Best in Show: Professionals and amateurs compete for title, prestige and the betterment of the breed

PASO ROBLES — Long after Christopher Guest’s film “Best in Show” revealed the fabulous and somewhat frantic world of competitive dog shows to the public eye, this niche market of enthusiasts appear to remain true to the film’s depiction of them. What one may have deemed as absurd exaggeration strictly for satire is in actuality very real.

The tension, the pampering, the gloating, the bickering, the pride and the pure, ecstatic affection owners showed toward their beloved contenders was on full display and open to the public last weekend at the San Luis Obispo Kennel Club’s Annual Dog Show at the Paso Robles Event Center. Over the course of two full days, owners, professional handlers, and owner/handlers jogged, walked and properly positioned their dogs in front of judges for the titles of Best of Winners, Best of Group, and ultimately Best in Show.

Teeth were checked, posture, gate, coat, eyes, temperament all considered within the course of approximately fifteen minutes for the entire group. The judges were efficient, decisive and some of the dogs, one could almost believe by their attitude, were very pleased with themselves as well. Being that the mission of the American Kennel Club is to continually improve the breed and these competitors represent the best of the best, a little swagger is to be expected.

Show Chair, Robin Blackburn  and Co-Show Chair, Sherri Ziegenbein estimated that there were about 400 dogs competing each day over the course of the weekend. And the line-up was not limited to SLO County.

“Oh no, they come from far away,” said Ziegenbein. “Portland, San Diego, everywhere,” Blackburn chimes in.

When professional handler Janice Hayes was asked if she was local, she responded, “No one here is local,” which isn’t entirely true. Based out of Palm Springs, Hayes, was showing 10 dogs over the weekend. Throughout the day she was seen blow-drying and brushing multiple dogs simultaneously and presenting them one after the other with impressive speed and focus. Her work ethic has not gone unnoticed by her peers either as she was voted Handler of the Year at the big dog of all dog shows, Westminster which takes place every year in Westminster, NY. Remember the final scene in Guest’s “Best in Show?” That’s Westminster.

She prefaced her interview with the stipulation that she would be happy to answer questions as long as she could work at the same time. So while packing, locking, sweeping and wiping down, Hayes proceeded to describe her 27 year career, “I started when I was 9 and I was hooked and I never stopped. My dad bought a show dog and he ran it in the field so when it had to be shown someone had to show it and I got sucked in right away.  I’m competitive. So I love that part of it. Taking dogs that are a little softer and turning them into more confident dogs, I like that aspect of that. Its different. We travel a lot. Every weekend we’re’s hard to have a normal life,” said Hayes as she swung the gate closed on the last kennel and slid the oversized van door shut.

One could sense the competitive intimidation the professional handlers bring to the ring when speaking to some of the owner/handlers like local participant Cindy Fleenor, “the national owner/handler group was started to give a separate award for those of us that are owners that handle and show our own dogs instead of hiring professionals. The professionals are professionals...they’re... wonderful...sometimes...the owners find it difficult to compete with them.”

And indeed the competitiveness was evident last weekend as a group walked off the ring and a handler handed a ribbon to the owner who responded indiscreetly, “Oh good, another one.” And then, with all eyes fixated on the judging going on center stage, a small din of handlers could be heard in the background. Slowly rising in volume one finally exclaimed, “You know what, just do your job! I’ll do mine and you do yours and we’ll be fine.” Not a single spectator or participant flinched or even seemed to notice. Apparently scenes like that were commonplace under the present circumstances.

“The object is to win points basically,” said show chair Robin Blackburn. Apparently the object is to win and they start young. “We have juniors that compete and their points add up and they get invited to Westminster, NY. That’s the big dog show of the year,” said Blackburn. Again, Westminster.

13-year-old Katelyn Rosilez, of Templeton, is in the Open Intermediate/Junior Division and competes with her Border Collie, Ace.

“This is my second year,” Rosilez said. “I started with Ace. We’re hoping to start rally. We won best of winners in his breed yesterday. If you get 8 best of winners in the junior division you get to go to Westminster.”

Not everyone is there strictly for the points though or the holy grail that is Westminster. Some were there simply for the community and the joy of the sport. Like Shawn Barnes who teaches AP Pysch/Psych and World History at Templeton High School. Barnes was showing Johnnie, her King Charles Cavalier Spaniel whom she co-owns with a breeder in England.

“My daughter was in junior showmanship so I’ve been going with her to shows for the past seven years,” Barnes said. “I’ve always kind of wanted to do it myself but until she graduated and left home I was just support. Now that she’s graduated and gone off to UCLA, I really miss showing with her because we were a team for so long and now I’m doing it alone. But I really enjoy getting together with all the people and just being part of trying to improve the breed.”

You may contact reporter Madeline Vail at [email protected]

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