For one local woman, it’s all about Dirt
Published 8:48 am Monday, November 23, 2015
On Wednesday, 20-year-old Elizabethton High School graduate Samantha Stafford and her Dalmatian, Dirt, received a very special invitation.
They have been invited to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York in February.
“I feel very excited,” she said. “This will be my first visit to New York, and I’m a little anxious. Everybody has dreams, and at the beginning of this year, I told mom, somewhat jokingly, that if I were to get Dirt into the top five in breed points, then we have to find a way to get to Westminster, and we’ve done it.”
Her mother, Linda, said for this to happen for a 3-year-old dog with its owner, rather than a professional trainer, is something that just doesn’t happen often.
“She’s always said, ‘Go big or go home,’ and this is our dream come true,” said Linda. “On our website, it says dreams do come true, and that’s this for us.”
Receiving this invitation did not happen overnight. Samantha began showing Dalmatians at American Kennel Club events when she was just 10 years old. She has competed in the junior showmanship ring and in the breed ring and now professionally handles other owners’ breeds.
Samantha just turned 20, and graduated from EHS in 2014, during which time she was competing with Dirt. He won Best in Futurity when she was only a high school junior. Somehow, she also made time to play flute and piccolo in the Betsy Band, which won at state three times.
“It’s quite an accomplishment for someone her age to be competing in Westminster,” said Linda. “Only the top of each particular breed in the nation gets invited.”
Samantha said a lot of people told her she couldn’t do it, and now, she says to them, “Just watch.”
They are scheduled to show on February 15, and if they win in the breed ring at Pier 92/94, they will go on to compete in the non-sporting group in Madison Square Garden.
Samantha has to prepare him for Westminster by keeping Dirt in top shape: brushing him every day, keeping his nails trimmed and getting regular exercise. He runs on a treadmill four times weekly, which Linda said he loves.
“Lots of time and developing a bond with the dog goes into training as well as trust and a certain amount of drive,” said Linda. “We see Dirt as his own champion — he shows himself; he’s kind of a natural.”
Dirt has been ranked in the top five in the nation for the entire year. Not only that, he has earned the title of International Best in Show Champion as well as Multi-best in Specialty Show. He won Best in Futurity at the 2013 Dalmatian Club of America National Specialty. He also won ten supported entry shows to date. His breed points ranked him number three Dalmatian in the nation.
Specialty shows attract the best Dalmatians in an area, and Dirt has won five Best in Specialty Shows.
“Usually, in the lifetime of a dog, you’re lucky to get one of those, and he has five at the age of three,” said Linda.
These days, Linda said, it is rare to see the dog owner as the handler because of time constraints for owners and because of the highly competitive nature of the sport.
“People have professional handlers that owners pay to show and care for their dogs,” said Linda.
But never mind that —the consecutive number of Dalmatians Dirt beats year-round accumulate to qualify him for the top five, and ultimately to be a candidate at Westminster.
Despite being a full-time business finance student at the University of Tennessee, Samantha takes Dirt to training class every week and to various national shows throughout the year. Linda said when Samantha was out of school for the summer, she showed every weekend except for perhaps two or three weekends, and most shows last four days.
They both promised each other if training and traveling to shows ever ceased to be fun, they would quit, Linda said. But apparently, they aren’t the only ones that enjoy the competitions.
“Dirt makes this high-pitched tone every time we get in the car because he gets so excited,” said Linda. “When we’re in a hotel, he’ll stand by the door looking anxious, like he’s wondering ‘Why aren’t leaving yet.?’”
For those interested in getting into the sport of dog showing, the Staffords have a few tips. Samantha said the first step is researching and identifying the breed that they would like by going to local dog shows. Then, she recommended finding a mentor. Linda suggests utilizing resources provided by the AKC, like breed links on its website and contacts for finding reputable breeders that do health testing.
Samantha said dogs are judged based on breed standards, which are their build, behavior, coat and markings, for example.
“The most important things to us are maintaining health, preserving the breed and having fun,” said Samantha.
For more information on their training, progress and ventures, follow them on Facebook at Enchanted Hart Kennel or on their website at www.enchantedhartdals.com.