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Beware of Owner

Not all glossy coats and well-behaved beasts, dog shows can include dirty tricks.

May 01, 1997|JILL ROSENFELD and SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

UNDER THE CLOAK OF NIGHT -- With several local dog shows impending, and the canine circuit advancing fast, four interested associates convene a secret meeting.

Their mission: to expose the dirty underbelly of dog showing.

"I'll talk only on the condition of anonymity," says Lynda Beltz (not her real name). "This could end my career in dogs."

"Don't even mention my breed," says Edgar Simmons (not his real name either). "Say I specialize in African sneeze hounds."

These folks have a bone to pick--not with the mannered many who show their dogs for the family fun of it, but with an irksome minority of brawlers, bribers and backstabbers who make showing a dog-eat-dog endeavor.

As requested, all identifying details have been changed; according to this group, people can be drop dead serious about their canines. "Like the Weimaraner woman in West Covina," says Simmons, soberly. "The judge was about to officially record her win when he had a stroke. He's keeled over on the ground and she's yelling, 'Mark the book! Mark the book!' "

That's nothing, asserts Debbie Ehrlich, compared to what she's seen. Ehrlich is a handler who cares for and shows other people's dogs as well as her own. Her pet peeve is dog professionals who fawn over rich, elderly ladies, angling for an inheritance. "If you're old enough and rich enough, these people will flirt with you," she says.

Especially if you have a terminal disease, says Beltz, also a handler.

"Oh you." Ehrlich gives Beltz an affectionate shove.

"There was this one Chihuahua breeder who had his nose tucked so far up this woman's you-know-what I don't know how he could breathe," says Beltz. "He'd pooper scoop for her--nothing was too menial. Of course when the old lady croaked, she left the entire estate to him, including a bunch of houses in a real nice part of town. And we're not talking about some two-bedroom shack in Pacoima. I mean big properties, the kind where you put large animals that have four hoofs and wear shoes, shall we say."

If you're in dogs, you're in dogs for life, explains Dave Martin, Beltz's biggest client. "It's like old people driving cars. You can't get 'em to stop."

What really annoys Martin are "mercy wins." "Remember Irma Egbert and her bowlegged schnauzer? Poor Irma, let her win, this'll be her last dog." Did she finally die? Yes. But not any time she was showing that schnauzer.

Mercy winners and gold-diggers may be annoying, says Beltz, but they don't hold a candle to bad-mouthers, politickers, pullers of strings and plotters of evil.

The rest of the group is quick to concur. Ehrlich says that, if someone wants to undermine you, "they'll call up a judge and say, 'I guess you'll be putting up that basset hound when you go out to California to judge this weekend.' The judge goes, 'What are you talking about?' 'Oh, well Debbie Ehrlich is telling everyone she can't lose under you.' 'Oh really? We'll see about that.' And Debbie Ehrlich, who hasn't said any such thing, walks into the ring and gets totally blindsided."

If all else fails, there's always cash or merchandise down. "Talk about favors passed," pipes up Beltz. "Remember all those spaniels owned by Mrs. Boyington?" Callie Boyington was the matriarch in a family that owns a major linen manufacturing operation. "There never was a judge that ever put up her dog that didn't have a houseful of matching towels."

"Of course there's all the sexual favors," says Simmons. "It's not uncommon for people to exhibit to someone who they've had sex with in the last two hours."

Martin was going to say the last half-hour.

"No way," says Simmons.

"Way. Oh yes, way."

One old trick used to sabotage the competition is to kick over a grooming table during the targeted dog's "independent movement," when it must trot the length of the ring by itself and is susceptible to distraction. The late Lina Basquette--Golden Era luminary of screen and stage, leading lady in Cecil B. DeMille's final silent film, "The Godless Girl"--was best known in the dog world for deliberately leaving her bait pouch open as she jogged her pet around the ring. Pieces of liver would fall out on the grass, distracting the competition behind her.

Ehrlich is itching to tell a story. "Oh you'll like this one," she says. "There were these two top breeders, Tony and Sandy Cutler. Their Viszla was always competing with my basset hound for best of show. Then I started to lose early in each show. Sandy would come to the edge of the ring whenever my dog was being judged, and she would stand there with her arms folded and I would lose.

"I used to joke with my husband, ha ha, I guess she's pulling some strings to get me to lose so much. Well, six months later, my husband and I were staying in our motor home at a show in San Diego, a few spots down from the Cutlers. Around midnight we took our dog out for her late-night constitutional, and what do we hear but Tony and Sandy Cutler having this big knock-down drag-out fight.

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