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Putting on the dogs

It is a mistake of epic proportions, and Carol Herr has just minutes to undo it.

She peers at the box: Just for Men brush-in color gel, natural jet black.

Then she turns to the dog. He is a champion beagle with woebegone eyes _ and a streak of misplaced black dye down the side of his precious shiny coat.

His owners have goofed.

A dozen dogs are in Herr's motor home, including a dachshund named Efa whose ears need to be combed and poofed, and a Kerry blue terrier named Ashley whose silver ringlets need to be trimmed and combed and blown out.

But the beagle needs to go before the judges in 15 minutes. Time is running out.

Herr tries a brown oil stick, then lighter fluid, hoping the ether will work out the dye. She shakes her head in frustration. Someone suggests peroxide, but Herr looks at her watch. She needs to get to work on the dachshund, who must compete in 10 minutes.

Quietly, she tells the beagle's owners to leave the dog out of today's competition. Reputations are at stake here, not only the dog's, but hers. Better to not show the dog than to have the judges catch the dye, a huge no-no in dog-showing circles.

Later, Herr tells a friend the beagle may be out of the entire circuit. "I'm sick about it," she says.

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In the next two weeks, Herr will travel a circuit of 17 dog shows in central and western Florida, including a national championship show this weekend in Tampa.

Dog owners who want championship titles hire her to make their dogs winners.

At 59, Herr has been primping dogs her entire adult life, nearly four decades, going back to when she worked in warranty administration for Cadillac in Michigan.

Now she lives in Summerfield, just south of Ocala, and travels the country in her motorhome, usually with 16 or so dogs in tow. For this, she earns about $30,000 to $50,000 a year. Some professional handlers take on more dogs and earn up to $100,000.

Dog owners turn their pets over to her for as long as two years at a stretch. She has seen them mortgage homes and lose spouses to keep a dog competing.

Sometimes, she has to look an owner in the eye and tell him that she won't take the dog. It doesn't have solid enough hips or thick enough ankles to be a champion.

Herr should know. She has bred all manner of dogs and co-owns the No. 3 beagle in the country, a champion named P.T. Cruiser.

All the dogs require constant primping to keep their coats in top shape. Some terriers must be plucked regularly with a stripping knife (it sounds worse than it is) so their coats come in newer, thicker and coarser. A poodle can take six hours of grooming before a show, its cottony fur fluffed with hair spray and blow-dried into an Afro on its head, ankles, chest, hind quarters and tail.

"It's a beauty contest," Herr said. "I mean, you want your dog to look as pretty and cute as can be."

Most of us look at a dog and think, "Awww, how cute." Experts see a bulky head or a short neck. Good breeders know they have to find a dog with a small head or a long neck to work the defects out of the next line of dogs.

It's not uncommon to turn a corner at a dog show and find people huddled around a pair of dogs in the midst of puppy love.

It's also not unusual to hear a conversation like this ringside at a dog show:

Herr, on a Parson Russell terrier: "Look at his rear end. It's really, really bad."

Dog owner Linda Cranford: "Oh, God in heaven, it's horrible."

Or Cranford, about a beagle: "He's got an awful head on him."

Herr: "Yeah, that first one is heavy-headed, and I don't like his ankles. . . . Those eyes have been fixed."

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Cranford wants her dog Abbey _ short for Thunder Hill Abbey Road _ to be among the top five Parson Russell terriers in the nation and earn a trip to the premiere Westminster Kennel Club dog show in Madison Square Garden.

It will probably cost her thousands of dollars, but she says she has the money. She will spend $2,500 alone to show two dogs in Florida this month.

Abbey, a prissy dog with a rough white coat that most of us know as a Jack Russell terrier, won her championship in seven or eight shows. To be among the top five, she needs to travel from show to show to earn points. The dogs with the most points at the end of the year win the top spots.

That's where Herr comes in.

Herr amasses points by the number of other dogs she beats. And Herr beats a lot of other dogs.

Some owners grumble that judges are partial to professional handlers, who represent about 20 to 30 percent of those in the show ring. They say it's political.

"It gives the dog the upper hand," said Jackie Newman of St. Petersburg, who hired Herr to show three miniature schnauzers. "Sometimes the judges don't look at the dog. They look up the lead."

Judges and handlers acknowledge a bias, but they say it's because handlers know their stuff.

"(Herr is) paid for her expertise, and she knows what the judge is looking for," said Zell vonPohlman, a dog breeder from Jacksonville who has been judging shows for a decade. "And she knows how to hide the bad things and accentuate the good things."

VonPohlman's job is to make sure that owners and handlers don't take the sleight of hand too far. When he can't run his fingers through a dog's coat because too much gook is on it, he has ordered the dog's handler to brush it out. He has yanked out fake hair pieces and disqualified dogs for dyed hair. He has ignored a Chinese crested that is supposed to be hairless but is clearly not _ with telltale razor burns because it has been shaved to make it look hairless.

"I said, "Lady, how would you like it if I shaved your ass like that?' " vonPohlman said.

American Kennel Club rules forbid foreign substances. But walk past the poodle or the Shih Tzu ring and you'll find owners wielding hair spray bottles while applying the finishing touches on their dogs.

Apparently, many judges look the other way.

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Cranford, a 59-year-old retired life insurance heir from the mountains of North Carolina, drove to DeLand last week to watch Herr show her dogs, Abbey and Shooter. Cranford invested $600 for an ad featuring Abbey and Herr in Dog News, a common practice in dog-showing circles. It's kind of the way actors and movie studios promote themselves for Academy Awards.

The night before the show, Cranford hung out at Herr's place to check in on her dogs. "Do you think (Abbey) looks okay?" Cranford asked.

"I think she looks great," Herr replied. "I hate her tail, though. It's sticking out all over the place. It's getting moussed."

The next day, Herr juggled 10 dogs. Two were a priority. Cranford's terrier, Abbey, needed to start piling on the points, and Ashley, the Kerry blue terrier, needed three points to finish her championship. Then Herr could send her home and she would have one less dog to handle.

In the grooming room, Herr placed Abbey's head through a noose on her grooming table. To one side, a man with scissors looked for stray hairs on a perfectly coiffed white bichon frise. On the other side, a woman worked a pink barrette into a Shih Tzu's sprayed topknot.

Herr smeared chalk onto Abbey's paws and legs, then fluffed up the fur. She trimmed the hair around her toenails and legs, and sprayed her back and tail, pulling it into a perfect little point. She kissed Abbey on the nose and picked her up by her neck and behind, careful not to disturb her underbelly hair.

Herr sized up the competition around the ring and decided to let Cranford show Shooter, her other terrier. Another smooth-coated terrier entered the ring, its legs somewhat yellowed.

"He's dirty," Cranford hissed.

"I know. You should be able to win."

But as Cranford took Shooter around the ring, the dog didn't use the proper gait.

"Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, he may put the puppy up," Herr said from the sideline. "He's got a better topline, and I think he likes it. He's going to go with the puppy. She just lost it."

Sure enough, the judge nodded at another handler, who moved into first place ahead of Cranford.

Before long, Abbey was competing against seven other dogs for best of breed, including her father, the No. 3 Parson Russell terrier in the country, and four other champion dogs.

Herr, dressed in a red business suit and comfortable loafers with shoelaces, half ran, half walked around the ring with the little dog. She sat her on the table and pulled her tail and head up in the perfect dog stance. The judge examined Abbey's teeth and head, her rib cage and legs, felt along her topline.

Herr put the dog down and walked the ring at an angle and back. The dog's gait was perfect.

The judge nodded at Herr. She sighed with relief and explained to Cranford that she needed to focus on Abbey rather than show both dogs. "I was afraid if I didn't give this dog everything, I wouldn't have won," she said.

As the DeLand shows wound down, the owners of the Kerry blue terrier, Ashley, came and picked him up because Herr won him his championship. Another dog joined her menagerie: The owners of a Polish Lowland sheepdog, Fred, dropped him off for Herr's next show stop, in Sarasota.

This weekend in Tampa, Herr will say goodbye to another Kerry blue terrier, Padrick. She has had him with her on the road for two years. Together, they have placed him among the top 10 Kerry blue terriers in the country.

His owner, a sheep farmer in Ocala, has decided to retire him at the ripe old age of 4.

Leonora LaPeter can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or lapetersptimes.com.

DOG DAYS

Central and western Florida are home to a dog show circuit that draws thousands of owners to the area this time of year. The circuit concludes in Brooksville the week after next.

The biggest event is this weekend, at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The AKC/Eukanuba National Championship will be simulcast live on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It pits the top 25 dogs in each breed against one another, some 2,400 dogs competing for more than $225,000 in prize money. The best of show wins $50,000.

To read more about the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, please see today's Weekend section.

Angie Hannen of Jacksonville, a newcomer to the dog show circuit, grooms Lark, a 2-year-old golden retriever. "This is a new hobby," said Hannen, who has undertaken it with her 14-year-old daughter, Amanda.

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