Ashley Olt is succinct when describing why she loves dog shows.

“It’s a sport you get to do with your best friend,” says Olt of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, who has been showing the past two years. “When I tried it, I really liked it. That was with my dog, Lincoln, who is now a champion.”

She continued to show after she got another dog, Sawyer, an Old English sheepdog. Olt went to the breeder and there were 11 puppies in his litter.

“I looked down at him and he looked up at me with these big blue eyes, and I was hooked,” said Olt, who leans over and gives Sawyer a kiss on the forehead while grooming him for the Lancaster Kennel Club’s competition. “So we continue to show. It’s a lot of fun.”  

Sawyer was one of 486 dogs and 130 breeds in attendance Saturday at the club’s Red Rose Classic Dog Show at Lebanon Valley Expo Center. In addition to the “conformation,” or breed judging, there were rally trials, youth handling, and puppy judging competitions.

While there is ultimately a Best in Show and reserve champion selected from the conformation competition, there’s more to a dog show than simply picking winners. At least there is in the eyes of the animal’s two-legged masters.

Katherine Wright of Stockton, New Jersey, is the third generation in her family to breed and show terriers and owns about 12 dogs with her parents.

“I grew up in dog shows, my grandparents and parents were professional handlers,” said Wright. “I only show my own dogs, I don’t get paid to do it, so it’s a hobby for me. It’s a great family sport.”

When asked her favorite breed, Wright says that’s a tough question to answer but eventually confesses which one resonates the most with her.

“I love terriers, and we do have other terrier breeds as well,” said Wright. “I do love this breed – the Kerry blue terrier. This is not your average terrier. This is an all-purpose farm dog. This dog will herd, they will work, they will protect the house, they can be taught to work with a gun like a sporting dog, and they kill vermin. They can be everything but a lap dog – although they might try that, too.”

There’s even more attributes that make this her favorite breed.

“They are a great all-purpose farm dog, and they are a great family dog because they are loyal to their people. Right, Bobby?” Wright said, with an aside to Bobby, who won his breed grouping. “Just this terrier breed is the one that can be taught to herd. Unlike (other) terriers, which are bred to kill vermin, whether it’s going to ground or just around the barn, the Kerry is the one terrier that is an all-purpose farm dog.”

While the conformation judging was happening in the North Hall, the rally trials were taking place in the West Hall. As the handler leads their dog around the ring during the rally trials, they give voice commands or hand gestures and, in some instances, both simultaneously to test how well the dog responds.

Rally Trials test a canine’s ability to respond to a series of commands from the handler in the show ring. (James Mentzer)

Julie Weaver of Lebanon, who works with 4-H through the county’s Penn State Extension office, entered Yannick, her 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, into what was the first competition for both of them.

“I raised Yannick as a seeing eye puppy, but he was released due to a medical issue, so I adopted him back,” said Weaver. “We needed something to do, so I started taking him to a training center in Harrisburg … and through that we found the sport of rally, and he seemed to do fairly well with it. I’ve started teaching at the center as well.”

Weaver said she didn’t think Yannick was as nearly nervous about his first show as she was since he didn’t know what was going on. 

“When he was trained as a guide dog puppy, he wasn’t allowed to be trained with treats,” she said. “That’s something he didn’t get until I started doing rally with him. … Labs are very food motivated, so I trained him in this easily. When you look at the owners in the ring, their dogs are looking up very intently because they think their owners have a treat for them.”

When it was his turn in the ring, Yannick was more interested in scenting other dogs that preceded him than working to get a treat that owners give their dogs after they finish the various commands at each station in the rally ring. 

Weaver was still grateful for the experience and time she spent with Yannick, who has a rare eye disease that’s only been diagnosed in Labradors.

“I did this show because it was close to home,” said Weaver. “I figured if I didn’t do this one, I would never get up the nerve to do one somewhere else.”

Before Yannick had his moment in the spotlight, Brittany Marks of Holtwood was in the ring with her 2-year-old border collie, Aurora. 

Aurora’s performance was amazing – given that she only has three legs. The dog has only known the world as a tripod since she lost her back right leg when she was born.

“Oh, yeah, oh yeah, she loves to perform like any other four-legged dog,” said Marks, who also noted the AKC is running a pilot program to see if tripods can compete at the same level as their four-legged counterparts. “She can do it all.”

Shortly after the rally trials ended, the junior handler competition was set to begin in the North Hall.

Trinity Longsdale, 15, of Sarasota, Florida, was in the lobby preparing to enter Derry, a 3-year-old golden retriever, in the open intermediate junior competition in the 12-15 age category.

“I wanted to dog sit to make money, but my mom thought I was too young to do it,” said Longsdale. “So I thought I would try a dog show (to learn how to handle dogs) and fell in love with it.”

She was traveling with her grandmother, Michelin Laberge, hitting dog shows along the way.

“We’re on our way to Westminster (Dog Show), so we’re making pit stops. We were just in Georgia and got to the hotel about 2:30 this morning,” said Longsdale about their travels. Westminster is the premiere event in the dog-showing world. 

Laberge is proud of her granddaughter’s accomplishments in the few years she’s been showing dogs.

“As a bragging grandmother, she is the No. 1 junior handler for goldens in the nation,” said Laberge. “Her current standing and last year standing, she ended the year as No. 1 junior with goldens.” 

On this day, Longsdale, who has aspirations to be a professional handler, finished second in her age group.

Following the youth handling competition, which is held to encourage young people to enter the sport to keep it alive, 4- to 6-month-old puppies took center stage in the same ring. The puppy competition is an opportunity to give man’s best friend a chance to get their first taste of being in the show ring, and 15 puppies were entered in that judging.

After ring judge Gregg C. Kantak jokingly told the puppy handler participants that he’s recently made the decision to give up smoking, he gets serious and says that everyone is going to have a good time and get the pups used to being in the show ring.

While that competition is designed to be fun, the conformation portion of the program is taken much more seriously – although show judge Lawrence C. Terricone did pause to fix his hair when a camera was pointed in his direction during the hound judging.   

All dog show judging is subjective, according to Deidre Petrie, a Lancaster-County based judge who’s been a breeder and a dog show exhibitor for 35 years. On Saturday, she served as the Best in Show judge as well as in another category earlier in the day. 

While it ultimately comes down to one person making the decision about the top breed on any given day, Petrie said the cream of the crop tends to rise to the top and into the running for Best in Show. 

“When you get to Best in Show and you have seven dogs in there, you can’t go wrong,” added Petrie. “You have seven fabulous dogs. I find Best in Show is a little easier to judge than at the group level.”  

Judging of the various breeds that fall into one of seven groupings continues until the top seven animals in each group advance to the Best in Show judging. The groupings are sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting, and herding breeds.

LebTown asked Petrie how judges set aside personal bias, especially since everyone has a favorite breed, to determine which dog exemplifies the AKC’s standards that help move them out of their breed grouping and into Best in Show consideration.

“Even judging my own breed, you have to tell yourself in your head, that you’re not judging something that you want to lay on your sofa at home, you are simply judging the best dog that meets the standard,” she said. “It might not be a dog I want to own. Some breeds I judge, I love. I do believe all judges are a little biased and have their favorites. Sometimes it’s harder though. Sometimes when I judge my breed, I am a little more critical. But I’ve had over 100 champions and I don’t want anything (to win) that’s mediocre.”

Petrie said the AKC judges dogs against the standard it has set, which means each entrant is judged against AKC standards for the breed and not other animals in the competition.

“Every breed of dog the American Kennel Club has a breed standard and it describes to you in minute detail what that dog should look like, if you had a perfect specimen,” said Petrie. “You’re really not comparing dogs to each other, especially within the same breed. You are picking the dog that you believe meets the standard the best.”

Petrie said a judge begins at the animal’s head, taking into consideration the shape of the eyes, the shape of the head, the length of its matting, what are the angles, how does it move, and what is the texture of its coat, among other criteria.

Petrie said she moved into judging from showing to keep alive her love for the sport. As the day-long event came to a close and Petrie made her final decisions, the Best in Show was a pointer while the runner-up, or reserve champion, was a Leonberger.

“The natural progression when you are kind of burned out from breeding and showing is to move on to judging – for some, not for all,” she said. “The criteria to judge is that you must be in your breed for a minimum of 12 years. You must produce so many litters and so many champions, so you have to prove you know your stuff before you can be a judge.”

Here’s a photo gallery of pictures from the event.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...

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