A Beauty with a Bark

A few minutes before ring time at the 2010 Westminster Kennel Club dog show, Dr. Melanie Helms hides. She hasn’t seen Manny for more than a month. Manny, Helms’ Welsh springer spaniel, has won Best in Show at several competitions, but a professional handler, Ryan Wolfe, will be exhibiting the dog today. If Manny so much as catches a glimpse of Helms, it would be disastrous.

“If he sees her when he’s in the ring, he turns into a goofball,” confides Manny’s breeder, Gary Riese, owner of Statesman Welsh Springer Spaniels of Bremen, Ga. The “goofball” tendencies include Manny’s playful nature; he’s a dog with a short attention span.

In a stylish turtleneck, faux fur vest, and jeans, Helms initially stands ringside with her sister, Michelle Duskey, who has traveled from Arlington, Texas, for the big event. Helms, an Evansville resident, frets that this still might be too close — that Manny might see her — so she quietly leaves her sister and moves farther away, trying to disappear into a thicker crowd of spectators. Her husband, Dr. Phillip Gilson, has been banished to the stands at the 134th Westminster, one of the longest running sporting events in the country.

In 2009, Manny was the No. 1 ranked Welshie in the country and the defending Best of Breed winner from the 2009 Westminster dog show. While Helms has every reason to be a bit anxious, not more than a dozen years ago, she simply was looking for a nice pet.

With careful consideration, this husband and wife team of physicians chose their first dog to be a pet and constant companion. They wanted a sporting breed “but not the typical Lab or golden,” says Helms, so they chose a well-bred, healthy Welsh springer spaniel puppy.

Breeders tout the Welsh springer spaniel’s excellent hunting characteristics: good work ethic, terrific scenting ability, and endless energy. The breed is intelligent, loyal, and protective of family members, which requires the owner to socialize the dog well to be accepting of friends and family.

The couple sought out breeders through the Welsh Springer Spaniel Club. Less than 200 Welsh springer spaniel puppies are born annually. “At the time, we didn’t realize the breed was so rare,” says Helms. “We were put on a waiting list.” Eighteen months later, they were offered not a male puppy but a female: Statesman’s Autumn Amberlynne (“Clancy”).

The couple bought Clancy as a pet, knowing this dog could be show-worthy. The breeder, Riese, who sold them the pup knew it, too. He asked for photo updates from Helms — a standard practice among breeders, who like to keep tabs on the development of their puppies. Riese and his wife, Susan, have been breeding dogs since the mid-1970s. Working with another breeding family, they co-own 10 Welsh springer spaniels and 11 additional dogs and have owned 16 Welsh springer spaniels (now deceased). They have produced 49 litters and 300 Welshies since founding their kennel.

Upon seeing photos in 1999, Riese encouraged the couple to show Clancy. The couple chose the national specialty competition for Welshies as their foray into shows. Their aim was quite high: The Welsh Springer Spaniel Club of America hosts the national specialty competition, the premier event for that breed.

Helms and Gilson wanted Riese’s help in showing the dog the first time. To handle the dog at the show, Riese enlisted his daughter. The United States is one of the few countries where someone can make a career as a handler, a professional who bathes, grooms, trains, and transports the show dogs.[pagebreak]

Helms and Gilson were nervous at that first show. “They were wringing their hands the whole time,” Riese says. “When Clancy won her puppy class, I looked over, and they were in tears — both of them.”

That success pushed the couple onward. Helms, who never had handled a dog, mastered the leash quickly, says Riese. Helms learned to “gait” her dog: She moved her dog around the ring at the ideal pace for the dog to best show its movement while not stumbling or tripping, keeping the dog between her and the judge. The typical “patterns” for individual judging of the dog’s gait include a “down and back” with a couple of complex turns. A handler stacks the dog to show off the canine’s attributes; “stacking” is technically posing the dog in a “stand” with both front and rear legs aligned correctly. The head must be raised under the chin with the right hand and the tail extended with the left. Helms keeps the dog forward — and not shifted backward — when the judge examines the dog. Helms mastered how to groom her dog: bathe it, clip it, and shave some areas. She trained her dog to stand at attention or “bait” when she raises a tiny piece of food. This allows the judge to see the dog prick up its ears at attention, revealing the dog’s expression.

Helms finished Clancy’s championship and went on to attain multiple breed wins and group placements, including Best of Opposite Sex wins at Westminster in 2002, 2003, and 2006. Since her show career with Clancy, Helms has finished championships on four Welsh springer spaniels, including Manny. (Gilson’s involvement with the dogs: “I’m the driver,” he says with a wry smile. “My job is to set everything up and stay out of the way.”)

Though Helms prefers to show her dogs, the playful Manny was a different case. Often, in dog shows, the handler finds the dog. Impressed with the dog, Wolfe, who had handled Clancy, approached Manny’s owners at a show and offered his services. Helms accepted. Wolfe, a third-generation handler, concedes Manny is a “pain in the, uh, ahem! He just can’t stand still.” Wolfe gives an example: “I’ll put his foot down, he’ll look at me, and then he moves it.”

This is why Helms is hiding ringside today and hoping to see Manny win Best of Breed for a second year in a row. The ring steward rises from his chair and bellows out the armband numbers for the Welsh springer spaniels: “Five! Six! Seven! Eight!”

The excitement is palpable. As each Welshie enters the ring, the crowd greets the dog and handler with thunderous applause and whistles, and pocket camera flashes fire off as if the dogs are rock stars. The judge examines the canines on standing and moving. In less than 15 minutes, the judge, Virginia Lynn of British Columbia, Ontario, makes her decision. The eight handlers and dogs parade around the ring once more. Lynn dramatically sweeps her arm, and the crowd cheers as she points to Best of Breed — Winston.

Manny fails to earn a repeat but takes home a highly respectable Award of Merit, an achievement similar to “honorable mention” but with more prestige. Helms would have liked a victory, she admits, particularly because she is retiring Manny this year. She’s optimistic, though: She has a young hopeful in contention for Westminster 2011.

With the show ended, Helms and Gilson find Manny, and the couple is all smiles back in the cramped benching area. Manny, the goofball, stands on his grooming table, attracting a huge crowd around his table. He struts about and offers full-bodied barks to Helms, hardly allowing her to get a word in edgewise.

“Manny was amazing!” she says. Woof!  “He showed perfectly.” Woof! “You’re number one!” Woof! “But you do have kind of a loud mouth.”

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