Oliver is rambunctious and full of laughable curiosity and mischief, not always laudable qualities for a show dog. But the bullmastiff's nature was no hindrance at all as his young owner and handler took a top prize — Best Junior Showman — at the recent Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.
Kristen O'Brien, 16, a show ring veteran of six years, paraded the 110-pound bundle of bouncing muscle through day-long elimination rounds Feb. 11 at Madison Square Garden. Although 19-month-old Oliver has pranced around many a show ring since 6 months of age, the uncommon bright overhead lights and flashing cameras strobes grabbed the nosy beast's attention.
"Oliver was looking all around at them," Kristen recounted after returning home Monday.
Kristen said she simply focused on the serious business at hand — and in her hand.
"I didn't freak out because the dog freaked out," she said.
For that, the judge applauded her.
In judging, Peter Kubacz of Jackson, N.J., looked for smoothness of handling, no jerky movements, ease of stacking — that's setting the dog's feet squarely to strike a pose, Kristen explained.
"He looks for a connection between you and the dog (to) see how the dog responds to you," she said.
Kristen emerged from eight finalists among 25 junior handlers, through age 18, who sought the top honor. Each of the contestants had to have earned a minimum of seven best showman titles in previous junior events. She won a $6,500 college scholarship for her work with a dog that "probably" outweighs her, Kristen said.
While Kristen talked about her experience at the prestigious dog show, Oliver cavorted around the spacious living room of the family's home near Weeki Wachee. He toyed with a stuffed pink terry cloth bone. Dropping that, he gathered and munched playfully on his chain-link lead, to which Kristen lovingly chided her working pet, "You're being a dork, Oliver," then to her onlookers, "He's such a goof."
Though Kristen cherishes her showmanship honor, it wasn't the only Oliver-Kristen prize in junior competitions. The bullmastiff topped his breed and age class in conformation evaluation; overcame 30 competitors to be chosen Select Dog, meaning he was better conformed than his female counterpart, and ultimately harnessed the Best of Breed title in the junior show.
In amassing more than 30 points in conformation wins during his career, Oliver has impressed judges, Kristen said, with his "very correct head, square and very broad." The judges also note his medium size; lots of other competitors are deemed to be too big.
Kristen purchased Oliver as a 4-month-old pup from a breeder in Indianapolis whom she had gotten to know on the show circuit, a breeder who owned last year's No. 1 bullmastiff in the country. Kristen wanted an offspring of that sire. She negotiated the deal herself, Kristen's mother, Dawn O'Brien, noted. The teen contracted to pay $500 a month for a total of $2,000. She earned the money by grooming dogs for a professional handler at various shows.
That handler, Aaron Wilkerson of Jupiter, and his fiancee, Janice Granda, accompanied Kristen to Westminster. Dawn O'Brien stayed at home and followed the events live on an iPad and iPhone.
"I wanted them to focus and have a good time with the people there," she said.
Also on hand at the show were Kristen's twin sister, Kasey, and her Doberman pinscher, the pair placing well but not among the winners, Kristen said.
Kristen said she'll now retire from junior showmanship events. But she will continue to campaign Oliver to attain winning points to add to his pedigree. And she has launched a show ring career for Oliver's younger half-brother, Joker.
"In the future," Kristen added, "I would like to get a bitch to breed to Oliver or Joker."
The high school sophomore, who is homeschooled, said she plans to apply her Westminster scholarship, as well as a $500 scholarship she earned as Best Junior Showman at January's Florida Gulf Coast Clusters shows in Brooksville, to a Florida university to study forensic science "and do dog shows on the side."
Meanwhile, Kristen is teaching showmanship for members of the Hernando County Kennel Club. And she has taken under her wing her 11-year-old cousin, Jessica Payette of Weeki Wachee, who is starting a show career with bullmastiff Bella.
Said Kristen: "I've decided I want to mentor, teach her how to show, how to show like me, so she can be the next one to win."
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]