sports 4 days ago

Frederick County residents compete in Westminster, the Super Bowl for purebred canines

The Frederick News-Post, Md. — Kate Masters The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Feb. 14--Suzette Martz showed horses before a car crash and lupus diagnosis ended her riding career. The Middletown resident, whose mother raised and showed Great Danes, then turned to dogs to satisfy her competitive streak.

"I had a Pomeranian as a pet, so I naturally decided maybe I would try my hand at showing Pomeranians," Martz said. "The issue with that is that there are a lot of health problems with them, and I just was not comfortable with a breed where I could not guarantee my clients the health of the dog."

After more than a year of research, Martz turned to Pulik, the mopped-tressed pups made famous by Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg. She was so successful with the dogs that she showed Zoe, a dog from one of her first litters, at this year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show -- the two-day event that started Monday.

The breed met her checklist: intelligent and loyal, with an impressive coat and manageable size. Most importantly, she learned that the breed's primary health issue -- a spinal disease known as degenerative myelopathy -- could be identified through genetic testing and prevented through careful breeding.

"That gave me the confidence to say, 'Yes, this is my breed,'" Martz said. "Because every breed has a problem, be it cancer, hip dysplasia, whatever. So, the goal is to figure out whether it's preventable."

This, of course, raises the question: With all the well-known health consequences to breeding purebred dogs, is the practice still worth it?

For Martz, it certainly is. As proof, she pointed to Zoe, the woolly-coated Puli perched affectionately in her lap. That day, Zoe was just hours away from her inaugural trip to New York City to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, often described as the Super Bowl for purebred canines. On Tuesday, Zoe took home Best of Opposite Sex -- the award for the best dog that's the opposite gender of the overall Best in Breed winner.

"You know what you're getting with a purebred dog," Martz said. "When you look at the breed standards for any one of these purebreds, they're going to tell you what you're getting. They're going to outline the structure of the dog, the coat, everything. Temperament is very, very important. Our job is to breed to improve the next generation."

That love of the breed -- and preserving the history behind the rich spectrum of dogs at Westminster -- is what pulled Martz and fellow competitor Sandy Allen to enter their dogs into this year's show.

Martz entered Zoe for the first time after making a tough decision not to attend in 2017. Another Puli had been "campaigning" that season -- what insiders call it when a dog guns for top prizes at the show -- and Martz decided that she didn't want to compete.

This year, though, she decided the two were going to "go and have fun." Allen, a Jefferson resident, gave virtually the same response when she talked about her decision to enter the show for a third year.

"It's just fun," she said. "It's a thrill. If you're into dogs, it's like going to the Super Bowl. It's just what we do."

The breeder entered three dogs into this year's competition: Drifter and Moxie, both Labrador retrievers, and Lilo, a 2 1/2 -year-old Australian cattle dog. Drifter also competed in the 2017 show, and Allen had the chance to reflect on the experience.

Most challenging, she said, was an artificial turf floor that became a point of contention for almost every contender at the show. The prickly surface hurt the dogs' paws and created a challenge for handlers in the ring.

Even for casual competitors, though, Allen called Westminster a can't-miss experience. The competition is one of only a handful of bench shows across the country, which require dogs to stay in the wings even after they compete.

During the Best in Breed shows -- held over two days at Piers 92/94 in midtown Manhattan -- the massive event center looks like a giant warehouse for a gorgeous assembly of dogs. The shows are open to the public, and thousands of visitors stream into the space over the course of a few hours to meet some of the champion pups.

"It seemed like Drifter was in about a million selfies," Allen said. "It's a good chance to do breed education. Because people want to learn more about the dogs they're seeing."

Drifter even became a minor celebrity at this year's show, appearing on screen with former football star Tim Tebow during his promotion for the show on "Fox and Friends."

"He's just a good dog, and his handler knows some of the people at Westminster," Allen said modestly. "It's an opportunity to have a little fun."

Follow Kate Masters on Twitter: @kamamasters.

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