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DONNIE COLLINS: Not Best Of Show, But Best Of Friends

February 17, 2019

Nearly 1.2 million people tuned in Tuesday night to watch the final night of a competition that practically none of us know anything about.

At heart, all of us are dog experts. And we spend so much time focused on criminals, on the corrupt, on the sketchy, that for a few nights every February, it heals the soul a bit to spend some time with some very good boys and girls.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has that effect on all of us. The nation’s top scientists have proven conclusively — at least, I guess they could with ease — that the sight of a gray and white Havanese prancing on the green artificial turf at Madison Square Garden is 10 times more likely to reduce the risk of ulcers than a fist to the desk followed by a brisk 10-minute walk away from your cubicle. Ever see a Sussex spaniel amble about? It’s like watching a 2-year-old child run through his first meadow. Who among us has never wished we could saddle up and ride a giant whippet, sprinting toward the sunset, away from our worries?

Our region’s pups did pretty well for themselves at the 143rd canine competition, too. Maggie Mae, a 2-year-old berger Picard owned by Moscow’s Molli Jason, won best of breed and had the opportunity to compete Monday against the other best-of-breed winners in the herding group. The berger Picard is a rare breed, about the size of your neighborhood Labrador retriever, only with a thicker, stronger coat and a furrier face. Groomed properly, they bear a faint resemblance to — yet remain imminently more huggable than — the old Civil War major general, George Meade.

Bridget Bodine and her English setter, Liam, didn’t make it quite as far as Jason and Maggie Mae did. Liam competed for best of breed among other English setters, but another dog advanced. You and I couldn’t discern a single difference between these two, or any of the other 17 English setters who competed. But anyone who has spent enough time around the dog show circuit evidently knows.

“I didn’t expect to win even a little bit in best of breed,” Bodine said, capped by a hearty laugh. “And, I didn’t.”

As Jason’s promising career at Westminster with her berger Picard dawned this week, Bodine happily admitted hers probably began and ended, and only happened through an unexpected friendship with her furry friend anyway.

That’s why her story is every bit as special.

A 58-year-old Lake Winola resident who is the general manager at DeCoverly Kennels in Falls Twp., Bodine runs the breeding and hunting training programs and prepares Labrador retrievers to compete in specialty events at the national level. It has been a lifelong passion and a job that has carried her throughout adulthood. At 25, she went to work with one of the nation’s premiere dog handlers, Greg Strong, at the Top of the Bay Pet Lodge near Easton, Maryland. She spent six years learning alongside Strong, and three decades ago, Bodine took nearly 10 dogs to Westminster with Strong as his show assistant. She groomed the dogs backstage, got them ready for Strong to bring into the ring and learned a valuable piece of information about herself in the process.

“I hate dog shows,” she said, with a sigh and then that trademark laugh. “It doesn’t show the real dog. It just shows the structure and the beauty of a dog. The real dog, to me, is in the field. I’m a field trainer. I train retrievers; we train setters. We do the real job for the dog, what the dogs are bred for. That is my passion.”

Westminster might be known around the country as the Super Bowl of dog shows; Bodine has a difficult time seeing it as anything more than a beauty pageant, a competition that all-too-often is won or lost on the grooming table. “The preparation,” she said, “is on the grooming table.”

If she never went back to Westminster, never had a chance to guide a dog through the Garden, that would be fine.

Then, she gazed into Liam’s dark eyes.

Liam basically came here as a business decision.

At DeCoverly, there already are about 55 English setters and 20 Labrador retrievers in the breeding and hunting training programs. But the kennel purchased Liam last March from a breeder in Wisconsin because iron sharpens iron. Every now and then, breeders and trainers need to bring in a dog with some experience on the show circuit to improve structure in the kennel, Bodine said. Basically, the show dog serves as a model. They demonstrate the correct bone angles, the proper coat, the head shape and other traits the American Kennel Club sets as standards for particular breeds.

Basically, at DeCoverly, the dogs already on the premises needed help developing their forechests. Bodine could tell Liam would provide them an example to match.

What she didn’t bargain for was how strong a connection she’d form with the kennel’s new setter. Bodine noticed how still Liam would stand, how happy he seemed to obey a command. She had shown many Labradors in shows over the years, but never an English setter.

In November, she applied to show Liam at Westminster. Not because she needed to, not because there’s a ton of money to be made in pursuit of a prize, but because he’s a good dog she’d be proud for others to see.

In that, it’s easy to see what drew someone who dislikes dog shows to Westminster and what draws so many of us novices to that competition. Show dogs, at their heart, are just furry pals like yours or mine. Once the ground thaws and the spring dawns, Liam will have plenty of opportunities to roam around the fields, roll around in the mud and pursue his senior hunting title.

“He is a normal dog. He’s a fun-loving dog. He loves to schmooze. He loves to be touching you,” Bodine said. “He’s very food-motivated. He is a chow-hound. He’s just a fun, happy bouncy boy. He likes to lay on your back, and he likes to jump on you. He’s just a dog. And he’s a good dog, a fun dog, a happy dog.”

Goes to show, when we need a friend, they’re never so far away.

DONNIE COLLINS, the Times-Tribune sports columnist, lets the westie run the house. He can be reached at dcollins@timesshamrock.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.