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Woof. Woof. 15,000 times woof.

Annual Florida Gulf Coast Cluster Dog Show draws thousands of dogs to Brooksville from around the country. The winners go on to the Westminster show in New York next month.

BROOKSVILLE — Pat Lombardi tallied entries, “one, two, three ...” en route to 15. Fifteen thousand, that is. That’s how many dogs from Tampa Bay and around the world are competing at the Florida Gulf Coast Cluster Dog Shows, under way at Florida Classic Park, east of Brooksville.

Kennel clubs from Hernando, Pasco and Manatee counties, plus Clearwater and Tampa, combine to make the Jan. 9-19 (except for Jan. 14) show a major competition leading up to the American Kennel Club’s premier event, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden next month.

If dogs aren’t testing themselves for that trip, they’re here in pursuit of winning points to earn a “champion” designation.

From pocket-sized Chihuahuas to 200-pound mastiffs, representatives of up to 120 AKC-acknowledged breeds compete from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in conformation classes, the judging spread over a dozen rings. Dogs, owners and handlers arrive “from all over the U.S., usually a lot from South America and Canada, and we still pull in some from Japan and Asia,” said spokesperson Lombardi.

Professional dog handler Lenny Brown of Atlanta runs the ring with an Australian Shepherd named Tarrot during the Florida Gulf Coast Cluster of Dog Shows held Jan. 9-13 and Jan. 15-19 at Florida Classic Park in Brooksville.
Professional dog handler Lenny Brown of Atlanta runs the ring with an Australian Shepherd named Tarrot during the Florida Gulf Coast Cluster of Dog Shows held Jan. 9-13 and Jan. 15-19 at Florida Classic Park in Brooksville. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

Conformation judging evaluates an animal’s body shape and function compared to the breed’s standard. Spectators usually are owners or potential owners of the particular breed on show.

“If you’re just looking at breeds, you get kind of bored with it,” said show chairwoman Mary Stoltz. “People love to watch the dogs run, the rally, the agility, the obedience, that’s what people come to watch.”

Beyond the show rings on the 50-acre grounds at 5360 Lockhart Road, some 1,500 dogs are expected to test themselves on 100-yard, lure-driven courses, running against the clock. The fast-coursing is open to dogs of any heritage for a $5 entry fee, payable on arrival.

Regardless of the breed to which a show visitor is devoted, one canine family turns heads almost every time: the mastiff.

“They look like lions,” said admirer and owner Jeannie St. John of Odessa, president of the Pasco Kennel Club.

This bullmastiff named Brew takes a break outdoors before showing at the Florida Gulf Coast Classic Cluster of Dog Shows held Jan. 9-13 and Jan. 15-19 at Florida Classic Park in Brooksville.  
Brew is 13 months old and has gotten a little skittish as of late, said owner Lisa Tembley, who is chairman of the Hernando Kennel Club.
This bullmastiff named Brew takes a break outdoors before showing at the Florida Gulf Coast Classic Cluster of Dog Shows held Jan. 9-13 and Jan. 15-19 at Florida Classic Park in Brooksville. Brew is 13 months old and has gotten a little skittish as of late, said owner Lisa Tembley, who is chairman of the Hernando Kennel Club. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

A 4-year-old Neapolitan mastiff named Maximus, owned by John Seibel and Stacey Johnson of Brooksville, won Best of Breed at Westminster in 2019 and has brought attention to the couple’s pack.

Seibel is campaigning a 2-year-old Neapolitan, Ursula, at this year’s Cluster show.

“She’s taken two fourths in working groups,” he said. “She’s exceptional.” Judges have praised her “very wrinkled, very correct head,” among other attributes.

When Seibel viewed his first Neapolitan – it was Max – he told the breeder to take it away. It was too ugly. As an owner now, Seibel says: “So ugly is beautiful.”

St. John is competing with a 3-year-old Tibetan mastiff named Annika, a direct descendant of Tibetan breeding.

“She has long hair and ‘spirit eyes,’” St. John said. The latter are black dots of hair above her eyes, which cover the eyes when closed. “They look like they’re awake when they’re asleep,” she said, a bit of camouflage that helps the breed in its native role as guard dogs.

Lisa Trembley of Spring Hill, past president and show chairman of the Hernando Kennel Club, is competing with a year-old bullmastiff.

“People refer to mastiffs as larger,” said Trembley, “but bullmastiffs are smaller, females 100 to 110 pounds, males 130 to 140.” This branch of the family is more athletic, she said, perhaps to meet the needs of its bred-for challenge, chasing off poachers of farm livestock.

All mastiffs are double-coated and long haired, which accounts for their minimal numbers in oft-steamy Florida. Some breeders in cooler climes shy away from even competing here.

Beagles and their handlers wait their turn during judging at the Florida Gulf Coast Cluster of Dog Shows held Jan. 9-13 and Jan. 15 -19 at Florida Classic Park in Brooksville.
Beagles and their handlers wait their turn during judging at the Florida Gulf Coast Cluster of Dog Shows held Jan. 9-13 and Jan. 15 -19 at Florida Classic Park in Brooksville. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

Up to 100 vendors of all things canine are on hand, selling dog beds, crates, brushes, leashes, and clothing for dogs and their owners. Food vendors offer pizza, specialty sandwiches, beverages and snacks. Admission is free, and parking is $5 per vehicle.

“Bring the whole family or the whole neighborhood,” Stoltz suggested. “I do recommend people bring a chair to sit on and watch the activities. It’s a big property.”

A judging schedule is available at floridaclassicpark.com/clusters-show. Information also is available at (813) 215-3580 or (352) 232-9591.

Contact the writer at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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