Chrystal Clas had spent almost two hours meticulously grooming Jewel, a poodle, for the Northeastern Maryland Kennel Club's All-Breed Dog Show.
Jewel, clean-shaven in some areas with finely cut and brushed balls of fur protruding from her hips and paws, looked about ready to compete. Clas acknowledged the style of grooming for poodles was exotic — if not laughable — but, she said, it is in keeping with history and tradition.
Poodles were used as cold water retrievers for hundreds of years, Clas said.
"Their owners would trim their hair so they wouldn't drown," she said. "It was for a purpose. The hair you see on their hips, paws and chest was to provide protection for important parts of the body from the cold."
Eventually it became fashionable in France to groom poodles in that manner, which led to what groomers do today, she said.
Jewel was one of 900 dogs at the show held at the Carroll County Agriculture Center on Sunday, and visitors were able to see more than 100 breeds.
Steve Skolnik, the show chairman and member of the club, said this is the first year for the event. Though there have been dog shows at the center in the past, this is the first time the club has organized such an event at the venue.
The Northeastern Maryland Kennel Club partnered with the Chesapeake Kennel Club of Maryland to put on the two-day event, Skolnik said. The Chesapeake club judged the competition Saturday while Skolnik's club judged on Sunday.
The competition and judging process is complicated, he said. The show begins by separating breeds into different classes, which are typically based on age. Puppies are in a different class than more mature dogs, Skolnik said. They also split the dogs up by sex. Once the winners of each class by sex is named, these dogs then compete for best of sex. The best in sex winners then show for best of breed.
Breeds are split into groups, he said. The competition featured seven groups, including sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting and herding, and each group has a different standard on which they are judged.
"Dogs were bred to do a specific job and their group reflects that," Skolnik said.
The winner of each group then competes for best in show, the most coveted award at any dog competition, he said.
Jim Mitchell, a field representative for the American Kennel Club, said the standard by which each group is judged is intended to make the competition as objective as possible, but ultimately the choice of winner is up to the judge.
"If I gave $100 to three friends and told them to go buy a yellow sweater, they would all come back with something different," Mitchell said. "They'd all be yellow but would be different. It's the same with [dog] shows."
Mitchell said the American Kennel Club is a non-profit organization which standardized the dog judging process and helps to govern the competition. He said good sportsmanship is key to a successful show.
"It's a sport where we agree to disagree a lot of times, but you always congratulate the winner," Mitchell said.
When the two clubs decided to hold a show in Westminster, they first had to gain approval from the AKC. The national organization judges a venue's worthiness based on several factors, including the quality of the building, ease of access and proximity to hotels and restaurants.
Many dog owners and handlers travel from all over the country to participate in these shows, he said, so it is important to have amenities available.
"The [agriculture center] is a great building," Mitchell said. "It's an especially nice venue for dog showing."
Just as dogs are split up into groups, the people who participate have different roles. There are breeders, owners, handlers and groomers. Some only fulfill one role while others wear several — if not all — the hats.
Regina Keiter, for instance, is a handler. At the show on Sunday, she was caring for and grooming Pickle, a briard. The breed hails from France, was used as a herding dog and is known for its exceedingly shaggy appearance. Keiter had spent hours painstakingly combing Pickle's coat until it looked like a kingly cloak had been draped over his body.
She said Pickle had been entrusted to her by the dog's owner. Rather than pay for someone to groom him, she does it herself.
Another participant in the competition was Munch, a four-pound Pomeranian. His owner, Jame Kahler, said he won best of breed on Saturday and was hoping he would repeat on Sunday.
Kahler said she prefers to care for her animals herself rather than pay a handler or groomer. She does the majority of grooming while at home and just touches up Munch's coat when she arrives at competitions, she said.
Kahler said Munch could easily lose on Sunday because there is a different judge. Despite the frustration of never knowing how successful her dogs will be, she has been participating in dog shows for 16 years and has no plans to quit, she said.
"Once you get the bug, no matter how much you lose, you still come back," Kahler said. "It's the thrill of the win."
Janice Kopp, an owner who handles the grooming of her animals as well, said even without that added expense, it is still costly to compete. The hobby is one that many people don't have the fortitude or patience to stay with. You lose way more than you win, she said.
Since there is no monetary prize for winning, it's not for the money or even the prestige of having a champion dog that keeps her going, Kopp said.
"It's for the love of the sport," she said. "My friends think I'm crazy [for competing] but they just don't understand."
More than that though, she said she's made so many friends from going to shows, she feels more comfortable at them than anywhere else.
"It's my safety zone," Kopp said.
Clas, who owns a grooming and handling business with her husband, said her mother used to take her to shows as a teenager. When she was that age, she said, it was just a business. Now that she's older, she said she knows she's lucky to have a job she loves that also helps her make a living.
"If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, I'd still do this," Clas said. "I love it."