On the road with American Handlers

On the road with American Handlers
by Storm Thomson (Grayson)
(First published in Dog World in 1989).

If it ain’t the heat it’s the humidity. A popular saying in our family and no than at a very hot week I spent last year (1988) on the dog show circuit at the request of friends in Indiana USA. When staying with them two years ago they lived on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Shortly after I left last time they moved to a delightful spot on the banks of the Ohio River in South Eastern Indiana. They rang me at the beginning of June desperate for some help with the summer shows. I like a fool could not wait to jump on the plane as I am an eager traveller and was fascinated to have further study of the dog show scene.

Well, I too have been known to read newspapers and listen to world news on the television so I was aware of the drought situation in America. But wow! This was something else again. I am sure most of our hardy dog exhibitors would quail at the thought of showing dogs in temperatures of 100°, especially breeds such as Newfoundland’s and Chows.

Woodspoint Kennels, belonging to David White and Michael Faulkner, are an all-breed professional handling and conditioning team. The kennel houses between 15 and 25 dogs and clients wishing to have their dogs handled by this team frequently have to remain on the waiting list for six months before there is an available space. Michael specialises in Golden Retrievers whereas David’s main breeds are Irish Setters, English Springer’s and Pugs. They have made up many champions over the past few years.

They base their reputation on excellent care of the dogs and the ability to condition and finish in a very short time. Taking in the region of 15 dogs to a show would make most of us crumble at the knees, so imagine taking these dogs in one van, in 100° of heat 500 miles, showing at three shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then 500 miles back again to do it all over again the following weekend. It’s not as terrible as it sounds – they are well prepared and there is a strict routine to follow. The weeks look like this:

Monday, paperwork letters and entries, new dogs in, old dogs out, laundry and grocery shopping.
Tuesday, catch up on the dog press, finish up remaining entries and telephoning.
Wednesday, prepare for the weekend, clean out van and pack it with crates, exercise pens, fans, generators and all grooming equipment. Trim and bathe all the dogs we are showing; this takes all day as presenting the dogs correctly is the difference between first and last. This done and all remaining dogs settled for the night, time for human rest.
Thursday morning, load van with dogs and food, clothes having been ironed they are hung in the back last of all. Handlers clothes are extremely important, no jeans and sweatshirts on parade there. Smart jacket and tie and neatly pressed slacks for the men, crisp cotton skirts and matching tops for the ladies, with soft leather shoes or clean track shoes on the feet.
The dogs are well exercised before being loaded, so there is no need to take them out of the van until we reach our destination as the van is air conditioned keeping them cool and comfortable.

Thursday night is spent in one of the chain of motels around the country, where we find a suitable piece of grass to put up our pens; electric extension cables run from all the dog rooms to their vehicles so as to be able to keep the fans going. As it had been so hot we found that we could not feed the dogs until about 9:30 pm when the sun goes down. The same is true on the road as feeding while the sun is still up and very hot will not do the dogs any good. As I am usually chief pooper – scooper I was in full agreement.

Show mornings are even earlier in the States – judging starts at 8.30 am and stakes classes sometimes start at 8.00am. It is also necessary to be there in plenty of time to get a good spot as there is no benching. Motor homes, vans, cars and trucks are all parked with their ex-pens, tables and crates around them, so it is nice to be in easy reach of the rings.

All Breeds are classified at every show and every show carries points towards a championship, providing there are enough entries within that breed. Most shows are the size of our open shows, some classes having perhaps only one entrant, and the largest entries coming from Great Danes, Rottweilers and Afghans, usually about 40. Some shows have a “supported entry” in a particular breed making it a breed specialty show; often they will have three or four breed club specialties on the same ground on the same day. Show entries are made two to three weeks before the show and one week before every exhibitor receives the premium list with the number of entrants in each class and the times for each ring. This makes things easier if you have three or four different breeds to show on that day.
Once at the show, the judge wastes no time as they may have as many as six or seven different breeds to judge before lunch, the time for which is stated in every ring timetable posted at the ring.

On my visit this time we had several shows indoors which was a great relief from the heat. They were mostly university buildings or fairground buildings (like our county show grounds). With the outdoor shows they have a tented corridor between the rings and a tented area for grooming – no other form of shelter either from the sun or the rain.

We had rain one weekend, only on the Saturday morning – now we think our rain is pretty bad as once it starts it forgets to stop, but there it rains for maybe a couple of hours complete with thunder and lightning. It falls very hard and fast and usually the accumulation is about 5 inches, but this does not stop the dog show activity. This particular day was David’s birthday so while he was in the ring several friends decorated the van with balloons and banners and produced feathered crowns for us all to wear. We then ate giant birthday cookies.

Humidity was very high for the rest of the weekend and with the temperature soaring it made the heat index rise about 110°. Even here people were being asked over the tannoy not to leave dogs in cars unattended. Can you imagine how hot temperatures must have made the interiors of these cars?

Not everyone is as conscientious about pooper scooping as they should be. Reading an article in an American dog paper, I see that the exhibitors had to be sent back to the motel where they had been staying to clear up the dog mess before judging could continue. Many shows sites have been lost due to dog fouling, and many clubs are hoping to get together to buy permanent shows sites.

One of the hottest show weekends was luckily held behind the village fire station – during the afternoon it was well up to 100° and the Newfoundland’s could not take it any longer. One of the top winning dogs collapsed in the ring and the fire tender was called for. They hosed down the dogs and then the worst ones were packed in ice. Amazingly they all survived and finished the weekend.
The Chows amazed me as I have always thought of them not being able to withstand very high temperatures, but they showed well in the heat and are a very popular breed in the States. The pug nosed breeds also seem to manage well providing they are kept wrapped in a cold wet towel and a spray bottle of water is at hand, plus a bowl of iced water. Ice is readily available at all garages and grocery stores to purchase and at some show sites.

Dog shows and showing are pretty much the same wherever you go; the weather may be different but the eagerness to achieve the highest slot is still there, and so are the grumbles, “the judge doesn’t know what he is doing,” or “the exhibitor behind me was treading on my dog, otherwise I would have won” etc.

But there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had – during those six weeks we managed several best of breeds, four group wins and two bests in show.

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