World in Review: Italy

Drama, double-handling, and a Neapolitan superstar.


Just about the only thing that’s certain when you visit dog shows and dog people overseas is that you’ll learn something. You never know exactly what that will be, but it’s never boring.

What I learned during a 10-day visit to Italy this spring was that if we could import the warmth and informality of their shows, even some of their free-wheeling behavior that AKC would frown on, then our shows would be much less anxiously conformist, rules-driven and off-puttingly boring for fanciers who are simply looking for an enjoyable weekend out with their dogs. It’s apparently almost impossible to hit that happy medium, though, and when I spoke to an Italian exhibitor who often visits the US, she was as envious of our shows as I was of many aspects of theirs: she LOVES the fact that American dog shows run like clockwork, everyone knows exactly what they are doing and behaves with decorum — even if that’s mainly because we are afraid the AKC rep will jump down our throats.

Let me tell you, Italian dog shows are VERY different from ours. On the negative side, there was the burly guy who spent at least 10 minutes in the ring, holding up judging and getting increasingly red in the face while arguing with the judge about his dog’s placement. Even the appearance of two show officials didn’t deter him, until he finally stalked out of the ring, pulling off his shirt in frustration and fuming in fat, naked glory…

Nobody except I seemed to think this was anything exceptional: apparently it happens all the time. More sweetly, there was a little girl, probably not more than 4 years old, who showed a dog under me even though she obviously didn’t have a clue what this was about: the dog was incredibly patient, and although it was impossible to get any sense of how it might look under other circumstances, the proud parents were beaming at ringside and the girl was adorable, so who could resist that?

And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Italian double handling, especially of the Working breeds. My ring at one of the all-breed shows was next to the Dobermans, and it was hard to not just stop and stare. Sometimes the double handlers entered the ring, sometimes there were TWO of them for a single dog, and sometimes they bounced a football between them, even threw it to the dog’s handler to keep the dog alert — or, more accurately, foaming at the mouth. How anyone could assess those dogs’ quality during all the noise and frenzy I cannot imagine, but the judge didn’t seem to mind. Paul Lepiane, who took some of the photos accompanying this article, suggested we should allow this type of double handling at American shows for the simple reason that it increases the shows’ entertainment value for spectators…

Doberman Pinschers, by the way, are probably more divergent from ours in conformation than any other breed: much more powerful — or less elegant — than ours. The very pleasant breed specialist judge from Hungary, Erika Skolz, agreed that types are now so far apart that neither can have much use for the other, although she also mentioned that she bred, some years ago, to a half-European, US-born Marienburg dog, and still has that line in her breeding program.

One thing is for certain: it never, ever gets dull at dog shows in Italy. There’s a Babel of European languages, for one thing, and the much higher tolerance for eccentric behavior is extended to oddball, outrageous or just very informal attire worn by exhibitors — and sometimes judges — that kept my eyes popping. Several professional-type handlers (invariably men) wore jackets and wouldn’t look out of place in an American show ring (and many of them were extremely talented), but others were dressed… well, as if this were not a professional look-alike handler contest.

Imagine! It makes sense to dress casually for a dog show, of course, but I have to admit it was an effort not to stare at the judge who wore an outfit consisting of black harem pants, tied at the ankles, with a sort of lace tutu over-skirt, an immensely broad belt that exposed a little flesh both above and below, and an off-the-shoulder top that showed off a couple of colorful tattoos. Add a pair of Roman sandals, huge sunglasses and lots of hair, and you get the picture.

Italy must have been crawling with American dog people this spring. I heard that Peter Green and Beth Sweigart, Pam and David Peat, and Michael Faulkner all had been there before us, and Frank Sabella and Michael Canalizo were expected later. At the Sighthound weekend in Padenghe, near Lake Garda in northern Italy, there was only one other US judge, however: Eileen M. Flanagan of the Carrickaneena Irish Wolfhounds judged both at the Sighthound show and the breed specialty held after the Irish Wolfhound World Congress. However, Jocelyne Gagné from Canada judged not only conformation but also a big lure coursing meet with 177 entries — a record, I’m told, and there was an international panel with English, Finnish and Italian judges, in addition to one each from the US and Canada.

The Sighthound show had big entries in Wolfhounds (113), Whippets (115), Afghan Hounds (81, judged by Mark Cocozza from England, who’s well known in the US) and some of the other breeds. I carried my BOB Whippet, a stunning 12-month old bitch named Sobresalto Ndringhete N’ Dra’, all the way to runner-up BIS, defeated only by a handsome Irish Wolfhound from France, Eragon du Grand Chien de Culann, with the Russian-born Greyhound Ch. Fionn Clann Paramount at Sobers in third place.

At the Wolfhound specialty, Eragon won the CAC again but was defeated for BOB by a powerful Dutch dog, Ch. Skibberdeen’s Rudolph, who won the CC at Crufts earlier this year.

After the Sighthound weekend, we travelled south to Naples, birthplace of pizza, Caruso, Sophia Loren… — and, of course, the Neapolitan Mastiff. The back-to-back “Vesuvius Winner” shows on May 5-6 were held on the slopes of the volcano, with the Bay of Naples in the background and a view of the island of Capri across the water.

The panel of judges came from England, Ireland, Denmark, France, Portugal, Croatia, Hungary, USA, and of course Italy. In an entry of about 50 Dachshunds I found some very good Wires and Mini Smooths, with international kennels like Magik Rainbow from Russia, Treis Pinheiros from Brazil and Grand Gables from Canada featured in the background of the winners. There was a surprising mix of American and English types in Golden Retrievers, and few but very good Sighthounds: one of the three groups, not counting Best Puppy and Best Junior, I judged over the weekend went to the beautiful red fawn Greyhound bitch Ch. Sobers Orianne.

Best in Show was judged both days by Italian allrounders. On the first day, Francesco Balducci, president of the Italian KC (ENCI), put up an Alaskan Malamute named Ch. Million Dollar Boy del Whymper delle G. Jorasses. He’s of mostly European breeding; the closest US relative I could find in his pedigree was Ch. Atanik’s Life’s Short Play Hard, grandsire of the dam. The next day, with a bigger entry, the BIS judge Franco Ferrari kept a respectful distance from the magnificent Neapolitan Mastiff, whom he nevertheless awarded BIS. It’s apparently best to be careful: an American friend who lives in Italy told me that more than one judge has gone to the hospital, victim of what a Neo’s owner considered an unwise decision to touch the dog. In this case I don’t think it would have been a problem: I have seldom seen a Neo who was appealing in as many respects as Ch. Claus del Nolano. He appeared to be not only friendly but also sound and functional, with impressive freedom of movement. The breed specialist judge, Massimo Inzoli, told me this isn’t just a GOOD Neapolitan Mastiff but an outstanding one, and he should know. (Inzoli comes from Sicily, which he told me means “the knives are out” when you judge Neos in the breed’s native region. I hope he was just speaking figuratively.)

Runner-up BIS went to the black Miniature Poodle male Class Line Querelle des Femmes, and third to the Jack Russell Terrier junior Whitetan Mowgli, but the focus was very much on the Neo. During BIS photographs the dog was surrounded by a vast and highly excitable crowd of locals, many of them apparently not even dog people, visibly proud that a local dog of their native breed managed to win at a big international dog show!

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