacker, with a leash wrapped around his waist, felt the husky’s speed and power pulling a sled around his neighborhood that winter.

Now he conditions his own dogs with sledding.

"We sometimes get irritated with animal rights people because they say dog sledding is cruel behavior, but Siberian huskies love dog sledding. They love to run, it’s in their nature, and their function was to pull a sled," Thacker said. "That’s what I look for (when judging Siberian huskies) -- which dogs would get me home."

Thacker, who co-owns Stephen Coldbear with a breeder, said handlers can help make dogs look good.

"A bad handler can mess up a really good dog," he said. "You only have about 2 1/2 minutes to show."

Thacker said some dogs are natural-born show dogs, while others need a lot of training.

"There’s nothing more exciting than having a show dog who loves it, who says, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m wonderful,’" he said. "But yes, there are other dogs that don’t like anything about it. They’ll look at you like, ‘Seriously? I’ve got better things to do in life.’"

For owners, the competition offers excitement, challenges and rewards of their own sort.

"You don’t get rich off the dog sport," Thacker said. "But I literally know people from all over the world -- Italy, Australia, Spain."

Eldred recalled a "Janet Jackson moment" at one show when an excited mastiff she was handling in the ring pulled off her jacket, tearing off the buttons on her shirt.

She also remembered being stopped for speeding after driving back from the Westminster show earlier this year.

She mentioned the show to the police officer, who said he’d been watching it. She asked if he’d seen the working class group of dogs and he said he had.

"Would you like to meet the dog awarded third place in that group?" she asked. "He’s right here."

Thanks to Indy, the impressed officer let Eldred go with a warning, not a speeding ticket.

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