The other day I heard about a dog with a show record that really impressed me. I know, we hear about big winners all the time, so what’s so unusual about that? Just look at the ads for any of the top-ranked campaigners, and you’ll see so many Best in Show ribbons it makes your head spin. But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is a new, unknown dog that comes from nowhere and hits the ring with such impact that the reverberations are felt far and wide, even before any ads have announced to the world that a new star is born.
The dog I’m talking about is obviously a good example of this, but I’m not going to tell you his name, because frankly I don’t know it. This dog, for reasons too complicated to explain, did not go on to be heavily campaigned, never built up a massive Best in Show record and was never particularly high in the year-end rankings. What impressed me was that the dog finished very young with a big breed win over specials and then, at his first shows as a brand-new champion, won back-to-back BOB over 50 specials with a new handler. He was not shown heavily as an adult the following year, but traveled to seven specialty weekends in different parts of the country and won seven Specialty Best in Shows. He won a few Groups, an all-breed Best in Show and was not ever left out of the money, even at the biggest specialty shows. However, even when I find his name I very much doubt it’s one that most people outside the breed will ever have heard of.
Do you know any dogs like that? It’s easy to look at the Top Dog rankings and find out how many Groups and Best in Show wins the most heavily campaigned stars took home during any given year. These facts are public knowledge, and such wins are impressive, no question about that. However, practically all the top-ranked dogs are what we might call “professional show dogs,” usually competing something like 100 times in a single year, often more, with all the advantages offered to them that deep pockets and a seasoned professional handler can offer. These dogs get a lot of credit, and deservedly so. Some of them, in fact, were selected for their big-time specials campaigns because they started out with spectacular early wins that made it clear early on that they could catch the judges’ eyes.
What I’m wondering is how many “lost” (in the sense of “unknown”) dogs are out there whose big careers perhaps never quite materialized for various reasons. As anyone with experience in this sport, it takes a lot more than early promise to guarantee a long-lasting top specials career.
Great Show Dogs: Born or Made?
It’s a truth with modifications that great show dogs are born, not made. Some of the biggest winners of all time took years to build up the reputation that their later fame rests on. In any vote of the most popular show dogs ever, the German Shepherd Dog Ch. Covy-Tucker Hill’s Manhattan is bound to score high; his group of fans was, and still is, both large and vociferous. Yet the fact is that if Manhattan had retired after his first three years of being specialled, like most dogs are, he would never even have been Number 1 in his own breed. He was 6 years old when he started winning seriously, a veteran when he was Number 1 All Breeds, and nearly 8 years old when he finally won BIS at Westminster.
There’s nothing wrong with a record that builds up slowly. In fact, in many ways it’s more impressive than a dog that starts out strong and then fades into oblivion, although the reasons that early promise and quick wins don’t translate into a long-term specials career are many and diverse. Sometimes it’s as simple as a young dog that doesn’t grow up as expected, and the youthful appeal doesn’t mature into adult charisma. Usually the reason lies with the people involved, however. Whenever a young dog with exceptional promise appears, news travels fast, and before you can say “Best in Show,” the dog and the owner are surrounded by handlers who offer to show the dog and sponsors eager to support a future show career in exchange for some name recognition.
Overcoming the Obstacles
The obstacles that must be overcome before the specials campaign can switch into full gear are many. The young dog’s owner may simply not want his dog to get into other people’s hands (and names). He or she may prefer to keep it in the family, perhaps not even be the least bit tempted by a siren song with promises of multicolored ribbons, rankings success, and the chance of winning at the biggest and most prestigious shows in the country. That’s not so common, though. Beyond the obvious pride and gratification anyone must feel in seeing their dog recognized nationwide, some may even feel it’s their responsibility (or at least SAY it’s their responsibility, which isn’t quite the same thing) to let an outstanding young dog be seen by a larger audience in order to “educate the masses.”
More often, if a specials career doesn’t materialize, it’s because the original owner sets conditions and makes demands that the future handler and sponsors can’t live with. Dogs with great show potential aren’t that plentiful, but regardless of how good the dog is, a clearheaded handler won’t want to get involved with an owner he or she feels they can’t work with. Experienced professional handlers can spot trouble a mile away. “Life’s too short to deal with the crazies,” as one of them told me.
Sometimes it’s also clear that although this is a truly beautiful dog of exceptional type and charisma, it’s not one that would be able to stand up well to the stress of traveling around the country and competing at a different showground several times almost every week of the year. Having that kind of stamina is a prerequisite for success: it doesn’t have anything to do with breed type or conformation, but in a way it means that a specials campaign may function as a temperament test. A dog can certainly have a great temperament without wanting to be a show dog a hundred days of the year, but I don’t think it’s possible for a really good show dog to not have a great personality. There’s a reason great show dogs almost always have such charisma: they enjoy what they are doing, and it shows.
From Best in Show to Dead Last
In the past, when there were fewer shows and people seldom campaigned their dogs as intensely as usually happens today, it was possible to build up a whole amazing career without going to more shows than a current campaigner would hit in a few weeks. You have to go pretty far back to find examples of this, however. The best one is probably the Bulldog, Ch. Kippax Fearnought, remembered by some old-timers who saw him as an all-time great. (I’m pretty sure it was Frank Sabella who listed him as one of the two or three best dogs he ever saw.) ‘Jock,’ as he was called, was imported from England and owned by a relative newcomer to the sport, John Saylor of Long Beach, Calif. He won Best in Show at his very first show in the U.S., but when he was shown by his owner the next time he was dead last in his class. Then the famous professional handler Harry Sangster took over, and the success was immediate, even though Jock, much to Sangster’s frustration, was only allowed to be shown very seldom.
The exact number of times Jock competed isn’t known, but it is believed to have been only 20 to 25 times over at least three years. Winning 17 all-breed Best in Shows under such circumstances, as well as two Groups at Westminster and BIS there in 1955, was a pretty amazing achievement – but how many would remember Jock today, were it not for his Westminster win? (And perhaps Frank’s good memory.) This was in the days before the rankings craze had really taken off, but even in those days Jock was shown too rarely to figure high among each year’s biggest winners.
Another dog around the same time created at least as much of a stir. The Doberman Pinscher Ch. Rancho Dobe’s Storm competed, according to published records, at a total of 25 shows, won BOB every time except once as a puppy, 22 Working Groups and 19 BIS – two of them, in 1952 and 1953, at Westminster. Storm was shown by professional handler Peter Knoop and owned by a New York advertising executive, Len Carey, who was sometimes accused of applying his professional talents to burnish Storm’s reputation – although with such a record, you wouldn’t think that was necessary.
A Deeper Mystery
Even before those two legendary dogs, there was also the unbeatable short-career record of the English imported Collie, Laund Loyalty of Bellhaven. He won BIS at Westminster in 1929, as a 9-month-old puppy, no less, yet was never shown again. The reasons that have been given for this are conflicting. Loyalty’s owner Florence Ilch had many great champions in her Bellhaven kennels, and when the Collie Club of America contacted an already old and ill Mrs. Ilch in the 1970s to clear up the rumors, she instead deepened the mystery further. She told two directly contradictory stories. According to one of them, a jealous competitor had threatened to poison Loyalty if he were ever to be shown again “and we loved him too dearly to risk his life for a championship.” According to the other story she told, the poor dog was actually blinded by acid thrown in his face. We’ll never know which is the true story (if either), but the fact is that Loyalty, with just one single champion offspring, had far less influence on the breed than many of the other Bellhaven dogs.
Moving to modern days, one dog’s show record can’t be ignored. His career doesn’t quite fit the above mold, but the results at the first few shows in America of the Kerry Blue Terrier Ch. Torum’s Scarf Michael were, as so much about this amazing dog, unique. Shown six times in the first two weekends after he was imported from England in 2000, ‘Mick’ won six Terrier Groups and five Best in Shows, the first three in a row from the classes. That achievement is sometimes forgotten because of what came after – Number 1 All Breeds, BIS at AKC/Eukanuba in 2002 and Westminster in 2003, and a total of 113 BIS in 170 shows. However, since Mick arrived on the American show scene as an already famous Crufts BIS winner, he was not exactly unknown when he made his debut, putting him in a different category from the “unknown” top winners I’d like to know more about. Mick, of course, was handled by Bill McFadden and owned by Marilu Hansen.
In the ring today, the only dog I know that has had spectacular success in just a small number of shows would be the Old English Sheepdog Ch. Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect, owned, bred and shown by Colton and Heather Johnson. I am aware that ‘Swagger’ is now having a successful specials career and ranks high in the all-breed statistics, but it was his first three shows that really made me sit up and take notice. If I’m correctly informed, and I think I am, at his first show as a puppy, Swagger was Reserve WD at the OESCA National Specialty. At his second, he won an all-breed Best in Show, and at his third – at just 20 months old – he won the Group and Reserve BIS at Westminster this year. After that I haven’t been able to follow the development closely, but I’d like to know if there is any other dog that can equal – or top – that record.
Please let me hear from you if you know of a dog that has had truly spectacular show success early on, regardless of whether those wins translated into a big-time specials career or the dog stayed home and remained mostly unknown to those of us who are not involved in that breed. Send me a note at email@example.com and perhaps I’ll be able to write a follow-up story.
Who knows how many “hidden gems” are out there?