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Canine Capers: Rearing A Champion Dog

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

(continued from page 1)

For male Siberian huskies, for example, the AKC mandates height limits of 21 to 23 1/2 inches at the withers and a weight of 46 to 50 pounds. Eyes should be "almond shaped," the skull "slightly rounded on top and tapering from the widest point of the eyes," the shoulder blade "well laid back," the gait "smooth and seemingly effortless." Not that AKC recognition for the breed itself was effortless. Following turn-of-the-century reports that a superior sled dog had been sighted in Siberia, and the heroic efforts of Siberian huskies in Nome, Alaska, during the diphtheria epidemic of 1925, AKC recognition was officially granted in 1930.

However, the resemblance of huskies such as Kasper to actual sled dogs is only theoretical. These are beauty pageant contestants, and even though their breed's instincts can linger after generations of domestication, assuming they can pull sleds may be like assuming a man is a barrel-maker because Cooper is his family name.

Another danger inherent in breeding generation after generation of pure show stock is a DNA pool turned in on itself so often that deformities occur. Critics say American purebreds are becoming like royal families in which cousins have married each other for too long, especially in uncommon breeds. Line breeding--in which grandmothers are mated with grandsons, for example--is routine. New blood would help restore vigor, but the American Kennel Club's insistence on impeccable bloodlines is as strict as the Bourbons' or Romanovs'. An ancestral lineage that includes anything but purebreds disqualifies an American dog from AKC competition, and foreign dogs must prove at least three generations clear. The solution to limited gene pools, according to the kennel club, lies in frozen semen, and at least one pilgrimage has been made to Africa to obtain specimens from males of the seldom-seen basenji breed.

Within a breed, therefore, the best dogs tend to look strikingly similar. A few make up for physical imperfections with exceptional personality, but very few. It isn't even like modeling, in which the quirky, angular appeal of a Kristen McMenamy can coexist with the softer, more traditional beauty of, say, Elizabeth Hurley. Aesthetics are judged only in comparison with a standard.

This is not to say that the dogs are identical, for each has a distinct personality. Kasper is playful, almost naughty; Betty Charlton, who owns him with her husband, Chuck, and Karen Runyan of Memphis, compares him to the actor Chevy Chase. "If he's ever had a bad day in his life, I haven't heard about it," she says. In a fit of merriment, Kasper once pulled a handler into a duck pond. In competition, he responds to Lycan's every command, but with a lightheartedness many judges find appealing.

Kasper is a champion show dog bred from champion show dogs, and the Charltons believe he is a natural thespian, born to perform. He started his career by visiting shut-ins at nursing homes, a job that requires advanced obedience skills and a friendly disposition, and became the youngest therapy dog ever certified in Tennessee. He began competing when he was six months old and, showing no signs of strain or boredom, continued without a break until he was retired this February. At 14 months, he was certified as a champion, which means he had accumulated enough show points to gain an exemption from preliminary competitions. Going into the Lawrenceville show, he had been named Best in Show 18 times over three and a half years, which is an impressive number but not close to the all-time record of 274, held by Mystique, a German shepherd that retired in 1995. Mystique is owned by Jane Firestone, the rubber company heiress.

The Charltons' own pedigree isn't quite as lofty. They run All Kreatures Pet Care in Knoxville, which trains, boards and grooms dogs and other animals. They started with show dogs in 1983 and at one time competed in 40 events annually across the eastern United States, just scraping by financially. But time away was hurting business, so they cut back. When Kasper exhibited early promise, they hired professionals: Glenn Lycan, 34, and his wife, Rebecca, 35. "You've got two minutes to go out and show what you've got," Chuck Charlton says. "I don't have the skill to do that like Glenn does. And when a dog like this comes along, you want him maximized."

The Lycans have been training and showing dogs together for more than a decade. Glenn started when he was 19; Rebecca abandoned a promising career as a biochemist to follow as an apprentice. Now, they are on the road 210 days a year. They travel with as many as 20 dogs at a time in a box truck, complete with a generator, and a 32-foot trailer for their own living quarters. They've brought 17 dogs to Atlanta and will show 11 of them--including, remarkably, three that are ranked No. 1 in their breed. (The American Kennel Club recognizes 140 breeds for competition, but even three of 140 is a formidable achievement.)

The Atlanta Exposition Center has been good to the Lycans. In 1995, they placed four of the seven dogs in the Best in Show competition at the Lawrenceville event, then did the same at the Conyers show the next day. That Saturday, Kasper was named the Best in Show, and Sunday the winner was another of their dogs, Fizz, a brown-and-white Pembroke Welsh corgi co-owned by Coca-Cola's chief executive officer, Roberto Goizueta, and his daughter, Atlanta attorney Olga Goizueta Rawls. Fizz is still with the Lycans in 1996, and today Rebecca wears a gold Coke-bottle pendant around her neck and Glenn, a Coca-Cola tie.

Though he's considered one of the world's most prominent businessmen, Goizueta often takes the time to see Fizz compete. He attends every dog show he can within two hours' drive of his Atlanta home, which works out to one every couple of months. For the Lawrenceville show, he and his daughter were at the exposition center early in the morning watching Fizz--actually, CH Just Enuff Of The Real Thing--win his breed competition to advance, and they'd be back later to see him against the other Herding dogs. (The seven groups--Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding--are shown in a different order at each show depending on the availability of judges and the number of preliminary entries. Each group competition lasts about half an hour. After that, usually at about 5 p.m., comes Best in Show.)

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