by Brian Clarey
photos by Caleb Smallwood
A Yorkie named Star prances excitedly on the Astroturf-ed runway, never taking her tiny black eyes off the orange ball in the hand of her owner, Robin Hutson of Greensboro.
Before them, a temporary pool constructed from laminated canvas and PVC pipe catches medallions of white light from the late-morning sun here in the parking lot of the Greensboro Coliseum. Hutson fakes the throw into the pool once, twice, then lobs it into the pool just a few feet from the precipice. Without the benefit of a good running start, Star launches herself into the water and lands five feet out. Nothing close to the record here on the second day of the Carolina Kennel Club’s annual dog show, but not bad for a pooch that’s roughly the size of a loaf of bread.
]The next diver, Violet, looks to have some Portuguese water-dog in her bloodline. Unconcerned with the competition, she’s ready to get in now. So one man holds her by the shoulders at the end of the runway as her owner tosses a bundle of sticks to the center of the pool. Violet explodes from the makeshift starting block and covers the distance to the edge in a sprint. But, like almost every other dog that will visit the Diving Dogs tent out here in the lot, she hesitates at the diving platform before jumping in the water.
Still, she makes it 14 feet.
The record so far, says Steve Mize, in from Jefferson, Ga. to run the tent all weekend, was a black lab named Mandy who made 24 feet on the first day.
The Dog Dive is sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, the same organization that governs the dog show circuit ranging from regional conformations like this one, held in the Special Events Center of the coliseum, to the big dance: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, aired live from Madison Square Garden every year on Thanksgiving Day. The blueblood event is the second-oldest annual sporting event in the United States. The first one was held in 1877, just two years after the first Kentucky Derby and seven years before the AKC
The history of the Carolina Kennel Club, like Westminster a member of the national organization, is not quite as illustrious but no less sincere. Founded in 1938 and admitted to the AKC that same year, it is the oldest organization of its kind in the state, and its annual conformation is the Old North State equivalent of the big time.
Most of the dogs jumping into the pool at the coliseum won’t be going inside to watch their fellow canines compete — show dogs are no mere pets but purebreds of their respective breeds. Only dogs with the purest expression of their subset’s attributes make it to these pageant-style conformations, where they are weighed by appearance, temperament and movement. They call them “conformations” because they judge the dogs by their conformity to the standard of each breed. Regular house dogs like Star aren’t even allowed into the lobby.
But they’re welcome to use the pool.
These dogs don’t bark.
One might think that a concrete space filled with more than a thousand dogs would be a cacophony of aggressive barks, mournful whines, defeated whimpers. But show dogs don’t do much of that even when they’re penned in cages or being teased with treats.
Show dogs, among their other skills, know how to keep it together.
The Special Events Center has been cordoned off into a dog show village, with fences made from stacked travel cages and crates of supplies. Eight competition rings take up half of the large space, with a couple others in the adjunct on the other side. Three children, two girls and a boy with a bowtie, walk four tiny, scrambling dachshunds down a side thoroughfare cut between the handler’s grooming stations and the vendors that line the room.
Haley Whitcomb, a handler in from Greenville, SC, grooms an Irish setter named Sweeney, fluffing out his red tresses with a special blow-dry unit called the K-9 until the mahogany hue along his back fades gradually to burnt sienna and a creamy white.
“I actually take better care of his hair than I do mine,” she says.
Sweeney is 3 years old, “approaching his prime” Whitcomb says, one of a dozen dogs she and her partner, Jamie Clute, have brought north for their clients. She likes Sweeney’s chances.
“He’s a really nice breed type,” she says. “His fur is rich where it needs to be. He’s just an overall pretty dog.”
At the table next to them, Clute works on a black Russian terrier named Vincent, who is due in the ring in eight minutes, with a hand-dryer and a spiky brush. He’s a large and dignified animal, with thick, coarse fur that droops from his snout like a moustache and covers his eyes in thin forelocks.
“He can see better than you think,” Clute says.