A malady will keep a young Samoyed from the "Super Bowl of dog shows" this month.
Sometimes bad things happen to good dogs.
Salty, a 2-year-old Samoyed, was trained like an Olympic athlete and groomed like a Miss America contestant. Already an American Kennel Club champion, Salty was ready for the competition of his life: the Westminster Kennel Club dog show on Feb. 14 and 15 in Madison Square Garden, New York City, considered by most dog fanciers the most prestigious in the country, sometimes called "the Super Bowl of dog shows."
About a week ago, Salty took ill with a still-undiagnosed malady that his veterinarian believes could have been a toxic reaction to an insect bite. Even though he is recovering, his owners, Charles and Hope McCarthy, decided to pull him from Westminster.
"It's heartbreaking. We were so excited," said Mrs. McCarthy. "He was the only Samoyed that we know of from this area to be invited. But he's our pet first. We didn't want to subject him to the stress of the show so soon after his illness."
Salty's official name is Am/Int/UKC Grand CH White Gold's Salty Dawg CGC, a grand scroll that belies his down-to-earth disposition and lifestyle.
He lives with the McCarthys and his older half-brother, Bear, on a 50-foot houseboat moored at Huber Marina, near the Sunshine Skyway.
The McCarthys have been married for 12 years, almost as long as they have lived on their boat, which they acquired after selling their townhouse.
"We had a cabin cruiser," said Charles McCarthy. "And every weekend we'd load it up, then unload it. Hope said, "Why don't we just move onto a boat?' "
At the time, they owned two aging huskies. The dogs' anti-social behavior became a problem, and when they died, the couple decided to look for another breed.
"We wanted a cuddly dog without aggression," Mrs. McCarthy said. "We kept coming back to Samoyeds."
They brought Bear home on Christmas Day 1995. They became involved with the Samoyed Fanciers of Central Florida. During one of the group's get-togethers, a breeder suggested showing Bear.
"We entered a whole different world," she said.
They went to training classes; Mrs. McCarthy was Bear's "handler," the person who guides a dog through a show's events. Bear won a number of titles.
Both Charles and Hope McCarthy had day jobs and felt bad about leaving their dog home alone on the boat. Two years ago, they went for a look-see at a litter of puppies Bear's mother had just had. One followed Bear around, cleaving to him.
"Salty chose Bear," said Mrs. McCarthy. "It was love at first sight."
Salty was, from the beginning, a sweet, pliant dog that loved people.
Salty also happened to be, according to a top breeder who spotted him at one of Bear's shows, "the nearest thing to perfection to the breed standard," said Charles McCarthy.
In show dog terms, that meant he was more than cute. Like the very best of his breed, Salty's body was not long but muscular, with a deep chest, well-sprung ribs, strong neck and especially strong loins. The size of his ears, the way his tail curled, his bone mass, the quality of his fluffy white fur all conspired to make him a potential champion.
Salty and Bear's breeder, Laura Segers, was called in to train and handle Salty.
"It was beyond me at that point," said Mrs. McCarthy.
To keep Salty in the muscular shape his working-breed status required, they knew he would need more exercise than life on a boat could provide.
"We met Bill and Kellyann Conway and really liked the way they ran their day care program," said Charles McCarthy.
The McCarthys enrolled the dogs in the Conways' Maritime Pet Kennel Doggie Daycare, driving the distance to Tarpon Springs twice a week.
"They're in a gymlike setting," said Mrs. McCarthy. "We attribute a lot of Salty's success to the socialization and conditioning he gets there."
To be eligible to compete at Westminster, a dog must have an AKC champion-of-record title, earned by placing high in a certain number and type of sanctioned shows.
Salty finished his AKC championship at 12 months. He is ranked 10th in the South by the American Kennel Club and 39th in the United States, out of thousands of registered dogs in that breed. He is ranked second in the country by the smaller, breakaway United Kennel Club. Bear, now 4, has retired from shows, attending them only as an ardent fan of his half-brother.
McCarthy has a grown daughter and grandchildren who visit, but the couple have no children together. The family vacations are usually arranged around dog shows. It is an expensive sport, the McCarthys say, with no monetary remuneration for championships.
Both dogs participate in a therapy program called Pets Uplifting People, making weekly visits to nursing homes, where residents hug and stroke them for hours. Occasionally, Salty will take them for rides, harnessed to their wheelchairs instead of the sleds his ancestors pulled in Siberia.
The family's houseboat is a comfortable, two-room space dominated by Salty and Bear's photographs, certificates and toys, along with needlepoint pillows, plaques and figurines of Samoyeds.
McCarthy has retired from a job in marketing and promotion and stays with the dogs while his wife works as the finance manager at Scarritt Lincoln Mercury car dealership.
Even on chilly days, the heat is never turned on at home in deference to the dogs' double-fur coats. They sleep side by side in crates at the foot of the McCarthys' bed. Two bowls of ice are kept nearby. Both dogs will creep from their cages late at night to rest their heads in the ice, an atavistic nod to generations of Samoyeds that slept in the Arctic snow.
Salty is oblivious to the drama of the past week, tussling with Bear on the floor, their fur blurred like a field of snow.
"We know they're dogs, not people," Charles McCarthy said.
"But they're our sweet boys," Mrs. McCarthy said.
As disappointed as the McCarthys are that Salty will not make his debut at Westminster this year, they have no regrets about declining it.
"It's rare for 2-year-olds to compete at that level," said Charles McCarthy. "Next year, definitely."
He and his wife hug the dogs, and as Charles McCarthy sings, Salty lifts his head high, a champion still, and lets go a full-throated howl.