Talking to the Professional Handlers
Over the years I have had the pleasure of interviewing a lot of the most influential people in the dog world for Dogs in Review, including professional handlers Robert and Jane Forsyth.
Bo Bengtson |
Posted: December 17, 2014 2 p.m. PST
Bob Forsyth with the Westminster BIS Whippet Ch. Courtenay Fleetfoot of Pennyworth in 1963. Photo Shafer.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of interviewing a lot of the most influential people in the dog world for Dogs in Review: the American Kennel Club’s heavy hitters, the most talented and popular judges, brilliant breeders with hundreds of champions on their resumé, and several of the most accomplished professional handlers. Many of these handlers were also successful breeders, and most of them eventually became judges, which is how today’s fanciers may know them. (Check out my interview with Bill and Taffe McFadden from October 2013.)
For the February/March 2001 Annual, I interviewed Robert and Jane Forsyth. The most successful professional handling couple of their time, Bob and Jane Forsyth were the first married couple to both take No. 1 all breeds, and both to win BIS at Westminster. Bob Forsyth retired from AKC judging following awarding BIS at Morris & Essex KC in 2010; Jane is still judging.
Bo Bengtson: How did you both start in dogs? Bob?
Robert Forsyth: I guess I started when I was six or seven years old. My father was the manager of an estate that had Wire Fox Terriers in Bedford, N.Y. I can’t remember the kennel name — it’s been a long time! This would have been in the 1930s.
They had a kennel manager who went out to the shows, like we do now, only they’d take four or five Wires with them, and I guess they made maybe 25 shows a year. In those days, that was a lot of shows. My father wound up with a job in Connecticut at Ellenbert Farms. They moved from Scotties into Dachshunds. They imported a lot of German stock — the Flottenburg strain. They used to bring them over on the ships at that time. They would be met here in New York, and taken up to the kennel in Banksville. They were probably some of the first Dachshund Group winners in this country. This was in the early 1930s.
Morris & Essex was the first show at which I ever put points on a dog. That was back around 1936-1937. After World War II — I had served in the Marine Corps over there — when I came back, I didn’t really want to get back into dogs. But jobs were very scarce. One day I rode over with Percy Roberts to a show in Elizabeth, N.J. I just wanted to see some of the people I used to know. Unfortunately, or fortunately now as it turns out, Mr. Saunders Mead was there with the Seafern Poodles and French Bulldogs, and he asked me if I wanted a job. I said sure — I had to go to work sometime; I didn’t have any money. I thought it was just something I could do in the interim until I found a real job.
Seafern ran probably about 20 dogs. I was the only kennel man they had except Chuck Hamilton, who was the manager; he did all the trimming when I started, and I did all the cleaning and so forth, the brushing of the Poodles. He did the trims. We would go to the shows, and I would do the brushing and he would do the showing.
One year we went to Madison Square Garden — I guess we had five or six Standard Poodles at that point. It was snowing as it can only snow in New York. I was informed that the dogs’ feet were not to touch the sidewalks. I had to take those dogs back to my hotel room, so I would pick up one and carry it to the old Capital Hotel, which was about four blocks up from the Garden, walk back to the Garden, get another dog, walk back to the room. And the next day I had to pick them up again and take them back to the Garden. I brushed them all out and had them ready with a lead on at ringside, so when Mr. Hamilton came out, the dog was ready...
I guess the first really big win I had was with the Greyhound bitch that Mrs. Anderson had, Ch. Magic of Mardormere. She won three Groups in a row at the Garden. Percy Roberts showed her through two. I won one with her. I was maybe 26 at the time.
BB: Jane, how did you get started in dogs?
Jane Forsyth with Boxer Ch. Arriba’s Prima Donna, BIS at Westminster 1970. Photo Gilbert. Photo Gilbert.
Jane Forsyth: I left home when I was 13 because I had an alcoholic mother and my father had left, and I knew I was going to get into trouble, so I worked my way through five different high schools, working in two kennels — Elblac, the Doberman kennel, and the Grafmar kennels, the Shepherd kennel, for about four years.
When I was seven years old, we had a 14-year-old Irish Terrier, an International Champion. My mother was crying that I wasn’t going to like dogs, and I said, "Sure, I like dogs — give me a crazy Wirehaired Fox Terrier.” Well, she took me literally. Nobody else could catch the bloody thing — they had to get me out of school. Her name was Suki; I can remember it like it was yesterday. I even obedience trained her a little bit. It was 63 years ago that I got my first Best Obedience Dog in Show with a homebred Airedale.
BB: When you worked for those kennels, did you go to the shows too?
JF: Yes, I showed dogs for both of them. And then there was Anton Rost, standing on his little soapbox saying, "Gotta go see that kid with the hands!” He embarrassed me until I was ready to cry at the shows.
BB: Wasn’t that flattering?
JF: But it was very embarrassing, too, you’ve got to realize that. If you could be sure he wasn’t trying to make a buck for himself. I don’t think there was anybody that knew more about dogs, though.
Once I went all the way out to Kansas City with a couple of German Shepherds, and Rosty introduced me to Langdon Skarda. At noon, the judges walked out with their boxed lunches. Mrs. Dodge was doing Shepherds in the afternoon, and she walked up and said, "Janie, dear, you need this more than I do,” and handed me her boxed lunch. Lang Skarda turned green! I said, "What is your problem, sir?” He said, "What am I doing here, when the old lady gives you her lunch?” I said, "She will judge dogs, like I would judge dogs if I ever do. I will get Winners Dog and Winners Bitch, and you will get the Breed, sir.”
I had just met this man; I didn’t know him, but I’d seen his dog. He was a lovely young dog, and my dog was old. That’s exactly how it went: I won in dogs and bitches, and Lang got the Breed and won the Group. Langdon said, "You’re a pretty smart kid.” I was probably about 18 or 19 years old.
Mrs. Dodge was a lovely woman. Somehow I ended up with a Giralda dog crate that saved me from getting a speeding ticket going through Madison one day. I told a little white lie and said I was late for a date with Mrs. Dodge. They saw the Giralda crate, and they said, "Oh, don’t let me hold you up.” I didn’t have any date with Mrs. Dodge, but I got out of that ticket.
BB: Were you a professional handler right away?
JF: Yes. In fact, at 16 they gave me a license and then took it away again when they realized I was only 16. Then I got the license when I was 18 and held the license after that. When I left home at 13, the first job I had only paid me $7.50 per week. For the first two weeks I could only make it do for five days’ food; I could not make it do for seven. So for two days I would go hungry except for a cookie or something I could find if I went someplace. After the first two weeks I found out you didn’t do it that way — you made it last. That’s what I think has done me the most good in life. As soon as I started making enough money to live on, at least half of it was always put away. I have done that all my life, so I retired in the manner to which I had become accustomed — get a new Jaguar every two years, and that kind of thing...
BB: What was your first big win that you can remember?
JF: My first Best in Show ever was with a buff Cocker from Greensboro, N.C., belonging to a school teacher.
BB: Bob, how did you go from Seafern on to Mardormere and other clients? They are the two kennels you worked for full-time before you went out on your own?
RF: That’s right, that and Henry Stoecker, prior to World War II. Mardormere was a much larger establishment than Seafern. We had many more litters per year. We had a man in each unit — one in the Greyhounds, one in the Whippets, one in the puppy house. Everything was spotless. We would run 50 or 60 Whippets and 25 or 30 Greyhounds. And even the puppy pen had to be spotless. With Greyhounds, I’ll tell you, it was a job. We had an older fellow who scrubbed those pens at least five times a day. They were all painted white.
BB: Did you show Ch. Tiptree Glamorous, [at that time] the all-time top-winning Whippet bitch?
RF: No, that was Percy Roberts. She was through by the time I got there; she was a house pet. She was a lovely bitch. Most of those Whippets, the good ones, could walk out there today and hold their own. Whippets have not changed one iota. I think it is very unique.
BB: How did you meet Jane? You’d seen her at the shows?
RF: Oh, yes. She showed Boxers for Mrs. Anderson’s sister at Dorick kennels, so I knew her then.
JF: It was 17 years before we got married! He was busy — he was already married. And everybody asked me why I didn’t give it up...
BB: You also were in partnership with Annie Clark, right?
JF: No, no official partnership, we just traveled together. Anton Rost introduced us in ‘47, I believe. He had us both judge at the Brooklyn Kennel Club show — their first match show. We were 16 or 17. I did my judging quickly and was sitting there, and Rosty said, "Why don’t you tell the big one to hurry up?” I said, "You just introduced me to her, sir; why don’t you tell her to hurry up?” If you recall, when Annie first started, she was slow!
BB: Did you get along right away?
JF: Right away. We never fought, we never argued. Annie’s the one who got me started in Poodles.
BB: Bob told us about the days when the three of you were traveling. That must have been a pretty scary time for anyone who wasn’t part of the trio.
JF: That’s right. We really worked together.
RF: In fact, they used to call us The Combine, because if one didn’t get you, one of the other two would. We would win five or six Groups out of the six there were then. We had a hell of a time! This went on for several years until Janie and I got married, and of course Annie got married, and that sort of broke up The Combine. But it was pretty tough for anybody else to do much winning in this area then.
BB: When did you get married?
JF: 1967. We eventually had quite a big operation. We carried up to 60 dogs to a show, we had up to 250 dogs in the kennel and we had 15 employees.
BB: How did you travel to the shows?
JF: In a big Bluebird bus. Originally we used two or three vans, but then we got a Travco motor home. The weight of my old crates was too much, and we kept going through wheel rims and lugs. We stayed at motels. We have never not lived in motels. And we always carried at least five kids. We tried to carry one kid for every 10 dogs.
BB: Several of these kids are still in dogs, right?
JF: At one time we had three Bob F’s: Bob Forsyth, Bobby Fisher and Bobby Fowler. Bobby Fisher didn’t want to leave after he and Susan got married, but the original Susan didn’t want to stay.
RF: There are over 90 people who have worked for us who remained in dogs — continued into judging or went into the kennel club, etc. There were Susie Fisher, Pat Beresford, Kathy Kirk, Mark Threlfall...
BB: Don’t you think the apprenticeship is what’s missing so much today in the development of professional handlers?
JF: Definitely. How can these people call themselves professionals when they don’t know how to take care of dogs? They don’t know the fundamentals.
BB: Which were your favorite dogs in those early years?
RF: There were a lot of them. I was involved with the Old English Sheepdog Ch. Fezziwig Ceiling Zero, then the Whippet Ch. Courtenay Fleetfoot of Pennyworth. I think the Boxer that Janie had, Ch. Barrage of Quality Hill, was one of the good ones. And Ch. Holly Hill Desert Wind, the Afghan dog that Janie showed...
BB: Was he the best Afghan Hound you had?
RF: I don’t think he was a particularly good Afghan, but he was a super showman.
BB: What about Starlight, the Greyhound?
RF: Yes, Ch. Shalfleet Starlight of Foxden was a beauty. She was one of the nicest Greyhounds I’d ever seen.
BB: How many Groups did you win at the Garden?
RF: I think I won 13 or 14 before I won BIS with ‘Ricky’ (Courtenay Fleetfoot) in 1964.
JF: Oh, three or four, before going BIS with the Boxer Ch. Arriba’s Prima Donna in 1970.
BB: Eventually handling must have become a good business to you.
RF: I would do it all over again. The people have been good to us, the dogs have been very good to us — we’ve been very, very fortunate, very lucky.
From the December 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine.
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