Best in Show

After a decade in Biloxi, the Gulf Coast Classic Dog Show prances home to Mobile.

DOG NAME: Luna • FORMAL NAME: CH Eclipse’s Over the Moon DCAT • BREED: Berger Picard • AGE: 4-1/2 years • OWNERS: Jenni Wren and partner Jeremy Middlebrooks

On September 4, dogs and owners from almost every state will descend on Mobile to participate in the Gulf Coast Classic Dog Show, presented by the Mobile Kennel Club and the Singing River Kennel Club, at The Grounds. The five-day event, which will draw an estimated 1,000 dogs, is a show licensed by the American Kennel Club (AKC) that will feature some of the top dogs and owners/handlers in the country, many of whom have competed in the esteemed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show held in New York City.

This will be the 98th annual dog show the Mobile Kennel Club has hosted, a fact that might surprise many Mobilians. “We’ve held shows all over Mobile throughout our long history,” says Brian Carberry, chairman of the Mobile Kennel Club, which was founded in 1921. Venue limitations have required the show to be held in Biloxi for the last decade. This year, however, the time-honored event is homeward bound.

“The show is going to be bigger than it’s ever been,” Carberry says. In an effort to engage the public, the 2019 edition will include performance events for the first time, allowing anyone to register a dog to compete in activities such as a barn hunt, coursing ability tests and dock diving. The idea, Carberry says, is to allow your dog the opportunity to do what it might have been bred to do.

And of course, the event will include the Westminster-style conformation show, in which beloved and exotic dogs of all breeds compete over several days in the hopes of being named the Best in Show. Visitors can watch as judges compare each dog to its breed standard set forth by the AKC.

- Sponsors -

“The dogs aren’t competing against one another,” Carberry explains. “They’re competing against the breed standard.”

Parking and admission for the show are free, and once inside, the selection of dog treats and products for sale will make any dog owner drool.

“Dogs give people such unconditional love,” Carberry says. “People need to see and understand that love.” Here, familiarize yourself with some of the faces, wet noses and unmuzzled feelings you might encounter at the Gulf Coast Classic Dog Show.

DOG NAME: Wufus • FORMAL NAME: CH RingLeader the Rascal in the Gang • BREED: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel • AGE: 5 years • OWNERS: Cheryl and Ben Schoenfeld

Meet the Brood

Ben Schoenfeld, like most owners at a dog show, is a hobbyist. And although many owners prefer to hire a professional to present their dogs in the ring, he doesn’t. “The majority of dog shows are made up of professional handlers,” says Schoenfeld, a 24-year veteran of the dog showing circuit. “Using a handler is well worth it. It’s just — I wouldn’t have any fun with someone else showing my dog.”

Having fun is the whole idea, after all. Schoenfeld, who works in insurance sales, says he’s gone from “fishing to hunting to golf and now dogs,” and it’s safe to say this hobby has stuck. Ben and wife Cheryl operate RingLeader Cavaliers out of Daphne, where they breed championship-quality Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, such as the 5-year-old Wufus sitting in his lap.

“Wufus is just a cool dude,” Schoenfeld says. “He relaxes all the time.” But preparing Wufus for a show is anything but relaxing, which is why many are surprised to learn that dog shows rarely involve prize money. The day before an event, Schoenfeld bathes and grooms Wufus before slipping him into a drying coat, which the dog wears overnight in order to keep his hair in place. Depending on the show’s location and the opening ring time, the next morning could involve a 4 a.m. start, followed by hundreds of miles of driving and a handful of nights booked at a hotel. What, then, keeps drawing him back to the show ring?

“We’ve met wonderful people from all over the world, and they’ve become lifelong friends,” he says.

NAME: Sonia • FORMAL NAME: UKC CH Ebonies Pride Sonia Ares • BREED: black Russian terrier • AGE: 5-3/4 years • OWNER: Cecilia Charles

Aside from seeing well-known and beloved breeds, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, visitors to the Gulf Coast Classic Dog Show might also encounter breeds they’ve only seen on television (or have never seen at all). The black Russian terrier certainly falls into this category.

“The Russians invented this breed,” says Cecilia Charles of Ebonies Pride kennel in Wiggins, Mississippi. The state-owned Red Star Kennel, in Moscow, developed the terrier as a working dog, with the original purpose of guarding prisons, gulags and Russian military installations during and after World War II. They’ve come a long way since.

“They love people,” Charles says, noting that the strongest evidence of their Russian past is the shaggy hair covering their faces, which would have been a valuable trait during the Siberian winters.

Charles began showing black Russian terriers in 1994, just one year after they were first brought to the United States. On top of regular bathing, nail trimming and teeth brushing, Charles, who also works as a manager at McDonald’s, will groom a dog three days in a row leading up to a show. “And they know when we’re getting ready for a show,” she says. “They see certain items go into the car, and they start prancing around.”

It’s a ritual that dog, and owner, can enjoy. “It’s relaxing when I take them down to my grooming room. I’ll stick a movie in and work on [the dogs] for a couple of hours, just combing them out and trimming them — it’s a break away from the hustle and bustle of the world.”

While show prep can be a tranquil, solitary process, the weekend of a show, for many owners, is a social event. “You get very close to people, especially owners in your breed,” says Julie Huffine of Vancleave, Mississippi. That’s why Huffine often finds herself with owners of French bulldogs like her very own Mykha, a 2-year-old grand champion.

Each breed and their owners are only in the ring together for maybe 20 minutes. “The owners and handlers spend the rest of the day as friends,” says Huffine, “eating together, sitting around the ring together, barbecuing at someone’s RV. It’s like a whole new family.”

Huffine, who’s shown dogs for a combined total of about 20 years, admits it’s a “very expensive hobby,” but she’s found a relatively low-maintenance breed. “There’s not a whole lot to do with a Frenchie,” she says of pre-show grooming. “I’ll bathe her, trim her toenails, shave her little whiskers around her face and eyes and inside her ears.” On the day of a show, Huffine brushes Mykha and puts a dab of coconut oil on her nose to shine it up.

DOG NAME: Mykha • FORMAL NAME: GCH CH Rickly’s Nest-Lee’s Kandu Little Goddess • BREED: French bulldog • AGE: 2 years • OWNER: Julie Huffine

“And oh my gosh, she turns it on,” Huffine says. “She knows where we’re going before we leave the house.”

One misunderstanding many people have about dog show folks, Huffine says, is that the owners, focused so strongly on their dogs’ presentation, lack compassion. “That’s so far from the truth,” Huffine says. “These dogs are adored. They’re living in the house, sleeping in the bed … [Mykha] and I have bonded so much going to these shows. I just love her so much, and she loves me.”

For Larry Gibbs, the caring relationship between pet and owner is a major motivator, but there’s another force that so pervades the dog showing world that it’d be irresponsible to leave it out.

“I like the competition,” Gibbs says. “I enjoy going into the ring and having my dog named the best longhaired Dachshund in the group.”

Gibbs, an adjunct English instructor at the University of South Alabama, was invited to a dog show in Atlanta about 10 years ago, where he gravitated to the longhaired Dachshund. “They looked so beautiful and so unusual because of their size and long hair.”

He located a breeder and bought his first longhaired pup shortly thereafter. “The first time I walked into a ring with him was my first time to be in a ring with any dog. And we won that day,” Gibbs says. “I kind of got hooked on it.”

Breeders, like the one Gibbs found after that Atlanta show, will often use a theme when naming the puppies of a new litter. Newton was part of a litter of Dachshunds named after famous scientists.

DOG NAME: Newton • FORMAL NAME: Newton Von Links V Raab SL • BREED: longhaired Dachshund • AGE: 10 months • OWNER: Larry Gibbs

Gibbs does some of the pre-show grooming but says “a couple ladies in Grand Bay” help with the final touches. “Newton has a few cowlicks on him, places where the hair doesn’t lay down like I would want it to, so I’ll use some hairspray on him and a curling iron,” he says. “His personality changes the minute we go in the ring. He affects a different gait when I’m showing him. He knows he’s being watched.”

With 10 years of experience, Gibbs has certainly become a familiar face at shows across the Southeast, but he’s still got 40 years to go if he wants to match the longevity of Cynthia Wallen.

Wallen was 12 years old when she saw her first Pomeranian, which was owned by a couple down the street. “It was one of the prettiest things I’d ever seen in my life,” she says, and she told her parents she wanted one. “We were basically farmers, and my dad thought that was the silliest thing he’d ever heard.”

It would be years before Wallen bought herself a Pomeranian, and in 1969, she entered the show ring for the first time. A Mobile resident, Wallen is a retired regional sales manager who still works as a part-time insurance agent, but she’s decided “it’s time for me to relax a little.” Unfortunately, as the hospitality chairperson for the show in September, she is prohibited from presenting Marbles and Duncan at the event.

DOG NAME: Duncan • FORMAL NAME: BeauJames Darlin Duncan • BREED: Pomeranian • AGE: 1 year • OWNER: Cynthia Wallen

When she is preparing for a show, however, Wallen does all of the grooming, conditioning her dog’s coat for six months leading up to the event, as that’s “the average time it takes to fully bring the coat to its maximum potential.” The cardinal rules of Pomeranian grooming? Use chemical-free shampoo, essential oils and never overcondition.

“People think the dog showing world is an elite club of some kind, and it’s only for the wealthy,” Wallen says of the misconceptions surrounding her hobby. “But sometimes you’re scraping to find the money for show entries or to pay handlers. You do it because you love your dog.

“We may be a bit unusual,” she continues, laughing, “but we’re not elitists.”

While some breeds, like the Pomeranian, require a grooming process six months in the making, others breeds are surprisingly low-maintenance. About a month before a show, Jenni Wren will wash her 4-and-a-half-year-old Berger Picard, named Luna, top. “They’re supposed to have a crispy coat,” she says. On the day of a show, Wren runs a brush through Luna and uses a stripping brush to fluff up her ears — but that’s about it!

When Wren and her partner Jeremy Middlebrooks met a Berger Picard breeder at a show in Orlando, neither had any handling experience. But as part of the agreement when they purchased Luna, the breeder required that the dog participate in at least 10 shows. Middlebrooks, who lives in Magnolia Springs and works in real estate consulting, sought the help of a few professional dog handlers in order to learn the tricks of the trade.

The Berger Picard, an ancient breed developed by sheep farmers in the Picardy region of northern France, is a “quirky and humorous” breed according to Wren. “You have to have a sense of humor to own one,” she says.

Wren and Middlebrooks say one misconception about show dogs is that they’re one-dimensional. “Luna does other things besides run around the ring and turn left,” Wren says. Luna is rarely happier, she points out, than when standing in line to participate in the Fast CAT (Coursing and Ability Test) event, a timed 100-yard dash in which dogs run one at a time, chasing a lure. “She barks the entire time we’re in line.”

Witnessing such happiness is the best part of the experience, Wren says, regardless of Luna’s ranking that day.

“You may lose,” she says, “but you still come home with the best dog.”

Visit for more information.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!