Women Handlers and the Sport of Purebred Dogs

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In the velvety stillness of Madison Square Garden, Best in Show judging is about to begin. Charged by a pulsating, electrical current running through the bones and souls of all show-dog lovers past and present, we wait in anticipation of our sport’s greatest pageantry. Now from the darkness a booming voice announces the final act of this marvelous, canine production as a single spotlight suddenly appears and glides along the floor, encapsulating a breathtaking creature moving seemingly unaided, as if trotting on air. Again and again this motion is followed until seven specimens have each been highlighted.

Houselights up. Aha! Now we see the handlers. The men are dressed in classic black and white, while the women are adorned in timely glamour befitting their personal style. Cheering crowds animate the arena except for one, lone spectator that nobody seems to notice. Wide-eyed and silent, a Homburg-hatted wraith in a starched, rounded collar sits in a box seat and watches from the perspective of dog showing’s distant past. Nostalgic for his time on earth he wished only for one more glimpse of his beloved sport but oh, my. He hadn’t counted on things changing quite so much. Gesturing to the woman dressed in midnight blue Prada as she strides in perfect time with her hound, the oddly dressed old gentleman turns to a young man seated next to him and with a distinctive brogue he growls, “Aye, look at the lassie. She’s a rare talent, that one. I never dreamed.” Noticing the peculiar fellow for the first time, the younger man smiles broadly. “You said it, Mister. That lady’s one in a million and tonight, she’s on my hound,” says the young man who suddenly stands up to cheer his team. With his eyes glued on his hound, he continues to clap as he speaks to his newfound companion. “Hey, tell me something, buddy. You seem to know this sport pretty well. How is it that you’ve never seen her before? I mean, she’s tops in her profession. You just don’t get any higher in this sport than her. How come you ain’t never seen her before? Where you from?” Hearing no response, he glances down to repeat the question and is surprised to see nothing but an empty chair. Shaking his head, he turns his attention back to the handsome woman in blue as she artfully coaxes the hound into a stunning, green-carpet pose, right in front of the TV cameras at the greatest dog show on earth.

Dog Shows Past

Although there are many things about today’s dog-show scene with the power to astonish a ghost of dog shows past, the idea of seriously competitive, “professional” handlers who also happen to be women, might top any oldtime dog man-turned-phantom’s list. Born in the town taverns of the Eastern United States, American dog shows were at first, very simple affairs, accessible only to men. Within the confines of dank and dusty saloons, “showing off” one’s dog became a pleasant way for the gentlemen (and the not so gentlemanly men alike) to pass the time of day while bragging about the dogs with which they lived and worked. Long before football bonded men of differing social classes, young pups tucked under arms were carried into taverns and “put down” in the sawdust of the old beer halls where fellow dog men would pass comments (and judgments) as to which was better and why. Obviously such talk would lead to dog trading, the sale of young pups and stud fees. Naturally, considering the social norms of the late Victorian era, this sort of language — even in America — was considered too coarse and common for the ears and eyes of the ladies, and they were not admitted to these private affairs. Of course, anyone who understands the unchanging character of human nature must realize that surely a few ladies were more than likely in attendance at these events over the years. Well hidden and most likely purposely forgotten, their thoughts and ideas were, sadly, never recorded.

Given the separation of the classes and sexes of the early 19th century, it is little wonder that women were not given the early opportunity to present their own dogs at these small “pub shows.” However, opportunity for women in dogs was seemingly just around the corner. At the tail-end of the Victorian era, the first woman to judge at an American dog show officiated over 117 Saint Bernards at the 12th Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Miss Anna H. Whitney of Lancaster, Mass., was an art school instructor and a serious student of dogdom. She is reported to have owned several breeds of dogs but it was the Saint Bernard that owned her heart. According to William Stifel’s biography of Miss Whitney, The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster, the art school’s principal was a fellow dog fancier and Saint Bernard breeder. As all of us know, a passion for dogs is even better when shared and so it is of no surprise that the art school principal offered Whitney her choice of any pup in a litter he had bred. Using her noted eye for balance and symmetry, Lancaster chose a puppy bitch which became the foundation for her Chequasset Kennels. Miss Whitney must have been well loved by the men in charge.

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