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Canine Capers: Rearing A Champion Dog

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

(continued from page 2)

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.

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