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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.

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.)

Goizueta is about as close as the dog world gets to a celebrity, but apart from the Coke accoutrements, the Lycans pay no more attention to him than to any of their other owners. The dogs are their obsession. The couple are unfailingly cordial, but one often gets the feeling during a conversation that they've had enough human contact and are ready to return to dogs. Several times, Olga Rawls says, she has seen Glenn or Rebecca leave a restaurant in the middle of a dinner to exercise or visit with their dogs.

Now, after combing Fizz's hair for what seems like the 15th time of the morning, Rebecca distractedly runs the same brush through her own. "Why not?" she says after someone looks at her strangely. "That dog is probably a lot cleaner than I am."

The Westminster Kennel Club Show, held each February in a sea of formal attire at New York's Madison Square Garden, is America's best-known and most prestigious dog event. But Westminster is an anomaly; shows such as Lawrenceville are the norm. Here, on the outskirts of Atlanta, down a two-lane road from a trucking company and a boarded-up diner, media attention is scant, and many of the owners (and the few spectators who wander in) wear jeans or shorts and dog-related T-shirts.

Behind the nine show rings that are used all morning in the breed competitions are portable kennels where the dogs are kept, and small tables that are used for grooming. To one side of the hall are booths offering a variety of items ranging from the kitschy to the downright useful, such as fresh liver bait for 50 cents. A sign reminds owners and handlers that no dogs are allowed in the men's room. As usual, the walls of the facility are lined with plastic to protect against nature's unexpected calls.

The intrigue here is worthy of a loftier setting. Stories of tampering and other treachery are repeated whenever owners and handlers congregate. "There've been shows where dogs have been poisoned in their crates," says Betty Charlton. "You always have to keep an eye out." Because there's little money to be made from winning an event, the motive for most of the nefariousness is jealousy. "Most people wish that some day they could have a dog that achieves the things that Kasper has achieved," she says. "So, when you get to this level, you don't exactly get the red-carpet treatment from the others."

As Charlton talks, she watches the ring where Kasper is competing against an eager Great Dane, a majestic boxer and other Working Dog breed winners. Leininger sorts the dogs into two batches, big and small, before making her decision, then chooses Kasper with the same flick of her hand she used in the breed competition. Earlier, Fizz had won the Herding group, so the Lycans have two of the seven finalists, with the down-home Charltons competing on equal terms against the CEO of Coke.

There's little delay between the end of group competition and the beginning of Best in Show, and the Goizuetas, who are among a cluster of several owners and AKC and local officials in folding chairs just outside the ring, don't leave their seats. Roberto Goizueta, looking natty in slacks and a sport coat, seems nervous. He crosses and uncrosses his legs, leans one way and then the other, but insists he is enjoying himself. "I like all of this, the beauty," he says, gesturing toward the ring. He mentions that he traveled to New York last year to watch Fizz win his breed at Westminster. His father, Crispulo Goizueta, owned and bred boxers in Havana before Castro and the Revolution, and Roberto often showed them. His name appears in old event programs. That was a long time ago, but boxers have remained his favorite breed.

Little Fizz, a long-and-low sportscar of a dog, is Olga Rawls' favorite. Because the Lycans and Rawls live in the Atlanta area, Fizz is occasionally allowed rest and relaxation time at home, where he lives like a house dog. Though he's accustomed to a private kennel, Rawls' other corgis and three small children don't upset him, she reports. But having a show dog romp through your playroom can be a bit like keeping an Indy racer in the driveway; the Goizuetas have invested not only time and energy in Fizz, but an enormous amount of money. While most owners spend far less, it can cost as much as $25,000 to $50,000, or even more, to campaign a dog for an entire season, though the material rewards are slight. "This is not a rational hobby," says Rawls. "You like it, you enjoy doing it, you're not quite sure why."

Even as an ego trip, showing dogs is a precarious game, for the final result of each event might well depend on a particular judge's background and breed bias. If a judge is accustomed to judging terriers, he or she will be able to recognize a terrier of quality instantly, while perhaps overlooking the assets of a superior Norwegian elkhound. On the other hand, a judge may be prone to hold the terrier to a higher standard since his or her mind's-eye snapshot of the perfect terrier is so clear. It is a calculus with many variables, and the performance of each dog isn't always the most important.

Rawls doesn't understand all the nuances of judging, and she attends shows more to visit with her friends and her dog than to immerse herself in the finer points of the competition. The few times she showed one of her own dogs, she says, she didn't even recognize the judge's commands. "We have a one in seven chance," she says simply, and turns her attention to the dogs being led around the ring by their handlers.

All of the dogs are beautiful, flawless to the untrained eye. There's a dalmatian bitch that moves well, a wire-haired fox Terrier that draws applause, a toy Manchester terrier with a perfect shape. In the end, according to some of the off-duty judges, it comes down to three: the dalmatian, Fizz and Kasper. Of course, the ring judge may have another opinion, and only hers counts. Finally, Penny the dalmatian--the top-ranked Non-Sporting dog in the United States and No. 4 among all breeds--is named the winner. AKC vice president of communications Wayne Cavanaugh, who judges dogs internationally, nods. "She wanted it more," he says. "On this day, she was just the better dog. You could see her out there begging for it."

It is Penny's 58th career Best in Show. Dennis McCoy, who handles her for owner Isabel Robson of Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, carries her to a makeshift dais where the requisite photograph is taken. Tonight, McCoy and his dog will have about six seconds of exposure on the local news.

On Sunday at the Conyers show, Glenn Lycan's worries about the Siberian husky judge prove unfounded. Kasper advances, as does Fizz. In the Herding group, Fizz is up against a highly regarded Belgian Tervuren--and a judge, Virginia Hampton, with a reputation for the unorthodox. "You never know what she's going to do," Rawls says with a wince, but on this afternoon she does just what Rawls wants, and Fizz is out of his group and back to competing for Best in Show.

"You could tell that today he was even better than yesterday," says Goizueta, who is back, too, with an even snazzier sport coat. "You know, it was exactly one year ago in this very building that Fizz was named Best in Show." But so was Kasper, that same weekend, and today the Siberian is looking unbeatable. Despite the presence of a sculpted rottweiler, Kasper saunters through his group competition to loud applause.

Sunday's final judge is Arlene Thompson-Brown, one of the dog world's colorful characters. A former copywriter and broadcaster for Mutual and CBS radio, she lives alone in Florida. She has been married to a French count, an Englishman, an Australian and four Americans. All seven are dead. "I'm out of the market from now on," she says. "I'm sticking to dogs."


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