JOEL LEHMAN, St. Albans Messenger
ALBURGH — What does it take to be top dog? Well for Gala, a 3½-year-old female American Eskimo Dog, it begins with her owner’s love and dedication and, in this case, it goes all the way to the Super Bowl of dog shows.
In just two weeks Gala and her owner, Marilyn Mitchell of Alburgh, will travel to the 140th Westminster Kennel Club All Breed Dog Show in New York City. The widely acclaimed Westminster brings together 3,000 canines, their owners, and/or handlers, all aspiring for the coveted title of “Best in Show.”
Marilyn’s journey to Westminster began 18 years ago. At that time, she had an Alburgh neighbor who owned an American Eskimo. The dog would often wander over to Marilyn’s camp for a visit. She fell in love with the breed, and when it was time to look for another dog for herself, she began in earnest to learn all she could about these beautiful white dogs.
The average American Eskimo Dog litter size is between three and five puppies and the breed is not particularly well known, said Marilyn, adding, “I feel like Gala can help educate people about the breed.”
When asked what she likes about the American Eskimo Dog, Marilyn said, “Their appearance and intelligence. They are highly trainable, and good watch dogs.”
The breed comes in three sizes, standard, miniature, and toy. All of Marilyn’s dogs are standard size American Eskimo Dogs. She noted that the breed is “very suitable to apartment living as well as for a more outdoor lifestyle.”
The first American Eskimo Marilyn owned, “Came from a backyard breeder, not a quality breeder,” she explained. She now has three American Eskimos, Blizzard, Sky, and Gala.
Blizzard as Marilyn puts it, “ is strictly a pet, a family dog,” although she stresses that all of her dogs, including Gala, live average home lives, including the inevitable introduction to mud.
Sky and Gala both have won many dog show titles.
The dog show bug first bit Marilyn when she began entering Sky in several Canadian dog shows when he was 9 months of age, he is now 6 years old. He went on to earn the title of AKC Grand Champion.
Marilyn’s face beamed with pride as she tells of Sky’s first weekend at a show in Syracuse, N.Y., where he achieved the title of AKC Champion. “It was so thrilling,” she said.
Since those early years, Marilyn has learned a lot about showing dogs. By the time Gala arrived on the scene, she knew what to look for in a show quality dog.
Marilyn said that a good breeder will know whether a dog is show or pet quality and a reputable breeder will “match a dog to the buyer according to lifestyle and what expectations they have for the dog.”
Gala came from one of the top breeders of American Eskimos Dogs in the U.S., located in Indiana. In addition to purchasing a dog from a well-known breeder, a show dog’s success depends largely on its handler. Handler Karen Mammano does those duties for Marilyn and her dogs.
In some cases, dog owners serve as their own handlers, but many use the services of professional handlers. Handlers are the people that actually work with the dogs during the show and present them to the judges.
According to Marilyn, “It is important to always use the same handler because the dog and handler develop a close bond. Gala loves her handler.”
Many show dogs live with their handlers and travel to shows with them. Marilyn prefers to have her dogs with her, and therefore travels to every show in which Gala and Sky are entered.
Traveling with her dogs requires a lot of preparation on Marilyn’s part. It takes about two days to get everything ready for a show. Dog supplies, such as food, treats, toys, and grooming equipment are checked for and double-checked. Her preference for accommodations is an extended stay hotel so that she can cook meals in her room and be with the dogs.
Before leaving for any show, a groomer professionally bathes the dogs. When they arrive at a show, the handler and her assistant apply the finishing touches, such as trimming the paws and combing out the dog so that their coats are fluffy.
Marilyn believes in the importance of good nutrition for all of her canines. They are fed commercially prepared, frozen raw patties with which she mixes other goodies, such as canned vegetables. “Diet is important for the maintenance of the dog’s coat, teeth, weight, and energy level,” she said.
Karen, Gala’s handler, felt that the dog would benefit from additional exercise, so she now runs a mile each night on a small treadmill that Marilyn purchased especially for dog.
All of Marilyn’s love and devotion to her canine companions has reaped rewards. “I have four large plastic storage bins full of ribbons,” she says of the prizes the dogs have one.
Gala has won “Best of Breed” at the prestigious AKC Eukanuba National Championship in Orlando, Fla., where she defeated 17 other dogs of her breed. She has reached the ranking of the “Number 1 American Eskimo Dog female in the United States.”
If Gala wins Best of Breed at the Westminster show, she will move up to the Group Competition pitting her against all other “Best of Breed” in the Non-Sporting group.
Marilyn believes Gala’s chances of winning Best in Breed are good. The fact that she won at Eukanuba helped her exposure going into the big competition. “The judges are aware of which dogs are winning,” she said.
Sky travels with Gala and Marilyn, and enters shows, but at this stage of his life, Gala usually bests him in competition. This works to Gala’s advantage, as each dog she defeats gives her more points, and therefore a higher breed ranking.
Gala was invited to be part of the Westminster show, which is in itself an honor. According to Marilyn, “Any Champion AKC dog may enter Westminster, but you have to be in the top five of your breed to be invited.”
Marilyn Mitchell will be there to cheer on her beloved Gala at the 140th Westminster Dog Show. When asked what she enjoys most about dog shows she said, “The adrenaline rush ….. I enjoy winning. But it’s also about meeting like-minded dog lovers and educating the public about American Eskimo Dogs.”
She added, however, that Gala will be her last show dog, explaining, “I will miss everything about this, but it is exhausting, expensive, and time consuming.”
As the years go, by Marilyn believes it’s time to slow down and enjoy her dogs simply as pets. However, that won’t be the focus on the run up to and during the world-class competition on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 15 and 16.
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For a full schedule of the Westminster competition and broadcast times visit westminsterkennelclub.org. The show will be broadcast on CNBC and the USA cable network and will stream live on the Internet.