Local English Setters are already show champions, one eyeing Westminster
By Bryan Lund | Photography by Kelvin Andow
At just 21 months of age, English Setter Belle is already leading a double life. At home, she spends her days lounging on owner Lee Afdahl’s lap while her canine brother Douglas, 3 ½, sits on Van Jacobsen’s. Either that or she’s racing around on the acres they live on, collecting straw and sticks in her beautiful undercoat.
In her other life, Belle collects points and awards at dog shows across the nation as GCH CH Ciara N’ Honeygait Belle of the Ball, normally accompanied by her male counterpart, GCHB CH Aerden’s James Paul Douglas CD BN RE CGC.
Those combinations of capital letters before and after their names denote their status as show dogs. In Belle’s case, it’s how she’ll be introduced to the Westminster show community a year from now.
In their Blood
In the meantime, she’s become used to being pampered. She and Douglas get, at a minimum, one bath and blowdry a week. Her undercoat is regularly trimmed up. And on the days when someone drapes towels over their freshly cleaned coats to keep them flat for a show, the pair add even more pep to their stride.
“They can see all our preparations to go to a show. And they are ready to go. They’re like, going wild, because they know they’re going to a show. It’s in their blood,” says Afdahl.
“Let’s be honest, what dog doesn’t like to go in a car?” asks Jacobsen. “But if you start packing dog show paraphernalia, they are like at that back door, like ‘we’re ready, we’re ready, we’re ready.’”
Jacobsen and Afdahl’s adventures in dog showing started in 2016, when they bought Douglas as a pet after losing a beloved pair of dogs 10 days apart. For fun, they entered him in a show, not expecting anything but a good time.
Well-bred as Douglas is, though (his mother had won best of breed at Westminster), he exceeded expectations and gained interest from professional handlers. That was enough for Jacobsen.
“I’ve always had a little competitive edge in me. I’ve shown horses for 40 years and judged horse shows all over the world, so I have that in me.”
In 2017, Belle’s mother was being shown by handler and breeder Amanda Ciaravino. That dog went on to be the number one English Setter in the country by points that year.
Not wanting Douglas to be an only dog, Afdahl and Jacobsen asked for a puppy from her litter. When the litter arrived, Afdahl and Jacobsen got periodic photo updates of the puppies until Jacobsen went to Chicago for a “puppy grading party” and selected Belle.
The rambunctious puppy and Douglas got on instantly, which makes sense; their mothers are littermates.
They started showing Belle at six months old, the youngest allowable age. The American Kennel Club shows have classes for dogs, bitches, and a best of breed competition. There are also different levels of competition.
To compete in big shows like Westminster, a dog is required to win a certain amount of points at the lower levels first. For English Setters, who mature slower than other breeds, this process can take years.
At Belle’s first show, she was Winners Bitch, then won Best of Winners. She was the best non-champion dog there, but had begun accruing points toward becoming one.
After a strategic break from shows, Belle went to the national specialty, or single-breed, show in St. Charles, Illinois in September, handled by Ciaravino.
There, she won Winners Bitch, over about 90 dogs. She competed in Best of Breed, and won Best of Winners. She beat 140 dogs at that show, earning enough points (which are partially based on the number of dogs defeated) to become a “champion.”
She was then moved up, as it’s called, to compete against other champion dogs. At the first two shows in which she could be shown as a champion, she was awarded Best Opposite Sex, besting over 100 dogs, all champions themselves. The dog that beat her is currently the number one dog in the country.
In January, she won eight Best of Breed awards, including shows in Chicago, St. Paul, and Florida.
“We know she’s kind of special,” says Jacobsen.
He isn’t alone in that opinion. Ciaravino’s husband, Vito, grooms Belle for shows, and says he’s reminded of her mother every time she’s on the table.
In the Ring
Aside from one universal rule, that dogs must be “in tact” (not neutered or spayed), every breed is judged on factors specific to the breed. The process for judging each breed is the same at shows, however.
First, dogs and their handlers enter the ring in a trot, then line up. When the judge asks them to “go around,” the dogs and handlers crack around the ring again, then back to a standstill.
The ideal pose at this phase for an English Setter is as follows: both legs under the shoulders, back leg out a bit so the back can slope, and a picked up tail.
The judge usually examines the dog’s eyes, ears, and bite, then goes over the dog with their hands to feel their rib cage, depth of chest and plane.
An English Setter’s ideal plane, as explained by Jacobsen, is the both the top of the head and bridge of the nose to be level as a brick.
“I think she has an absolutely beautiful, stunning head. And that’s kind of a hallmark part of the English Setters. They want a low set ear and a dark eye, and she just has a very feminine pretty head headpiece. I think that’s one of her best traits,” says Jacobsen.
Next, the judge asks the handler to show the dog in motion again, then do a stance that’s a more natural look. After that, the dog is dismissed, and trots back to the end of the line, while still being judged.
Movement is a big part of the criteria. English Setters are bred to be bird dogs, so judges look for a stride that can cover ground without undue energy.
“When you see her in the show, there’s always a lot of energy and a lot of happiness, and their tails wagging constantly because she is happy to do it,” says Afdahl.
The dogs aren’t the only ones happy to find themselves in a show environment.
“It’s a diversion from what we do at home,” says Jacobsen. “You go to the dog show, and you’re kind of in a different little world.”
Part of that world is built by the camaraderie between other owners and handlers. Jacobsen describes it as a sort of regular reunion. In Belle’s case, it’s a family one. Some of her siblings are still being shown, and, according to Afdahl, the siblings remember each other.
Westminster has always been a dream to Jacobsen, a lifelong dog owner. With Belle and Douglas, the chance to represent English Setters on a big stage is prize enough. Not that he doesn’t think Belle’s got a chance, though. Westminster is a specialty show, and judges are allowed to give out awards of merit.
“She’s beaten a lot of those dogs already, you know,” says Jacobsen. “But once Westminster is over, then she’ll be coming home again because she really is our pet.”
Bryan Lund is a writer, ghostwriter, and skier. He lives in Rochester with his cats, Bad and Boujee.