Berryville has Gone to the Dogs! … at least for the weekend

The Shawnee Kennel Club hosted its annual Straw Dog Circuit Show at Clarke County’s Ruritan Fairgrounds in Berryville this past weekend. Over 800 dogs and 200 breeders and handlers from across the nation gathered to compete in the show ring for “best of breed” honors.

A visit to the Ruritan Fairgrounds on a hot Friday prior to the commencement of Saturday – Sunday event uncovered a hub of pre-show activity less the barking and howling one might expect with such a large assembly of canines. The lack of barking isn’t due to a lack of animals. There are plenty of dogs here but most are inside the large, air conditioned motor homes that owners and handlers drive between shows that occur every weekend across the country.

Mackie Rader and seven-year-old PGBV show dog "Lilly" - Photo Edward Leonard

“We’re dog show gypsies I guess,” said Mackie Rader. Rader is sitting beside her 50-foot motor home beneath a vinyl awning attempting to avoid the heat. Barbara Waldkirch, also a show dog enthusiast, agrees.

“We’re like circus people. We go to a town, set up our tents for a couple of days then leave.”

Rader has traveled here from Philadelphia to show her six German Shepherds and Petit Basset Griffon Vendeens (mercifully known as PGBV’s for short) resting in the air conditioned comfort of Rader’s motor home. Waldkirch is a professional dog handler who has traveled to Berryville from Delaware.

Rader and Waldkirch explain that nearly every person participating in the event specializes with certain dog breeds.

Waldkirch says that she mainly shows Great Danes, German Shepherds, Pointers, and Dachshunds. “Each breed has its own personality.”

Asked to describe a “PGBV” Rader launches into a well-rehearsed explanation for the canine novice.

“PGBV’s are small, wire-hair hounds that stand 15” at the shoulder and weigh 25 – 40 pounds. They are bred for hunting rabbit, fox, deer and wild boar,’”Rader says. “Just think of a Basset Hound with a wire coat,” says Waldkirch.

Immediately after her comment Waldkirch shoots an apologetic glance towards Rader. “The PGBV people will hate hearing me say that,” Waldkirch says.

“I know,” Rader agrees.

Rader and Waldkirch have both invested years of time and money into raising and showing dogs and both say that they love earning a living at something that they love.

“It’s an addiction,” Waldkirch says.

Professional dog handler Barbara Waldkirsch owns Usonia Kennels in Delaware - Photo Edward Leonard

Rader agrees with Waldkirch and says that her love of showing dogs makes all of the work worthwhile. “I really love the breeds that I raise,” she says. “I take pride in breeding healthy, well-tempered animals. When I sell a dog I believe that I’m bringing that new owner into my extended family.”

Waldkirch says that the dog show circuit is important because most professional breeders believe that it is important when selling puppies to establish at least one of the parents as champion stock.

“Dog shows are a lot like 4-H competitions,” Waldkirch says. “When an animal wins an award it establishes legitimacy for the individual dog and as well as the traditional traits for each breed.”

While both women earn livings from dogs both said that it is impossible to make a living from selling dogs.

“By the time you pay for stud fees, medicine and food you’d be lucky to break even,” Waldkirch said.

Instead, Waldkirch specializes in showing other people’s animals at dog shows.

“AKC shows are very competitive,” says Crystal Nolen, a dog owner who has traveled to Berryville from Richmond with Tucker, her Welsh Springer Spaniel. Nolen is standing near the table where Katie Shepard, a professional handler from New Jersey, is giving Tucker a pre-show haircut. “People hire professional handlers because they have a better chance of winning.”

Shepard said that she is a full time dog handler and usually shows six to ten dogs at a typical show.

“I usually have several clients at each show,” Shepard says.

Welsh Springer Spaniel "Tucker" being groomed by professional handler Katie Shepard - Photo Edward Leonard

Mackie Rader earns her dog show income differently from the professional handlers. Rader sells shampoo, coat treatments and aromatherapy for dogs.

Aromatherapy for dogs? Really?

“The ‘Home Alone’ scent helps dogs deal with separation anxiety when its left alone, ‘Thunderstorm’ helps the dog deal with storms and the ’Mellow Pet’ scent helps calm the dog,” Rader says.

But does aromatherapy really work? Waldkirch is adamant that it does.

“I put a little on my wrist where the dog can smell it before I go into the show ring,” Waldkirch says. “It works like a charm!”

In addition to traveling in air conditioned coaches both Waldkirch and Rader provide satellite television to keep their animals occupied during the time spent in the motor home. Rader says that her dog’s favorite program is “Animal Planet”.

On this point Rader and Waldkirch opinions diverge; “My dogs prefer to watch the Weather Channel,” Waldkirch says. “They like the music.”

Shawnee Kennel Club, Inc. was organized in 1957. The club sponsors educational programs as well as workshops and training classes for dog show judges and professional handlers. Contributions from Shawnee Kennel Club dog show profits are donated to civic and animal welfare organizations “who care for creatures great and small where the pedigree is unimportant but the need is vital.”

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  1. Great crowd, I always like working the Shawnee Kennel Club dog show, nice polite folks, fantastic dogs.

  2. Pat Floss says:

    How nice to see a positive article conveying the colorful world of dog shows, and the dedication of breeders and exhibitors.

  3. It is very nice to see a breeder/owner/handler view of dog shows from a third party who is interested in learning about the sport. This is a sport that anyone can enter including disabled people and juniors who want to learn responsibility and how to properly care of animals. I hope you’ll follow this up next year with an even more informative article for your readers who may not know a lot about dog shows, but want to learn.

  4. But the AKC makes most of its money from puppy mill registrations. That is what pays for these dog shows.

    And what about the genetic problems these dogs have? As a buyer from an AKC show breeder, I ended up with a sick dog that is genetically flawed. The show breeder (one who belongs to this kennel club) basically told me to get lost.

    The dog show and breeding world needs a big fix. I found out the hard way.