Dogdom's finest gather in a spirit of friendship as much as competition
The atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed for such a prestigious event. Some dogs are having a final touch-up, others are resting in their crates. Handlers and owners appear similarly laid back.
All are seasoned performers. They've run through their paces earlier in the day, when elimination classes whittled the numbers down to those chosen for the final judging. Even so, there are close to 80 dogs and puppies ready to parade in the evening for judging by the three judges, two from Australia and one from the South Island.
Every dog here has earned its chance to compete for Premier Show Dog of the Year through wins at local shows, run somewhere in the country every couple of weeks or so. These are the crème de la crème; the winner will be the champion of champions. Queen could be on the sound system.
In fact the sound system fails when called upon to begin proceedings with the national anthem, but the audience comes to the rescue with an a cappella version. Local MP Judith Collins opens the show with a brief speech. Her 15 year old Jack Russell terrier, Holly, “is a good girl like her mum – and still catches rats,” she tells us.
Dinner is served, a sumptuous smorgasbord with the excess donated to local homeless people, then the real business of the evening begins.
Contestants are paraded before the judges, and what a varied lot they are. There's the moving ball of exquisitely groomed Pekinese fluff, the front end only identifiable by the black facial patch, whose handler is never seen without a brush in hand. There's the American cocker, shaved smooth on top with legs invisible under a skirt of coifed hair.
The chow chow looks very pleased with himself in his halo of golden fur, kept clean until showtime under a bib. “He's a bit of a dribbler,” his owner, Janet, tells me. “It takes four hours to do a show groom.” It's time not wasted though; Janet collects his fine woolly fur and spins it into jerseys.
Tahtan Shot at Fame, aka Dunbar, is a Gordon setter who has flown up to Auckland from Christchurch for the occasion. At 13 months old his enormous feet hint at his likely adult size. His owner, Lynley, explains this is a chunky breed.
“He takes over the couch and I end up sitting on the coffee table.”
Fortunately dogs can't read, or they might scratch their heads at the names humans bestow on them. New Zealand breed registration authorities have wisely restricted names to 25 letters. Some breeders have exercised ingenuity to squeeze their name into the limit, such as Sarangrave Urcake N Eat It Too, while others, like fox terrier Pinnacle Oh Fur Petes Sake, show a sense of humour. But for foreign bred dogs it appears more is, well, more.
Sleek sporting sorts, terriers of all types, solid citizens of the canine world – what a job for the judges. Each dog is assessed according to its breed standard, explains Ray Greer, show organiser and a judge himself. Dogs have taken Ray all over the world. Like tonight's judges, it's something he does for love, not money, a theme echoed by many competitors.
But surely a win tonight would be a big boost for the owner's stud? The canine competitors are, after all, purebreds who have been pronounced outstanding examples of their breed.
That's not a driver for breeders, according to Dunbar's owner, Lynley.
“It's definitely a hobby, not a business,” she says. “Responsible breeders spend a lot of time and expense on checking bloodlines to avoid inbreeding and genetic faults. With vet bills for vaccinations, treatments and whelping problems, let alone feeding, dogs are a great sink for money.”
Lynley says she has spent tens of thousands importing semen for her breeding programme, something she considers vital to ensure a wide gene pool for the comparatively rare Gordon setters she breeds.
The show is planned and run by an army of volunteers, revolving around show secretary-cum-chief steward Christine Wood, who records running results as the judges narrow down the numbers towards the final four in each section. Christine doesn't show dogs, but her family has always been deeply involved in showing through the Kumeu Kennel Association, which runs its events at the Papakura Black Hawk exhibition centre where tonight's show is held.
“One thing the dog world is really good at is volunteering,” she says, and clearly another thing they do well is finding sponsorship. The back wall of the venue is stacked with sponsors' products.
“We work hard to make sure every competitor goes home with something. They put in a lot of effort to glam up.”
Like their charges, handlers are flashed up to the nines. Prizes are awarded for best dressed male and female handlers. Tonight the best dressed male handler is the youngest, and he couldn't be happier as he leads his female counterpart on an impromptu victory lap around the show ring. At eleven years old, Jacob Ashwell is a show veteran.
“I've been doing it for five or six years. It's great. There's a bunch of us kids going around the shows and we have a lot of fun.”
Still bright and bubbly well into the night after a 9am start, Jacob is proudly in charge of a bull mastiff.
“This is the show where the judges really see you as a handler,” he says.
Sadly, Jacob doesn't make the final cut. The final four puppies and four adult dogs line up, the judges' decisions are made and the winners announced.
Top pup is samoyed Zaminka Cat Amongst Pigeons from the Kapiti coast. His owner says the dog enjoys runs along the beach and going to local cafes between shows. He also makes it through to the final for adult Show Dog of the Year, but is pipped at the post by another fluffy aristocrat, an Old English sheepdog born in the USA and imported from Italy. Shaggybark American Lover of Aryakas at Snodragon has a string of show successes almost as long as his name.
“He's won 39 Best in Show awards in the last 18 months, and won this title last year,” say his ecstatic owners.
With hugs and kisses all round, dogs and people disappear into the night.
Next weekend there'll be another show. And Ray and his crew will start planning for another Dog of the Year extravaganza.