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Digging into the world of dog shows

The Westminster Kennel Club dog show has nothing to do with Carroll County's largest municipality, but residents and dogs from Carroll and surrounding communities will be represented there.

The Westminster Kennel Club dog show is "considered probably America's most prestigious show if not the world's most prestigious show," said Chrystal Murray, a member of the Carroll Kennel Club and a professional handler who leads dogs through the show ring.

Madison Square Garden in New York City will host the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show Monday, Feb. 11 and Tuesday, Feb. 12, beginning at 8 a.m. each day. The rest of the public will be provided a glimpse into this world of purebred dogs on CNBC and the USA Network those evenings.

However this glimpse will only provide partial insight. There is much that goes into a dog show that remains concealed. The handlers may be the ones leading the dogs around the ring, but there are breeders and owners who play an essential role as well.

Paul Clas, the vice president of the Carroll Kennel Club and a professional handler along with Murray, said what people see on TV is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Each breed will be competing to come up with their best of breed and that contender will go to one of the seven groups televised that evening," Clas explained.

The winners from these seven groups will go on to compete for the coveted award, Best in Show. However, what the public sees on television is only a fraction of the preparation required for a show such as Westminster.

Clas and Murray work together, showing the same five dogs they will handle at Westminster. These dogs have owners living in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Canada and Taiwan.

Murray and Clas live in Hanover, Pa., when they're not traveling the country with show dogs.

As handlers, Clas and Murray are responsible for grooming and showing owners' dogs around the country at smaller venues where the dogs gain the required 15 points to earn championship titles. Although a championship title is no longer necessary to compete at Westminster as of this year, it's an honor most work for. For lucky dogs it takes weeks, for most dogs it takes months to earn a championship, Murray said.

Westminster can be an exhausting experience for handlers. They will cart their champions in trailers, the necessary equipment requiring a room of its own.

"The crowds that come in are insane," Murray said. "It takes you three times as long to get from your grooming area to the ring [compared to smaller dog shows]."

Typically, there are three people involved with a show dog: breeders, owners and handlers. It all begins with breeders such as Mary Smith, a member of the Board of Directors for the Carroll Kennel Club. The Taneytown resident has the responsibility of matching suitable dogs to create puppies that best represent the definition for that breed of dog.

Smith began to breed dogs about five years ago and has recently started to show dogs, she said. Last year, a Scottish Terrier she bred showed at Westminster but this year Smith takes credit as the breeder and owner of her Scottish Terrier, Onslow.

Smith said she named Onslow after a scruffy character from a British sitcom, "Keeping Up Appearances," because "as a puppy he was always a mess."

Onslow is now a matured show dog, a Grand Champion. Smith says he has the winning attitude and a good chance to win a ribbon. His official name in the ring is Grand Champion Midsmith's Scotach Macfhionghai, which is Gaelic for Scotsman Son of Fairborn, according to Smith.

Each component - breeding, owning and handling - is a gratifying experience that requires endless amounts of time and work, members of the Carroll Kennel Club said, which is why there are rarely people who fulfill the roles of breeder, owner and handler.

Eldersburg resident Paula Waterman is someone who will be fulfilling all three of those roles when she shows her Australian Shepherd Thumper at Westminster.

Unlike Westminster veterans Clas, Murray and Smith, Waterman said she is attending the prestigious show for the first and last time this year. This is the year Waterman has dedicated to Westminster, she said, knowing that the strain of time and money will likely not allow her a second chance.

Waterman has been involved with dog shows for over 10 years but Thumper is the champion she's decided to send into Westminster's ring.

She handpicked Thumper from a litter of puppies she bred. Waterman said she remembers Thumper's transition, watching his scruffy fur fill out into a beautiful coat of vibrant markings and his body grow into the perfect structure for an Australian Shepherd.

Waterman was the handler who helped Thumper earn his championships, eventually leading to a grand championship and preparing him for a one-time shot at Westminster. Thumper's official name in the ring is now Grand Champion Inkwell's Tom-tom.

Waterman said she wouldn't waste this opportunity on an inferior dog, and that Thumper is a superior specimen of his breed, an unflappable canine who just knows how to act.

"That's why I'm going, because I think he can win a ribbon," Waterman said.

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