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Canine Capers: Rearing A Champion Dog

Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

The dog's face is weak. He's impeccably groomed, this Siberian husky, but his eyes are clouded and too far apart, and his soft mouth is better suited for a retriever, which has to fetch and carry fallen birds, than a sled dog capable of heavy lifting on the Alaskan tundra. In the architecture of dogs, as Louis Sullivan once famously said of buildings, form should always follow function.

So Betty Regina Leininger, of Plano, Texas, turns her attention to the second of four animals lined up like toy soldiers for her perusal, and then to the third and fourth. She is seeking the closest possible match to her personal template for the breed, her own idealized Siberian husky. With the fourth, she finds it. This is Kasper--officially CH Solocha Kasan Ghost Rider--a poised, energetic, gray-and-white, four-year-old champion ranked first among all Siberian huskies in the United States.

Leininger can't tell you the dog's name or owner, much less its ranking, but she knows she has seen him before. At the Houston Astro Series of Dog Shows in 1994 she picked Kasper as the top dog in the Working group, which allowed him to advance to the Best in Show competition that climaxes every all-breed event. Earlier that year, she did the same at the Golden Gate Show at San Francisco's Cow Palace. But here, at the Lawrenceville Kennel Club Show at the Atlanta Exposition Center on a warm, Saturday morning last August, she does her best to push lingering memories aside. She is focused on each dog's looks, its presence, its conditioning, and how it responds to its handler.

As Kasper follows the lead of Glenn Lycan, of Griffin, Georgia, down and back the diagonal of the 40-foot-by-40-foot ring, he seems alert and fit. It is not an exaggeration to say that he resembles an athlete. The line of his neck flows gracefully into his shoulder, his shoulder into his ribs, his ribs to his loin, with a unity of motion that hints at hidden resources of strength. It is such strength, Leininger knows, that would enable him to pull a loaded sled long distances through the snow.

Though a small deposit has collected in Kasper's left ear, his urge to fidget is overcome by his training. As Leininger watches him gaze up at Lycan, awaiting a command, he seems the picture of obedience. As a reward, Lycan pulls a small piece of liver bait from his own mouth--"Where else can I store it?" he says--and feeds it to Kasper. Between the brief trip down the short runway and the lap around the circumference of the ring that follows, Lycan is able to move the collar away from Kasper's ear and ease his discomfort. As a result, the dog's side gait is exemplary. Leininger maintains an expressionless face, but she is impressed. "He is the epitome of breed type," she will comment later."He is a very sound dog in marvelous condition. And he is shown to perfection."

One of the most respected judges on the continent, Leininger has been working with dogs since childhood. Growing up in St. John's, Newfoundland, she bought a German shepherd and took it to a show on a whim. "It was like magic," she says. After two decades of roaming the highways of the United States and Canada as a handler, training and showing dogs, she retired in 1981. Leininger, who now works as a travel consultant in the Dallas area, began judging dog shows in 1983 and usually judges twice a week; the top judges can make between $250 and $500 a day. Such is the scarcity of top judges that Leininger is booked many months in advance. "Right now, I know my schedule through 1999," she says.

The criteria for judging, though based on American Kennel Club standards, is somewhat subjective: the standards are loose enough to be open to interpretation. So the peculiarities of the judges are as important as the dogs. Lycan is well aware of the history his dogs have with each, for his strategy is affected by it. "If I go in with a judge that I know likes Kasper, as long as I keep him from making mistakes I can be in it until the end," he says.

When he learned Leininger would be judging both the Siberian husky breed and the Working Dog group at the Lawrenceville show, he felt confident that if Kasper showed to his potential, he would be justly rewarded. "It's tomorrow we're worried about," he says, for the judge assigned to the breed for the Conyers Kennel Club Show--which, as usual, is being held on the same weekend and at the same site as Lawrenceville to make the trip to Atlanta worthwhile for out-of-town judges, handlers and owners--has been unimpressed with Kasper in the past. Even for a dog ranked first in the country in his breed, advancing into the group competition is never assured, much less into the Best in Show. "Kasper wins 90 percent of his breed [competitions]," says Lycan, "but it's that 10 percent that'll kill you."

Today, Lycan doesn't have to worry. With a slight turn of the hand that would go unnoticed by the uninitiated, Leininger signals that Kasper has won the breed. Lycan has another dog to show in a different ring in a matter of minutes, so he barely allows himself time to smile, or dry the sweat on his forehead. With a brief nod to Leininger, he leads Kasper back to the stack of portable kennels at the rear of the hall, then walks briskly to another part of the floor with a feisty border terrier named Eddie.

Dog shows are all about breeding, and the sport's most important work is done far from the convention halls, state fairgrounds and vacant lots that hold the vast majority of the 11,000-odd AKC-sanctioned events in the United States each year. The idea is to systematically breed in positive attributes and breed out negative ones in a sort of canine eugenics that is supposed to bring each succeeding generation ever closer to its breed standard.

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