Dog handlers hope for the best in show

Dog owners walk back to their sitting dogs during an obedience event at the Lawrence Jayhawk Kennel Club all-breed dog show Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. The event continues today.

Siouxsan Eisen, Kearney, MO., competes in the Novice B Obedience event with her dog Pinch at the Lawrence Jayhawk Kennel Club all-breed dog show Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. The event continues today.

Sometimes life is just ruff.

Take Erin Roberts’ client, who owns Malachy, the oddly lovable Pekingese who won this year’s prestigious Westminster Kennel Club show in New York. She got into showing her dogs, Roberts said, after a lot of family trouble and a dark period in her life. She found it to be a welcome distraction. Dogs, after all, don’t do that kind of drama.

Dogs need jobs, Roberts said. They’re bred to serve a purpose — be it a guarding, intimidating English mastiff or a ratter of a dachshund, whom nobody ever told he was so small. Dogs are simple: Give them something to do, and they’ll repay you with love. And performance.

Roberts, from Oklahoma City, is a professional handler — she’s paid to show other people’s dogs. Trim and youthful in a leopard-print suit, she’s in her element this weekend at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, showing several dogs in the Lawrence Jayhawk Kennel Club show.

She’s been showing dogs since 1979. She had basenjis, and her aunt and uncle did horse shows, passing on the torch of the itinerant animal lover.

There’s not much money in winning any of the categories in regional shows like this. But serious handlers like Roberts travel to American Kennel Club-certified shows to build up points for their dogs, which, with a lot of experience, can build up to becoming champions and grand champions. The Italian greyhound Roberts is showing today, GCH Everafter’s Best Bet Yet, has a page and a well-established lineage. Being best in show is serious business.

But Cassie Rice, from Kansas City, Mo., and her Rhodesian ridgeback Jenna are among the proud amateurs in the bunch. Rice said the circuit becomes addictive because it’s competitive, but also because it involves travelling around with people who share an interest in dogs. Jenna won best of breed, so seemingly the competition’s going well.

The dogs at a show are more varied than in a typical park. There’s big, small, white, black, sporting and herding — a United Nations of genetic origins and smorgasbord of traits. In obedience, they’re tested on skill. In rally, for their adherence to the breed standard.

Two of the dogs on display were Hermione and Tonka, two sisters and big, fluffy, black Newfoundlands bred for water rescue and trained for therapy. Their special skill is brace — running around the track while on one leash.

“It’s an accomplishment to get two dogs to agree to do something together,” owner Nicki Dobson said.

Ultimately, showing dogs is not a sport for everybody, but it can be for anybody, Roberts said.

“It’s a sport anybody can do — I’ve seen handlers with different abilities physically and one who was blind. Young and old, novice and advanced can compete, too,” she said. “The animals come first, but a lot of trainers do it as part of their identities.”