Local champions on the care and criticism of a canine crucible: the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show

“You don’t have to show dogs to love them, but I think you have to love dogs to show them,” says breeder-owner-handler Pat Trotter, a Golden Gate Kennel Club maven who’s also been to Westminster 11 times. (Photo courtesy of the Golden Gate Kennel Club)

The semen is always cold. It has to be. At home in San Bruno, Pumpkin wouldn’t be able to find a suitable mate even if she could drive to Sacramento to do the deed. So it arrives at the fertility clinic frozen, shipped in a FedEx box from the East Coast, or Finland, or, in Pumpkin’s case, Australia. Sandra Pretari Hickson, who breeds rare Dandie Dinmont Terriers (on the list of vulnerable dog breeds) will bring Pumpkin to the clinic later this year, and Dandies will live to see another generation.

Hickson has been showing dogs professionally since 1993 and breeding them since 1998, so she’s used to the looks she gets when describing the time and energy that go into the making of a champion. It’s a part-time passion that takes full-time commitment — like most of her Best in Show peers on the Peninsula, she has a day job. (For her, that’s working at an animal shelter in Palo Alto.)

Hickson and Angelina (known professionally as MBIS/MBISS Grand Champion King’s Mtn. Angelina Ballerina), after winning the breed at Montgomery County Kennel Club in Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Pretari Hickson)

Although show and shelter dogs live side by side in Hickson’s house, she and her peers in the dog breeding community often face criticism for preserving their breeds, faulted for undermining shelter adoption or promoting unhealthy genetic traits. In the public eye, rescues reign, but at the Golden Gate Kennel Club (GGKC) Dog Show — at the Cow Palace on January 27th and 28th — it’s purebred pride as far as the eye can see.

Like Westminster, Golden Gate is not only a battle for Best in Show, but a rare chance to get up close and personal with show dogs and their humans. Even with the proliferation of local rescue groups, half of all dog lovers in the Bay choose a purebred when expanding their family, and the GGKC is where top local breeders show adoptive parents where their babies will come from. Though not without controversy, for anyone on the Peninsula interested in a four-legged friend, the GGKC is worth getting to know.

Isn’t it embarrassing when food gets on your ears? No stray kibble or bits were going ruin these Bassets’ coifs at last year’s show. (Photo courtesy of the Golden Gate Kennel Club)

Of the hundreds of annual U.S. dog shows, only Westminster, Philadelphia’s National Dog Show, and Golden Gate still go through the process of “benching” — providing a stall and platform for each of the canine entrants (over 1,000 at Golden Gate) so they can spend the entire day alongside their owners meeting and greeting the public, only ditching the digs for brief moments of fame in the competition ring. The GGKC show provides an unparalleled opportunity for locals to learn from the experts on every breed all in one place.

“It’s a very unique thing to have a sporting event where the public can interact with the contestants,” says Patricia Trotter, a veteran breeder of Norwegian Elkhounds from Carmel who has competed and judged at GGKC. “Can you imagine petting American Pharoah after he runs the Kentucky Derby? Good luck on that.”

Judging is quick, but preparing for the event, in reality, takes years: “The preparations for showing actually begin well before the show — in my case, when the puppies are young,” says Dachshund breeder Maggie Peat. (Photo courtesy of Tom Sikora)

South San Francisco resident Maggie Peat, a second-generation Standard Longhair Dachshund breeder, will return to the Cow Palace this year showing five of her dogs, but it’s their success outside the show ring that brings her the most pride. “I show my dogs as a validation to other people of the quality of my animals,” she says. Some of her top puppies are purchased by hunters in other countries because of the pups’ superior hunting and tracking skills. The short-legged scent hounds can track a target for miles and follow a burrowing animal into its underground den.

Most of Peat’s dogs, though, will be hunting crumbs under dining room tables — three quarters become pets, neither hunting nor competing. That doesn’t sound controversial, but there’s a good chance that almost all the breeders at GGKC have heard some pushback against their decision to show or sell purebreds.

It’s not the dog shows themselves, but the practices behind them that come under the most scrutiny. In a highly publicized 2008 split, the BBC stopped airing Crufts (the largest dog show in the world) after a 40-year partnership in response to a documentary that criticized the presence of recessive traits in some purebreds. Just last year, an American Kennel Club nominee for Breeder of the Year was convicted of animal cruelty in a case that pitted long-standing practices in the breeding community against new regulations.

Two of Cohen’s students from Emerald Hills, Emma and Goose (known professionally as GCH CH Aragon Emerald Hills RA JC NAJ NF CGC TKP and CH Aragon Golden Canyon RA SC NJP NFP BCAT CGC TKP). Though they have Grand Champion and Champion titles, respectively, these couch potatoes left the show world for a simpler life (and simpler names). (Photo courtesy of the owners.)

Susanne “Sam” Cohen is the owner of Fetch Sam!, a San Jose agility and training center that welcomes both shelter mixes and Grand Champion purebreds. She might stop by GGKC next weekend because she loves the dogs, but she has reservations about the industry: “For me, there’s too much human influence and a lot of money involved . . . When you attach money and winning, people do really ridiculous things.” Breeders work to eliminate harmful recessive traits commonly associated with purebreds, but the human influence in the changing look of breeds bothers Cohen. It’s that component of the culture that can lead to the genetic neurological diseases or at-home ear cropping that draw media attention.

“But that’s not the norm,” Cohen says of the sordid headlines. “[The] people up there love their dogs . . . If you want to know what kind of breeds are out there, and what breeds would be good for you, go to Golden Gate Kennel Club, and go talk to all those breeders, meet those dogs. Read the description of what the dog is for, and then go pick a dog logically.”

“A dog is everything we wish people could be,” says Trotter. (Photo courtesy of the Golden Gate Kennel Club)

Like Cohen, the Vice President and show chair of GGKC, Mike Stone, sees the show as an opportunity for education. Prospective owners, he says, need “to do their research . . . make sure they understand things about the breed . . . Are your dogs — are the parents OFA [Orthopedic Foundation for Animals] registered? Do they have a hip rating for dysplastic hips?” While some top breeders breed for the judges, all breeders breed for consumers, so an onus is on owners to be informed.

When it comes to the GGKC, locals well-versed on the competitive side of canine culture hold opinions as diverse as the dogs they love. While there’s a fair amount of dissonance, the argument for adoption and the tradition of purebreds can coexist — in the case of Hickson’s Dandies and her family’s shelter dog, under the same roof. “I think it’s wonderful that people want to go out and rescue dogs,” she says. “That’s great — all dogs deserve a home — but I’m trying to rescue a whole breed.”

Trotter, cozied up to an Elkhound in Carmel, no doubt, speaks from her 81 years of experience: “All you have to do is look over the broad spectrum of America today and nobody is in agreement on anything. So why should dog lovers themselves be totally in agreement on something?”

The Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show will take place at the Cow Palace in Daly City on January 27–28.

Prospective owners who want to know the health of any reputable breeder’s line can check OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) or CHIC (Canine Health Information Center).

[Story updated on Thursday, January 25 at 1:50 p.m.]

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