Ann Deister zipped into the Missoula County Fairgrounds parking lot on Sunday afternoon, her golf cart bumping along as hundreds of dogs strutted nearby.
As the show chair of the 61st annual Five Valley Kennel Club Dog Show, her head was on a swivel all day, answering questions and keeping the event on track – all while she showed her own dogs in the show.
About 700 dogs have been entered each day of the three-day show, up 10 percent over last year, "which is encouraging," she said. The show continues Monday and Tuesday at the fairgrounds.
It’s part of a 14-show circuit over 15 days in the Northwest, starting in Twin Falls, Idaho, and moving to Blackfoot, Idaho; then Billings, then Great Falls, then Missoula.
"It's a killer," she said of the long days and long drives between events. "But the dogs get used to it. Mine love to travel. It's just their way of life. As long as they're well-treated, and fed and loved."
She was showing smooth standard Dachshunds. There are three varieties (smooth, long and wire) and two sizes (standard and mini). Sage – better known as her "fancy registered name," Champion Deister's Prairie Sage – plopped out of her kennel and grabbed a couple of treats from Deister before heading into the ring. The dogs have registered names (the longer version) and call names (Sage).
The names hold another meaning. Recently, a lot of Deister's dogs had "Magic" or "Magical" in their names, a sign of their lineage. In her dogs' case, they could be traced back four generations to "Puff Magic."
Deister exhibited in Missoula's show five years ago, and moved here the year after, selling her house in Ohio and buying another in St. Ignatius. She grew up showing horses, and got serious about breeding and showing dogs in the late 1980s.
"Many come to a show and fall in love with a specific breed," she said. "And often a breeder will say, ‘You should show it, that pup is pretty darn good.’ Next thing you know, you're acquiring another and another. Then you're breeding a litter of puppies.
“A lot of people have that background. Horses and dogs go well together, and a lot of horse people have dogs. But it's a lot easier to show a little dog than a great big horse.”
This community suffers from the same problems as many other longstanding clubs and organizations.
“All clubs are struggling for membership,” Deister said. “We're getting older. And young people just don't have the time.”
But she was encouraged to see a strong showing of youngsters with their dogs at this year’s event.
“These juniors will work with professional handlers all summer to gain experience,” she said. “It's a labor of love.”
Barbara Corbett, of Carnation, Washington, said she’s seen the number of dogs in shows decline over the years.
“It's expensive," she said. "And my breed is becoming rarer and rarer. Their coat takes a lot of work and their temperament – they need to be around people."
On Sunday, she was showing her 2-year-old Lhasa Apso, Greta. Greta is in the top 10 of owner-handled Lhasa Apsos nationwide.
“Some friends I went to college with started showing dogs. I went to one to see what it was like, and here we are,” Corbett said.
Here we are, 40 years later.
“For me, it's one long nervous from start to finish,” she said. “All this hair, she shakes and it's like, ‘Oh my god, I have to straighten it out.’ ”
There was a slight breeze flowing through the open arena on Sunday – a bonus for the crowd to get a whiff of the sugar from Lil’ Orbits donuts next door, but bad for Corbett as she waited, brush in hand, for any wind to knock Greta’s fur out of place.
Which dog wins never seems to be a sure thing.
“Dog shows supposedly are to judge the quality of the dogs for breeding,” Deister said. “They’re not allowed to be neutered or spayed or altered in any way. They judge them by their breeding stock.”
It’s all in the details: how a dog stacks (standing with their front legs straight up and down, and their back legs slightly behind their body), their gait, their teeth, etc. But which one wins also depends on the other dogs entered that day, how the dog behaves in the ring and how a judge interprets that breed’s standard.
A relatively new component, too, is that the American Kennel Club is allowing unregistered dogs to participate (a labradoodle, for example), though not in the conformation portion since they're not purebred. Instead, they can compete in obedience and rally.
"There are so doggone many non-registered dogs in this country," Deister said.
“But dog shows are for everyone.”