By Tim Gardner
Caleb Tolley is a dog lover. And he has taken his passion for man’s best friend to the zenith by competing several of his dogs in numerous talent shows on national and regional levels the past seven years at such places as Houston, TX, Columbus, OH and Raleigh and Hickory, NC.
And in February, the 18-year old resident of the Kalmia community in the far Southern part of Avery County will take his Longhaired Dachshund, Devon, to compete in the most prestigious show of them all—the 143rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at famed Madison Square Garden and Piers 92/94 in New York City, New York before thousands and millions more watching on television.
Ever the adventuresome sort, Tolley considers competing his dogs in shows as an intriguing and irresistible challenge as he goes through the laborious steps of prepping, training and traveling with them.
He has competed many breeds of dogs in shows from Dachshunds to Mastiffs and even a small Pomeranian.
Tolley, the only child of Shelly Pitman and the grandson of Dean and Judy Pitman, explained: “First and foremost, I have a special relationship… a unique bond… with every dog I’ve owned. After I began hearing and reading about dog shows as well as watching them on television, I knew I wanted to compete my dogs in them. I cherish my time with my dogs—especially at shows. But I believe they love competing in them even more than I enjoy entering them in the shows. And it’s truly about teamwork. My show dogs and I are a team.”
The official term for dog shows is conformation — as in, the act of conforming or producing conformity. While a dog show may look like a beauty pageant, it’s not: Dogs are not being compared to each other; they’re being measured by how closely they conform to the standard of their particular breed. Why? Because the closer a dog’s appearance is to the breed’s standard, the better that dog’s ability will be to produce puppies that meet the standard. It’s also the reason why mixed breeds and spayed or neutered purebreds are ineligible to compete.
The size of conformation events range from large all-breed shows, with more than 3,000 dogs entered, to small local specialty club shows that feature only one breed. Each dog is exhibited (“handled”) by its owner, breeder or hired professional (“handler”). Most dogs compete for points toward their American Kennel Club championships. It takes 15 points to become an AKC “Champion of Record.” The maximum number of points awarded at an event is five. Males and females compete separately within their respective breeds.
There are various other eligibility guidelines for entering a dog in a show. Dogs must be six months or older on the day of the show, a breed recognized and registered by the AKC. And dogs must be in sound health and up-to-date on vaccinations.
Judges will rate dogs (and their owners or handlers), on various attributes. A dog should know basic behavior like how to walk on a leash on your left side and how to stack. The dog should also be very comfortable around other dogs. On top of taking classes, dog owners are encouraged to visit parks to practice the dog’s socialization skills. Finally, before its first show, the dog should be well-groomed—think trimmed nails, tangle-free fur and no dirt on him or her.
There are seven dog groupings and the winners of those groups compete against each other for the title of the show’s over-all best. But winning one’s group is honorable enough to merit automatic fame across the show-dog coterie. But to become the over-all winner after beating out various fellow group champions and often hundreds and sometimes, thousands, of other canines for the championship is the colossal dog show honor.
Tolley’s dogs have reached elite milestones in many shows as they have won numerous events, including his English Coon Hound, Coco, taking top honors in Hound Dog group competition and then claiming “Overall Best” at the Carolina Classic Show in Hickory in 2015.
Most recently, Tolley competed his Longhaired Dachshund, Georgia, in the AKC’s Royal Canin Show in Orlando, FL last December, with his mother and grandmother accompanying him and the canine there.
Also in 2018, Georgia won “Best Junior” at an all-Dachshund show in Columbus and at the Houston World Series of Dog Shows. And the same year, Tolley’s Whippet Hound, Winnie, won “Best Junior” at the Mid-Atlantic Hound Association Show in Raleigh.
Another Longhaired Dachshund owned by Tolley named Wilbur, competed at Westminster last year. Tolley had to win the Seven Best Juniors with Wilbur over other junior handlers, who were his age or younger, by showing the correct features of the breed. The competition judge picks the junior who shows the dog the way the breed standard mandates. For example, Tolley had to show the forechest of the Dachshund and its neck. He then had to move the dog at the correct pace so that its movement is what the breed standard calls for. Then, the judge selected the junior who did the best showing his or her dog to the standard and it advanced on to the Junior Showmanship category.
During his tenure showing dogs, Tolley has gained acclaim as a highly-accomplished pundit of competition dogs. He has been featured during a segment about such on American Kennel Club Television.
While some Best-In-Show recipients can earn awards, such as the massive $50,000 offered for claiming the AKC National Championship, and other dog shows offer scholarships to winners who attend college or are in high school planning to attend college, most rarely offer monetary prizes. Sometimes a trophy, a polished pewter bowl or a related prize is given to owners of winning show dogs. “While winning a lot of money would be awesome, dog show entrants don’t generally focus on prizes,” Tolley declared. “It’s about the thrill of competing and hopefully, winning. In a dog showing, a successful day is absolutely unforgettable and makes you so happy and proud. That’s what it’s all about.”
But still, just competing is expensive.
“Depending on the number of shows you go to, it can run into many thousands of dollars,” Tolley, a senior honor roll student and cheerleader at Mitchell High School noted. He estimates that he spends several thousand dollars per year on shows and admitted that he has “worked hard and greatly sacrificed to raise the necessary money to have his dogs compete in them.”
This can add up to a really large sum of money for each show when you combine the costs of traveling to out-of-town shows, hotel bills, dog show entry fees and for the required professional handler, whose job is to guide a dog around a show ring during the whole show. Outside of the arena, a handler has the responsibility of caring for, feeding, training and generally preparing a dog for its particular show. Handlers range in price from $100 to $300 or more per show, depending on their experience level.
Maintenance costs vary by breed as well. Tolley raises and takes care of his own dogs when they are not in shows and it takes him a long time to get them ready to compete. He grooms his dogs himself and said the most expensive part of taking care of the breed’s coat is conditioner, which runs approximately $25 to $30 per bottle. And as anyone who has dogs can attest, the cost of feeding them daily can also run into a lot of money.
Yet despite this deluge of expenses, many owners remain committed to putting their dogs in shows, even without much of a chance of recouping their financial investments.
Tolley compared the experience of showing dogs to that of parents watching their kids succeed academically. He interjected: “There’s not much prize money for the child doing well at school, but you take pride in the child doing well in their classes.”
Tolley added that his ultimate desire is for one of his dogs to win the Westminster Show. For a show dog, winning “Best In The Show” at Westminster is like winning a tennis match at Wimbledon, college football’s Rose Bowl, the final game of college basketball’s March Madness or professional football’s Super Bowl. It is the most anticipated, watched and esteemed dog show championship that can be won.
“Just to have had the opportunity to compete a dog at Westminster was an amazing experience,” said Tolley. “It’s a dream for every dog owner as it is for a dog handler to compete at Westminster. But winning a group competition there and especially its over-all championship would be a pinnacle achievement.”
Dog shows also offer a more practical purpose for dog enthusiasts: breed awareness. Tolley is an advocate for breeds to become recognized by the AKC and he shows his dogs as a purpose to continue to generate excitement about them.
In the past, the AKC has been criticized for not enforcing stricter rules on breeders and failing to punish those who breed dogs without properly taking care of them.
But, others maintain, that when breeders handle litters responsibly, providing high standards of care and finding good homes for their puppies, they help with the long-term preservation of the breeds.
Tolley plans to continue raising dogs and competing them in shows as his finances will allow. And he wants to eventually move to Manhattan in New York City and work as a professional dog handler. “I’m working feverishly to make both realities,” he revealed.
Tolley said a dog handler in training must first work under the tutelage of a professional handler. An all-breed handler is someone who doesn’t show just one breed—but any dog from any of the seven groups. “I worked for Arvind DeBraganca, an all-breed handler based in Bell, Florida who is one of the best at his profession,” Tolley shared. “He has been active in the sport a long time and I aspire to be a handler with skills like his. I will continue to work with him. And I especially want to learn more from him about dachshunds because in the dog show world, he is considered to be the most knowledgeable about that breed because of the success he has had in the ring with many show-winning, smooth-coated female Dachshunds.”
Despite so much work involved with show competitions, Tolley said he remains mindful that the first priority for him and his dogs are always to have fun together at shows.
But he concluded that “A competitive spirit and real desire to win is surely beneficial, too.”