Sunday, May 27, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 12

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on July 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 19

When dogs fly: Locals train their pets and prepare for American Kennel Club competition on the Central Coast


As soon as Sullivan realized that Toby was at Maramonte Park in Sana Maria, the barking commenced. The two dogs are buddies, so they immediately began chasing each other about the green grass there, Toby squeaking out barks as Sullivan bound just out of the smaller dog’s reach.

All that romping might give someone the wrong impression, but these dogs are quite well trained. They’re both show dogs that compete in agility trials and for show in American Kennel Club competitions.

Being playful doesn’t preclude a dog like Sullivan from competing, according to the dog’s owner David Swinson, who’s also president of the Santa Maria Kennel Club (SMKC). Swinson handles Sullivan while competing at shows—like the SMKC’s show in Camarillo on the weekend of July 7 to 9 or the upcoming Lompoc Valley Kennel Club (LVKC) Dog Show on July 29 and 30—and explained how different his dog behaves when it’s time to compete.

“He’s a whole other dog when I put this on,” Swinson said as he fitted a show collar around Sullivan’s neck.

Immediately, the Australian Shepherd’s demeanor changed as Swinson paced him across the grass. The bounding gait was replaced by a more measured saunter, and Sullivan’s eyes were glued to Swinson’s face.

Sullivan is just a few points from earning his championship with the American Kennel Club, Tracey Swinson (David’s wife) explained. Some owners hire handlers to show their dogs at shows, she explained, but not the Swinsons. Showing your own dog comes with challenges, she said, and so practice is essential.

“Most of the people you see are professional handlers, and most of them get paid very well because they are successful and they know how to get the most out of the dog,” she said. “So when you’re an owner/handler, you have to have a really good dog.”

The Swinsons will be just two among hundreds of owners, handlers, and of course canines that will descend on Lompoc at the end of July for the LVKC Dog Show. For 40 years now, Lompoc has been a destination for handlers looking to earn some accolades for their purebred dogs during the summer. 

Dog decades

The first of the LVKC’s dog shows was in 1974, and they have continued most years ever since, explained Pete DeSoto, past president and founding member of the chapter. DeSoto was instrumental in beginning the annual show in Lompoc and has seen it grow over the decades.

Lisa Wilson is the vice president of the Santa Maria Kennel Club and competes with her miniature American shepherd Toby, both in agility competitions and for show. Agility trials include hurdle jumps and other challenges.

He was also quite active for a number of years showing dogs and as a judge for American Kennel Club shows across the country. Today, health concerns keep DeSoto from traveling and doing anything too strenuous, but he still does plenty of the organizing for the event year round.

“Everything you do for the dog show, you do all year long, like hiring a judge,” DeSoto said. “You have to arrange for permits, toilets, barbecues—it takes a lot of time and effort to put everything together.”

The show happens at Ryon Park, a large, grassy field near Lompoc’s downtown. It’s a busy time of year for Lompoc, DeSoto said, when hotels are booked and camper trailers fill the parking area of Ryon Park.

Hundreds compete across the two-day competition, and a lot needs to be managed.

“And you always end up with a situation where one of your vendors or judges can’t make it and you have to bring in a substitute,” DeSoto said. “If you notice, a lot of the judges are elderly, or are getting elderly—for example, me. And sometimes you get so sick you can’t make your commitment.”

DeSoto said American Kennel Club chapters  are always looking for younger members who want to join or help out with the dog show.

One local, Jeff Lee, helps DeSoto each year as a facility coordinator for the show. He basically leads the ground crew, setting up the parking lot and showing spaces with plenty of volunteer help. He’s been at it for 15 years now, he said, and follows roughly the same formula each year to make the show happen.

“It depends a lot on entries. If we’ve got more bigger breed dogs, we will set the rings up bigger, and the same goes for the smaller breed dogs,” Lee said. “We just kind of take a step back and base it on the entries we get.”

The hurdle height in agility trials changes depending on the dog, Lisa Wilson said, noting that Toby is in the miniature category of his breed.

The show has grown in just the time he’s been involved, Lee said, and many of the attendees are returning competitors.

Judges come from all over the U.S., and sometimes from other countries. They’re selected based on their expertise in certain breeds, DeSoto explained. DeSoto was a judge himself for years after he tired of breeding and showing poodle breeds. Judges have an American Kennel Club standard for each breed in mind, he explained, considering everything from the paws to teeth.

Serious competitors and handlers may actually decide which dog to compete with based on their knowledge of the judge, DeSoto said. When the show collar goes on and the handler paces the animal around the ring, the judge scrutinizes every aspect of the animal’s locomotion, he explained. The competitors at the Lompoc show will be completely focused on making the best of their moment with their judge.

“When you’re showing a dog, the judge is going to look at that dog moving,” he said, “How he puts his feet down. How his shoulders look when his feet hit the ground. Are they limping or moving funny? The feet have to be straight forward and back—they check all that out.”

Running in packs

Dog clubs help each other out, especially when it comes time for a dog show. Just like the SMKC doing its show in Camarillo with an American Kennel Club chapter local to that area, the LVKC welcomes other chapters and associations to make use of the dog show grounds and equipment the two days before the club event.

“He’s a whole other dog when I put this on,” Dave Swinson said after fitting Sullivan’s show collar around his neck. Strict obedience is required while competing for show.

Lompoc’s show is an all breed dog show, but the events on July 27 and 28 are for specialty breeds, mostly hounds, led by the Western Sighthound Combine Specialties. Under that umbrella, groups like the Irish Wolfhound Association of the West Coast get to have their own show, explained association President Donna Drake.

“A specialty club is a club that is for one specific breed of dog, and there are as many specialty clubs as there are approved AKC dog breeds,” she said. “The show that we have in Lompoc on Thursday is called a specialty because it’s only our breed. The ring we’re in will be one breed, and in Ryon Park there will be other breeds that will have their specialty, where only their breed will show.”

David Swinson of the SMKC described the dog showing and competition world as “clannish,” meaning that breeders, handlers, and competitors usually become obsessed with one or a few breeds. That’s why associations crop up for just about every breed of dog.

But for the organizers of the LVKC Dog Show like DeSoto or Lee, they know that welcoming these enthusiasts will help ensure a good turnout at the club’s show on the weekend.

“We get a lot of different specialties to come in and do their thing,” Lee said, “with the unofficial understanding being that they’re going to participate in our show as well, which is kind of a standard thing at these shows.”

And during the LVKC Dog Show, groups like the Irish Wolfhound Association of the West Coast, the Greyhound Club of America, and the San Angeles Saluki Club offer special prizes to participants that win Best in Breed for their preferred breed. But everyone is vying for one coveted prize—Best in Show.

All for the accolades

The winners in the Best in Breed categories go on to compete for Best in Show, which only one dog earns each year.

Santa Maria Kennel Club President Swinson’s dog, Sullivan, is an Australian shepherd he competes in both agility trials and for show, and is just a few points from earning a championship.

None of the awards come with a cash prize, but rather a ribbon and some kind of ornament, like a plate or small sculpture. It’s all about the bragging rights and accruing enough points to earn your dog a championship. A championship opens the door to a grand championship, or eventually a silver, gold, or bronze medal.

“Best in Show is a huge, huge accomplishment,” David Swinson said. “Everybody wants to get Best in Show.”

Even the dogs get excited, he explained. Sometimes, when the winner is announced, the winning dog may jump with joy, he said, not to mention the handler.

The SMKC’s vice president, Lisa Wilson, shows her dog Toby, a miniature American shepherd, and said that he knows how serious competition is. It’s a communication that happens between the handler and dog via the leash, she said, and Toby knows when he’s about to compete in either agility or for show based on the kind of collar he’s wearing.

The dogs are almost always well behaved at dog shows, David said. But things can get tense between handlers who specialize in the same breed, he explained.

“Everybody knows each other and for the most part is friendly,” he said, “until they step into the ring. That’s when you hope somebody trips.”

Owners and handlers work so hard to earn their dog a championship distinction because it garners recognition for the breeder, the handler, and owner, but especially for the dog as a representative of their breed. That’s why males and females that compete for show are not neutered/spayed. Some owner/handlers dabble in breeding too, like Drake with the Irish Wolfhound Association of the West Coast.

Check out the show
The Lompoc Valley Kennel Club Dog Show happens July 29 and 30 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at Ryon Park, 800 W. Ocean Ave., Lompoc. More info: 736-2322.

The LVKC’s DeSoto remembers his years breeding and showing miniature poodles before he began judging. The dogs become like family members, he said, even after they retire from competition.

“One of the problems with showing dogs is you end up with too many,” DeSoto said. “Because you have a champion, you don’t want to sell it, you want to perpetuate your breed, so you do. And you end up with 20 dogs, like I did.”

The Swinsons have several dogs at home, including four Australian Shepherds. One is a 13-year-old female who’s retired from competition after earning a championship. At that time she was the No. 7 Australian shepherd in the world, they said.

All their dogs sleep in crates at night, except for the “finished champion,” Tracey said—she gets to sleep wherever she wants. But all of their dogs are family, they both said, no matter how well they do in competition for show, agility trials, or other performance categories.

“Our dogs are all house dogs,” Tracey said. “I would love to come back as one of our dogs.”

“I would say that 99.9 percent of people that show dogs, they are pets first and show dogs second,” David said.

Competition is usually a weekend affair, David said, and there are plenty of dog shows to travel to throughout the year. It’s the connection and shared experience with their pets, whether going for a walk or running agility drills, that means the most.

“It’s a blast,” he said. “They love it; I love it.”

Contact Managing Editor Joe Payne at

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