Annual dog show at Missoula County

Annual dog show at Missoula County
Annual dog show at Missoula County
Annual dog show at Missoula County

Ace, a champion English springer spaniel, ran around the ring Thursday with handler Ellen Cottingham at the 63rd annual Five Valley Kennel Club show, a four-day event held at the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

Ace left the ring with the title of best of breed, earning him lots of treats and praise from Cottingham, a professional handler contracted to show a dog for a breeder.

There is a lot more to being a professional handler than just bringing dogs to shows, Cottingham said. She helps her clients with all aspects of the breeding and showing process, including training, breeding and finding new breeds.

Cottingham has been showing dogs since she was a little girl, more than 40 years. “I’ve put my whole life into dogs,” Cottingham said.

Decades of experience, specialization in sporting breeds and desire to win is what attracts clients to her. “My favorite part of the show is winning,” Cottingham said.

Cottingham travels to different dog shows around the country looking for the winning combination of dog and judge. Each judge has a different eye for a variety of qualities outlined in the American Kennel Club’s standards that decide what is ideal for each breed.

Houston Clark is an exceptional, fair and well respected judge, according to Cottingham.

“He has a good eye,” Cottingham said of Clark, who’d just awarded her dog first place.

Dogs are judged based on a wide variety of traits including size, temperament and grooming as laid out in the AKC’s standards, said Clark, a former handler and now a judge for more than 30 years. Clark keeps a hard copy of the standards for each breed and another copy on his iPhone, helping him remember the small details that can be hard to remember after judging more than 200 breeds throughout his career.

In the grooming room Thursday, dogs lounged after a busy morning full of competition on the first day of the show. Other dogs were being carefully trimmed and brushed in preparation to be shown in the afternoon.

A parti-color cocker spaniel, Dominic, with large eyebrows that took up most of his face and made him look like an old man, stood on a platform as breeder and handler Mariecel Torres-Young trimmed his coat. She was striving for perfection, even wrapping his ears to help keep the hair from curling due to the humidity.

Standards, which appear to be the dog show Bible, are written to allow optimum function and beauty, Torres-Young said. A cocker spaniel’s ears are to be kept open, allowing air to flow. And the spaniel's head should be trimmed back and smooth, but not shaved.

Torres-Young, who’s been showing dogs for nearly 25 years, said she adapts the standards to what works best for her dog, and takes cues from the pros.

The title of best in show is awarded through a round-robin competition similar to the March Madness bracket system, said show chair Susan Lassila. The complex judging is split up by breed, gender and whether a dog is a champion or not.

Dogs gain championship points as they rise through the rounds. Fifteen points and two major wins or three or more points awarded by three different judges is required to be designated as a “Champion of Record” by the AKC. The maximum number of points awarded to a dog at any show is five points.

The dogs that are awarded best of breed advance to compete within their group — sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting or herding. The group winners then compete for best in show, the highest award offered, which will be awarded on Sunday.

This year, 503 dogs entered the show and judges came in from all over, including Florida and Canada, Lassila said.

It is important to Lassila that the dogs are well taken care of. On Saturday, an ophthalmologist will be at the show, screening for eye diseases for the show dogs.

Lassila, based in the Bitterroot, has been showing and breeding dogs since 1971. She said she got involved after asking about her neighbors' show dogs and has been in love with it ever since.

“I love the dogs and want to make sure they’re well taken care of,” Lassila said.

Credit: Madeline Broom | Missoulian