Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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By George, This Dog's Got It: 'Best in Breed' Is at Home at U.Va.

A gigantic black, white and brown tail swings back and forth across the checkered tile floor of the Alderman Library Scholars' Lab as library patrons squeal and rush over. At 2 years old and 140 pounds, George the dog may be one of the lesser-known celebrity athletes at the University of Virginia, but he is unquestionably charismatic.

A Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, George recently won "Best in Breed" at the venerable Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the second-longest-running sporting event in America (behind the Kentucky Derby) and the world's most prestigious dog show.

Like his fellow "Swissys," George is bred to be a farm dog, so at shows he is judged based on his appearance and ability to perform certain breed-specific tasks. Nancy Kechner, an employee of Information Technology Services, who co-owns George with U.Va. Medical Center respiratory therapist Julie Comer and a breeder who lives in Culpeper, said Swissys were intended to herd animals and pull milk carts into town. In Switzerland, they were referred to as "a poor man's horse."

"The way Swissys move is really important, because they're bred to do a farm job, and if they can't move appropriately, they're not going to be able to do the job for which they were bred," Kechner said.

These traditional tasks have influenced the evolution of events like the weight pull, in which a Swissy must pull a weight-laden cart 16 feet in 45 seconds or less.

"Say if you were on a farm and you had a tree that you needed to take down," Kechner said. "Then he would then drag it to wherever you needed it. So that's what the weight pull's about."

George can pull 3,000 pounds, she said.

Although handlers actually present George on the floor at dog shows, Kechner and Comer enjoy traveling to the competitions. Westminster, which annually sells out Madison Square Garden in New York, is a particular favorite. Kechner said the whole city gets excited for it; the top of the Empire State Building takes on the competition's purple and gold colors, and the basement of the hotel in which the dog owners stay is transformed into the "OK Corral," where dogs and people meet during Westminster week. George had his picture taken with about 40 people.

"It's not like anything I've ever been to." Kechner said. "This was just insane. It was insanely fun too. It was like being in a blender."

George, ranked No. 2 nationally in his breed by Canine Chronicle, was invited to compete against the other top-five dogs and other champions based upon his record in prior competitions.

Many factors go into raising a champion dog, Kechner said.

For starters, they need good parents. George's mother is a champion, and both she and his father are listed on the Great Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America's Register of Merit for the competitive success of their offspring.

Then there is diet and exercise. George eats frozen salmon, fresh chicken, kibble, yogurt, pumpkin and olive oil to keep him healthy and his fur looking sleek. He pulls weights at a facility in Stuarts Draft and runs almost every day with the U.Va. women's rugby team, which Kechner coaches.

Rugby player Alanna Rivera, a third-year Spanish and English major in the College of Arts & Sciences, bonded with George when Kechner brought him to matches as a puppy. "He grew up around us, basically," Rivera said.

Now she and a teammate take turns running him around the neighborhood near the house that several team members share. "I just like hanging out with him," Rivera said.

On or off the show floor, George enjoys a pampered life with lots of attention. "There's always the misconception that show dogs are somehow missing something. George has a wonderful life," Kechner said.

Neither Kechner nor Comer had ever owned a show dog before. Kechner had golden retrievers when she was a U.Va. student and then had several Rottweilers; when she started looking for a dog, she wanted a working dog like a Rottweiler, and took a fancy to Swissys.

Kechner and Comer co-own with a breeder another show dog, Sirius, who is George's uncle. Comer said that although they did not set out to acquire show dogs, they knew from the beginning that unless something went wrong, they would compete based on their lineage.

When George gets a little older and less active, he will become a therapy dog, Comer said. He has the personality for it and is big enough for children in hospital beds to hug and people in nursing homes to pet. "He's a fun dog – sort of like a cartoon character," she said.

Kechner also thinks George is preparing well for his future job. "He's seen lots of crutches, being around the rugby team," she said with a grin.

– by Kate Colwell

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