Western Pennsylvania Kennel Association's annual show in Monroeville

| Thursday, March 29, 2012

Put 1,100 dogs in one building, have them deal with the tension of being judged, and there is a chance one or more of them will not make their owners happy.

"Any dog can have a bad day," says Nance W. Shields, president of the Western Pennsylvania Kennel Association, which opens its annual show Saturday in Monroeville. "Some dogs just don't like to be center-stage."

Such is the reality of competition for dog owners and handlers. They might think they have a great show contestant, but, sometimes, they are dealing with a canine who doesn't really want be in the spotlight. Or, it could be a problem on only one particular day.

"Some dogs don't like that particular show, that particular room, or the look of that particular judge walking to them," says Maureen Baum, who shows her shih-tzus, but will not compete in this event, because she is a member of the club's board of directors.

Liz Coll, who breeds Golden retrievers in Penn Hills, agrees it is easy to think a dog is perfect for a show because of great looks, but she says attitude and obedience perhaps are more important.

"Say a dog is facing a judge and drops its head or backs away as the judge approaches," say the owner of Tonya Goldens. "That's no good."

Owners and handlers constantly hold their breath at shows, as they will here this weekend. Entries span 136 breeds and varieties at the event, which provides complete shows each day. The competition will include a "canine good citizen" event Sunday. That test challenges dogs to be calm, "good citizens" in public.

Some breeders say they can tell whether a dog is show-potential at 2 or 3 weeks old, when it is not being shy or backing away from litter-mates in the kennel. Doll Well, a shar-pei breeder and boarder who runs Doll Acres Farm in Ohio Township, says she can see that possibility, but admits there are other elements that come into play.

Once she was watching "an absolutely perfect Doberman pinscher" at a show go through his paces, she says. When he was given a different handler at one point, though, "it just dropped to the floor."

Coll says, sometimes, even a promising dog takes a while to grow into show life.

Madeline Llewellyn, who breeds German shepherds and prepares poodles at Happy Hills Kennel near Irwin, says she, generally, can see a dog's possible show quality when she starts working with them on a lead at 8 or 9 weeks old.

But she believes trying to make some dogs into competitors is a waste of time.

"Some people are born to golf or to fish," Llewellyn says. "You couldn't make me do either."

Coll, however, says there are events called "matches" that are informal and can be used to make a dog comfortable with judging and the tests of competition. They often are held in parks, have no real prizes and are used primarily as training devices.

Janet Harner, treasurer of the kennel club, who competes with her Boston terriers, says even tested competitors can let their owners down at times. She was disappointed once by one of her best terriers, ranked high in the country and a competitor at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

"But once you get them on track, they tend to keep going," says Harner, who is a U.S. administrative law judge for the Federal Mine Safety Health Commission.

Harner says that unpredictability can be a nightmare for many owners or handlers, some of whom compete 50 weeks per year.

The dog breeders and competitors agree no breed has any distinct advantage when it comes to competition. They have to meet the demands of conformation, by which they are judged according to defined looks, and they have to behave with the same kind of dignity judges seek.

But Baum says, jokingly, that hounds have one behavior issue that would make it tough for them.

"They always want to walk around with their noses to the ground," she says with a laugh.

Additional Information:

Western Pennsylvania Kennel Association Dog Show

When: Opens at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; conformation judging at 9 a.m., group judging at 2:30 p.m, and best-in-show judging at 5 p.m. each day

Admission: $9; $3 for those younger than 10; free for those younger than 4

Where: Monroeville Convention Center

Details: 724-746-4794 or www.wpka-inc.org

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