Dogs take turn on the catwalk

It's a major show of glitz for more than 1,500 canines at Howard County Fairgrounds

July 07, 2008|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

In the world of canine competition, there are agility shows, which are a bit like gymnastics, with dogs performing on a series of obstacles and jumps. There are obedience trials, which some experts compare to spelling bees for dogs, requiring mental skill and concentration. There are field work contests, for dogs to show their hunting and searching abilities.

But yesterday's National Capital Kennel Club conformation show at the Howard County Fairgrounds was the equivalent of a beauty pageant for dogs. A very big beauty pageant.

"The ring - it's just like you're down the runway," says Roslyn Mintz, a professional handler from Long Island. "You're going out to impress. Certain breeds are especially glitzy. They strut their stuff."

More than 1,500 canines representing more than 150 breeds withstood the combs, hairspray and blow-dryers for their turn to prance before judges and admirers and a chance to win the coveted "Best in Show" ribbon.

To her charges - which at the moment are three West Highland white terriers, known in these circles as Westies - Mintz, who is 32, is both agent and hairstylist. She trains them for months leading up to shows and is also in charge of primping them just before their appearances.

"It's kind of like doing them up for a fashion show," she says, spraying a bossy terrier named Fed Ex with a can of hairspray. She even uses a brand of hair products - TRESemme - made for people.

It takes Mintz about 45 minutes to wash, dry, powder, tease (yes, fur can be teased) and hairspray a dog before a show. And in addition to Fed Ex, Mintz has two other dogs to get ready: Suzzy, a congenial show veteran, and Mac, a young terrier she's trying to train to keep his head high.

All this fussing to prepare the dogs for the proverbial catwalk leaves no time for Mintz to get ready. She pulls a skirt on over her pants and adds a blazer at the last minute, as she smooths her own blond ponytail.

Years ago, handlers wore ballroom gowns to shows. "Now you just want to look professional. You don't want to outshine the dogs," Mintz says.

Al Ferruggiaro, chairman of yesterday's show, says the event used to be held on the National Mall and was a social event in Washington, attended by ambassadors and senators. Sterling silver trophies were the prizes, he says.

Yesterday, ribbons were awarded to the winners. The competition was the last in four days of dog shows at the suburban fairgrounds. The back-to-back events draw breeders from across the country, and each day's competition offers the dogs a chance to earn points toward "champion" titles.

"Every day is the big day," says Lisa Ross, an English cocker spaniel breeder from Gloucester, Va., who stayed the holiday weekend with family friends in an RV, one of hundreds parked at the fairgrounds.

"We're just like a little band of gypsies," Ross says.

Diane Keeler, a breeder of standard poodles from southern Pennsylvania who is helping groom for a friend's kennel, says there's more to the winners than just a pretty coat. The dogs are like dancers that way - more muscular than spectators might first realize.

"Poodles love to show," says Keeler. "But they're a sporting dog, too. They love to jump."

Even the style of the dog's fur, resembling cotton balls at its head, upper body, back legs and feet, has a hunting purpose, Keeler says.

The fur was shaved in other places to keep the dog cool and reduce the weight of its fur when it got wet. The fur was kept in strategic spots, such as its hind legs, to protect its kidneys, she says.

The style has gotten puffier over time, says Keeler. "With all this poof, people don't realize how athletic they are."

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