Dog shows allow familiar, rare breeds to strut their stuff

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By Andrew Johnson

Dog lovers from around the world are eagerly waiting for the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Feb. 12-13 in New York City. Thousands of people will attend the event in person, but millions more will watch highlights on TV. The two-day event is a dog lover’s paradise, as it is a showcase for hundreds of purebred dog breeds.

Golden retrievers and cocker spaniels are some of the more well-known breeds at the show, but Westminster is unique in that it offers a glimpse at other dog breeds that aren’t household names, such as the Spinone Italiano.

“I first saw a Spinone on TV at Westminster and started doing research on it,” said Mary Campbell, who, along with her husband, Stuart, owns and operates Camkota Spinoni, a kennel in rural Aberdeen. “Once I read about the Spinone’s traits, I started contacting breeders and it took about a year until I heard back about a possible puppy. After a big interview, we got our first one in 2004, then another one two years later and another two years after that.”

Campbell said she now owns five Spinoni, and that Camkota Spinoni has implemented a regimented breeding program in hopes of enhancing the breed’s overall health. To date, she said they’ve had four litters and 37 puppies.

“A new term in the dog world is preservation breeder, which means you want to preserve the form and function of your breed by breeding with a purpose, always trying to improve the health of the breed,” she said. “We carefully test their health and look at pedigrees — there aren’t that many Spinoni so they have a small gene pool — to produce a better dog than the dog you started with, if possible.”

In addition to being meticulous when it comes to breeding, Campbell said she is just as picky about who takes one of her puppies home.

“We don’t breed for profit, and I know where all my puppies are, from Canada to the East Coast to here in the Midwest,” she said. “A preservation breeder will always stand by their puppies, and if for any reason the owner doesn’t want their dog it has to come back to me or I find another qualified owner. I actually have an application owners have to fill out before I even interview them.”

Showing dogs

Although it was never her intention, Campbell’s love for the Spinone Italiano led her to the competitive dog-show world about 10 years ago.

“There are 12 Spinoni entered (in the Westminster Dog Show) this year, and I’m co-owner of a Spinone named Zeppe,” she said. “He carries the Camkota name in his title. Zeppe’s owners are Andi and Paul Gabler of Fredericksburg, Va. I co-own Zeppe, but he is really their dog.”

Campbell said there’s much more to dog shows than what most people see on TV.

“When you watch Westminster on TV you miss the whole day-long process of breeds competing within their breeds,” she said. “On TV you’re simply getting the nighttime groups, only the dogs that have won best of breed. You’ll only see one dog on TV, but that dog might’ve beat five or 50 in its breed group.”

Campbell said dogs that win their specific best-in-breed award move on to the next level where they’re exhibited in seven groups. Each group is organized by the original work the breeds were created to do.

Spinoni are one of 26 breeds in the sporting group, for example, which consists of breeds that assist hunters on feathered game. Familiar breeds such as Labrador retrievers and German shorthaired pointers are also members of the sporting group. Along with the Spinone Italiano, some other lesser-known breeds in this group are the curly-coated retriever, American water spaniel and Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.

The other six groups include herding, hound, nonsporting, terrier, toy and working. The seven dogs that win their group competitions then move on to the final round and compete for best in show.

Conformation standards

Campbell said dog show judges assess dogs by how well they conform to specific breed standards.

Conformation standards vary widely between breeds, and one basic breed standard is height, Campbell said. Female Spinoni, for example, should measure between 22 and 25 inches high at the withers, which is where the dog’s neck and shoulders meet. Male Spinoni should measure between 24 and 27 inches.

“A few of the other things that make this breed unique is that they have a square profile,” she said. “Most hunting breeds, and dog breeds in general, have a rectangular shape, so judges will look for that square profile. Also, instead of having parallel head frames like other sporting breed where their heads and noses are on more parallel or converging lines, Spinoni have a diverging head plane, almost like their nose is pointing downward.”

She also said a Spinone’s back should look differently than most of the other sporting breeds.

“If you think of a pointer, for example, it’ll have a gradual slope from neck to tail,” she said. “A Spinone’s back dips, then goes back up toward the rump and then down again to the tail.”

Spinoni were considered a rare breed until 2000, and 2001 was the first year it was shown as an actual American Kennel Club breed, Campbell said.

“Seventeen years isn’t that long in the dog-show world, so judges are still learning about the breed,” she said.

Campbell has handled some of her dogs in the show ring at various dog shows, but she said professional handlers can sometimes make all the difference.

“There’s no perfect dog out there, but a good handler will be able, if they’re up on their breed, to showcase that dog’s best attributes,” she said. “They’ll know how to stand the dog up and make it look its best in front of the judge.”

Campbell also said hiring a handler lets owners enjoy their dog at the show.

Campbell said most dogs that appear in shows, especially breeds from the sporting, working, hound and herding groups, often live double lives. For example, she said the show ring can show off another side of hunting dogs that are trained to perform in the field.

“There are so many different things people can do with their dog,” she said. “Most of these dogs have fabulous lives outside of the show ring. On the weekends they’re showing, but during the week they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing for a job.”

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That dog will hunt

Stuart Campbell is an avid hunter and, so far, the Spinoni haven’t disappointed in the field.

“They’re a slower breed, and when I have people call me who want fast and flash in their dogs, I tell them not to get a Spinone,” said Stuart’s wife, Mary Campbell of Camkota Spinoni in rural Aberdeen. “These guys are low energy compared to a lot of hunting breeds. They’re rustic and big boned, and they stay closer to the hunter. They’re known as the Clydesdale of hunting dogs.

“My husband hunts quite often, especially pheasants, and each fall about once a month he thanks me for finding this breed for us.”

Spinoni are a large pointing breed, but Campbell said they’re extremely versatile and also excel at hunting over water.

In addition to hunting, the Spinone breed’s calm demeanor make them ideal companions or therapy dogs, Campbell said.

— Andrew Johnson


• Spinone breed:

• Westminster Dog Show:

Professional dog handler Michael Scott leads Zeppe, a Spinone Italiano co-owned by Mary Campbell from rural Aberdeen, around the show ring at the National Dog Show in Philadelphia in November. Zeppe won best of breed at that show, and is one of 12 Spinoni entered in the 142nd Westminster Dog Show Feb. 12-13. Courtesy photo
Though they’re not as popular as Labs, pointers or spaniels in the Dakotas, the Italiano Spinone is a versatile hunter that excels in the field and while hunting over water. Courtesy photo