DiDi is still too young to join the 2,500 dogs strutting their stuff in show rings this weekend in the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Long Beach. But she's already wowed judges at the local preliminaries, winning Best of Breed in puppy competitions on Thursday and Friday, and stealing the show in the working group ring.
The 10-month-old Akita was a star outside the ring as well. News crews trailed her through the Convention Center, visitors flagged her down for photos. DiDi seemed oblivious to the attention, licking the hands of friendly strangers and ignoring the muttering of competitors worried that "the bitch from the van" might get a boost from star-struck judges.
That's bitch as in female dog, not ill-tempered diva. It took me a while to figure that out. The word seemed to be on everyone's tongue as I wandered among the dog show rings on Thursday, trying to track DiDi down.
DiDi was one of the four dogs stolen by car thieves from the parking lot of a Motel 6 as they slept in crates inside their handlers' Chevy van. The group included another Akita — Trace, a 2-year-old champion valued at more than $250,000 — and two Pembroke Corgis belonging to Japanese owners.
The story got big play on local news. Then it was posted on Facebook, blogged about by breeders, shared among dog rescue groups.
Animal stories always touch a nerve with readers, and this was not only a heart-wrenching drama but had the added intrigue of irony: such high-stakes dogs disappearing from such a low-brow motel.
Ultimately, all that attention propelled the tale to a happy ending. By Wednesday night the dogs were back with their handlers, Kristina Rickard and David Peek. The two Akitas turned up in Compton; the Corgis landed in Victorville.
Deputies are still investigating the thefts, said Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "We think the people who ended up in possession of the dogs realized who they were from the news coverage and said 'We're going to return them to their rightful owners,'" Whitmore said.
I suspect the reality is closer to Peek's rendition: "They probably heard it on the news as they were driving around in our van and figured these dogs were too hot to hold onto, so they got rid of them as fast as they could."
The dogs were no worse for the wear, he said. "They were jumping up on us, just like normal. They have no idea what went on. They were hungry. We fed them. Now they're fine."
The Akitas belong to Rickard's family; she has been showing dogs since she was 9 years old. She and Peek live in Redding, and they have been training and handling dogs together for two years. They travel to tournaments every weekend — from the "Turkey Circuit" in towns such as Turlock and Stockton to the elite loop through national competitions such as this weekend's event in Long Beach.
Rickard fell apart when she discovered their van was gone, Peek said. Her biggest worry wasn't losing an investment.
"I thought whoever had them would try to turn them into fighting dogs," she told me as Trace tried to climb onto my lap. "These guys are so mellow. They wouldn't fight. They would lose. And they would be killed."
She wrapped her arms around Trace's head. He looked up and drooled on her shoe.
I've always been a dog show lover. I'll take Westminster over "Dancing With the Stars" any time. In fact, I spent Thanksgiving afternoon this year curled up on the couch with my two mutts, watching the purebreds strut their stuff on the National Dog Show, broadcast from Philadelphia.
The pomp and pageantry always seem so glamorous on TV: pampered canines with perfect hair, judges regal in evening attire. But the run-up to this weekend's national competition in Long Beach looked decidedly less elegant from behind the scenes.
In a prelude to the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship this weekend, Long Beach hosted three days of competitions by local kennel clubs — a sort of dry run for the scared, the skittish, the untested.
There, dogs got cheers if they made it around the ring without being sidetracked by an errant biscuit or stopping to lift a leg on the potted poinsettia. And missteps evoked shudders and sighs of relief, as in, "I'm so glad that wasn't me."
I watched a giant mastiff get disqualified for rearing and refusing to settle down as the judge reached out to examine him. Maybe he was disturbed by the indignity of the pat-down, or distracted by the glossy black schnauzer prancing around behind him.
It sent a chill, and nod of recognition, through the crowd. This was an animal bred to protect, not to take easily to strangers — reminding us all that these are animals, not props.
Thursday's scene was certainly ripe for mocking — grown men cooing in high voices to little dogs, women dashing around the ring in fancy dresses, treats dangling from their waists and metal dog combs rubber-banded to their arms. It's easy to paint the show-dog crowd as either weirdly overindulgent of their pets, or as callous profiteers who see dollar signs in Fido's eyes.
But it's in that great middle ground where you find most handlers — dog lovers like Rickard and Peek, who can't afford the competition's official hotels: the Hyatt Regency, the Westin, the Renaissance. When you're traveling with eight dogs, as they were, there are things more important than room service and a fancy lobby.
Don't knock Motel 6, Peek said. "It's dog-friendly. And it's cheap." Then he took a knee on the convention floor, reached under his ribbon-winning puppy and sopped up a giant yellow puddle with a too-small wad of paper towels.