The Golden Gate Kennel Club’s annual Best in Show showdown was curiously adorable, or perhaps adorably curious.

By Kali Shiloh

Images by Jason Backrack & Amar Dillon

Madison, a Silver Grand Champion Dalmatian, focuses on her breeder-owner-handler, Dawn Mauel of Los Altos, at the Golden Gate Kennel Club on Saturday. “She’s a lot of fun,” Mauel says of the two-year-old, who goes to a couple shows per month. Here Madison stands almost perfectly still — she just can’t seem to stop wagging her tail.

Have you ever pet the warrior mohawk of the hairless Aztec jungle dog Xoloitzcuintli? Felt the breeze from a Staffie as he races down the track in Flyball glory? Been close enough to count the spots on a grand champion Dalmatian? If you attended the Golden Gate Kennel Club (GGKC) Dog Show over the weekend, you would have had ample opportunity.

Breeders, owners and the public who attended GGKC continued the longstanding tradition of parading dogs in the ring while petting them behind the scenes. The big event in the main arena crowned four-year-old Chris, an English Springer Spaniel, the Best in Show, but the main attraction for most people were the platform “benches” organized by breed, where spectators could give ear scratches and belly rubs to purebred royalty. The competition is a sight to behold, but it’s the heartwarming connections made between local dogs and attendees that keep people coming back year after year.

Left: Two-year-old Alfta, who was quite possibly the most badass dog in attendance, is a Xoloitzcuintli — Xolo (pronounced SHOW-loh) for short. The hairless breed (petting her back feels strangely like petting a person) has roots in ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a companion and guard dog. Even with a gaggle of Irish Setters playing just off camera, Alfta maintained an impressive and intimidating degree of focus on her owner, Susan DiGiorno. Right: Pricey the Silky Terrier, held here by her owner Karen Oglesby, spends about an hour getting her hair done, but she’s used to show life. In fact, after Golden Gate, she’s headed to Westminster in New York City.

The 122nd edition of the event was a predictable blend of dog lovers, meticulously groomed owners and their even more meticulously groomed Shih Tzus and Afghans. Yet these expected sights were often punctuated with moments of bizarre canine surrealism, such as the eight identical replicas of a rare breed lined up one after the other, inspiring Inception-level deja vu. Or the Irish Wolfhound that seemed to render height an optical illusion. Not to mention the well-dressed woman in the corner, quietly color correcting a spot on her dog’s leg with a black sharpie.

Certain labradors, terriers, and shepherds are ubiquitous enough that their presence at a dog show feels like an extension of everyday life. But others — like massive Mastiffs with skulls the size of cinder blocks, or Poodles landscaped like shrubs in the gardens of Versailles — are so irresistibly peculiar that a throng of people almost instantly encircle owner and dog alike when they walk around to stretch their legs.

Some of Belinda McCormick’s Longhair Chihuahuas were a bit tuckered out from the action, but they had elegant chaise lounges on which to regain their delicate constitutions.

Not all dogs can handle the excitement of a full two days in front of the public. “If you’re a new dog at this show, there’s a lot of stuff happening,” says Los Altos breeder Dawn Mauel “It’s not an easy show, because your dog has to be on the bench all weekend.”

But Mauel’s dog Madison, a two-and-a-half-year-old Dalmatian (named after San Francisco Giants ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner) is a pro, and the pup eased her way to Best of Breed on Saturday morning. “She’s a lot of fun,” Mauel says as Madison springs three feet into the air, waiting for a treat.

Mauel is the president of the Dalmatian Club of Northern California, but before she started her Dalmatian dynasty, she was a spectator at GGKC. Back in 1980, she and her husband — a now-retired firefighter — went to the show looking for a pet and ended up finding a passion. After falling in love with the breed, Mauel started her own kennel (called Saint Florian for the patron saint of firefighters), and her dogs have gone on to win numerous show titles, act on film alongside Jeff Bridges, and, most importantly, join local families as beloved pets.

Clockwise from top left: Madison, Dawn Mauel’s brown-eyed girl; red patches and spots on an English Springer Spaniel, the breed that took home Best in Show this year; 5½-month-old Merlin the Mudi (a Hungarian herding breed hoping to be recognized by the American Kennel Club this year); a Shiba Inu (of doge meme fame) in fuzzy, whiskered perfection

Almost every breeder at the show will assure prospective owners that their breed will make a good family pet, which means families have a lot of dogs to choose from — some less common than others.

“There are a lot of really interesting breeds here,” says Mauel, “and a lot of breeds that used to be considered rare breeds in the U.S., but they’ve now been accepted by the American Kennel Club — some really cool dogs.”

When it comes to cool, few could compete with two-year-old Alfta, a Xolo from El Dorado Hills. “They’re different,” says breeder and owner Susan DiGiorno affectionately. Alfta boasts a stylish mohawk, the thick neck of a hyena, fashion model cheekbones, the hairy knuckles of your Italian uncle, and a smooth, hairless body like a hot water bottle made of skin. (Indeed, ancient people used the dogs as just that on cold nights or in cases of sickness.)

“They’re a jungle dog,” she adds, explaining that they’re one of the few breeds that evolved without human intervention. “They were also thought to carry the soul of the owner . . . they have a very interesting folklore.”

Top: A pair of Belinda McCormick’s Longhair Chihuahuas. When asked if each dog belonged to a different person, Sharon Spence, an owner and breeder who’s purchased dogs from McCormick in the past replied: “Oh, no, they’re like potato chips; you get a whole bagful.” Bottom right: A lean, affectionate Vizsla trotting swiftly ’round the ring. Bottom left: Ruffian, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix born to run, sailing over the barriers during a Flyball competition. His team from the Bay Racers Flyball Club boasts purebreds and mixes with energy to spare.

Older breeds have been a staple in show culture for over a century, but new breeds, and even new events, are slowly making their way in.

This year, for the first time, the GGKC scheduled a Flyball demonstration in the main arena, on the same floor where the Best in Show would eventually be chosen. The event sets two teams of four dogs on parallel runways, and with a wave of the announcer’s hand, the dogs bound over four hurdles to the end of the track, where they retrieve a tennis ball from a sturdy wooden box before sprinting back to the start. The relay race has been a crowd favorite, but it hasn’t been given the same exposure at GGKC as conformation (Best in Show) and obedience competitions until now.

What amounts to a lighting-fast flurry of fur gets crowds on their feet and cheering. It’s a show of power, speed and teamwork, and it’s nearly impossible not to smile while watching dogs having that much fun. The end of the event might be the most enjoyable to watch, as the announcer calls for young volunteers from the stands to race the dogs in an adorable battle that everyone wins.

Top: Tools of the trade — it’s Bichon fluff versus blow dryer and brush near the benches backstage. Bottom right: Marmaduke? Scooby-Doo? Not quite, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how real-life Great Danes inspired cartoon canines. Bottom left: The Great Pyrenees was bred to be a livestock guard dog, but this gentle giant is content to guard its human family when sheep aren’t around.

“Flyball was a big highlight,” says ten-year-old Belmont resident Jacob Manning as he pets a napping Whippet.

Twelve-year-old Ally agrees. “But also,” she adds, “just getting to pet all these dogs, because there are so many different kinds.”

Their mom, Julie, appreciated the relaxed atmosphere at the benches: “I like that even though I know that part of it is about breeding and selling the dogs, it’s been really nice and there’s been no pressure. They’ve let us pet and play with the dogs with no pressure about buying or passing on their cards.”

“We’re totally gonna come back next year,” Jacob says.

True love on the bench: man and Mastiff nose to nose.
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