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Nickel City Cluster Dog Show blends beauty, determination

Behind the scenes of the Nickel City Cluster Dog Show, Anne Pittman of Pittsburgh revealed a little secret about how some of these dogs are able to look poster-perfect. Pittman brought Iris, her Golden retriever, to compete in the annual Kennel Club-sponsored show inside the Events Center on the Fairgrounds in Hamburg. At a grooming table minutes before Iris was to strut her stuff, Pittman dabbed at the sides of the canine’s snout with a feathery puffer filled with tinted baby powder. “It hides the grays, and it makes it blend, you know, because dogs start to get a white face as they get older,” said Pittman.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world at these shows – especially for Golden retrievers, often the most heavily represented breed - so Pittman and other handlers must dig deep into their bags of tricks for whatever advantages they can find.

Iris stood calmly on the table and absorbed the primping without a whimper. She was among more than 1,000 pooches competing throughout four days of events.

No mutts were allowed, but a total of 143 breeds were represented, including the lovable Spanish water dog, which with its corded fur looks like a giant mop; and the exotic Xoloitzcuintli, a dark, sleek, medium-sized dog with blackish-brown eyes that hails from Mexico. He has a tuft of hair on his forehead and nowhere else.

“Only people who are dog enthusiasts would know what he is,” admitted Brandy Barrie-Kerr, who traveled from Ottawa, Ont., with Clavelin, an 8-month-old pup.

The dog, known as a Xolo or Mexican hairless, has the kind of face only a dog lover could love. And the furless body? Well, that’s probably an acquired taste, too. Barrie-Kerr has been around dogs her entire life. She used to breed Irish setters, which would be at the other end of the spectrum in terms of hair.

She admitted that not everyone sees in the breed what she does. Most people “think he’s sick. They ask if he has mange,” she said.

Still, Barrie-Kerr, who makes her living as a professional dog handler, waited five years and paid thousands of dollars to get the rare dog. She believes that, in time, he’ll be an excellent show dog.

Aside from Clavelin, fur flew aplenty inside the echoey confines of the Event Center. In fact, balls of the stuff danced across the concrete floor in the grooming areas like tumbleweed in Oklahoma. Dog handlers and judges lobbed around the term “bitch” so often the event could have been mistaken for an episode of “Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

One such bitch was Teagan, a colored bull terrier brought by Melanie Whitehair from the Rochester area. Teagan had a snout like a mallet hammer and a penchant for clownishness in the ring.

“That’s one of the problems we’re having is that, when the judge touches her, she falls down and giggles,” said Whitehair. “But we’ll work it out of her.”

Bits of homemade French toast will help. “She works hard for a lot of other treats, but we found out that French toast is the one that will make her stand on her head.”

Most handlers use some type of treat when they’re in the ring. Some of them even stick treats, usually pieces of chicken or liver, in their own mouths before using it to reward their charges.

“You want them to look at you a lot, and they’ll end up knowing it’s in your mouth and look up at your face, instead of your hand,” said Derek Beatty, a professional handler from Indianapolis who was showing a shaggy Bouviers des Flandres named Bubba. The thing you notice about Beatty is how well-dressed he is for all that running around with a dog: an olive suit, pinpoint blue shirt, striped tie and shiny black shoes. All of the handlers are well-dressed. There are no jeans and sweatpants on these dog walks.

“If you go in there looking sloppy, it kind of makes your dog look sloppy,” said Grace Durkin, who was showing off Benni, her white standard poodle. Durkin has been breeding poodles for 20 years, and she’s raised 10 champions. She thinks Benni, who will be two in February, has what it takes to be a grand champion, and she drove from the Albany area for the opportunity to earn points toward that distinction.

But she knows she’s in for a challenge against so many professional handlers. She pointed to the corner of the ring at the two suit-wearing men with poodles. “These guys,” she said, “are famous handlers.”

Famous? Really?

“Well,” she amended, “in the poodle world.”

At three years old, Iris, the Golden retriever, was running out of time to become a champion. Pittman spent two hours in the morning bathing the dog and blow drying her coat. She had a bag full of 15 scissors to clip nails and trim fur. After dabbing Iris with powder, she applied a product known as “Eye Envy” to the corner of Iris’s eyes to keep the area clear of the dreaded doggie eye booger.

The judges probably would frown on such doctoring, she said, “but you have to do what you can to compete.” Besides, she said, “We have a hard time beating the professionals. It’s tough. It’s the only sport where the amateurs go in with the professionals. And in the end, if we can’t finish them, we’ll probably hire the professional.” By finish, Pittman means accumulating enough points at shows to be named a champion.

Pittman ultimately gave in and asked professional handler Donna Edwards to show Iris during an event. Edwards actually purchased Iris’ sister from Pittman a few years ago and made her a champion within months. But on this day, Edwards and Iris finish third of out of eight finalists in the best of breed category.

“We tried,” Edwards said, handing Iris’ leash back to Pittman after the contest. “Better than nothing.”

Afterwards, Pittman acknowledged that third is better than she would have done showing Iris in the event with so many professionals. But it was still frustrating.

“My husband tells me I should just play the lottery – I would win more than I do here,” she said with a smile. “Or go to Vegas.”


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