“They call him Mu,” NeSmith said, standing among the tents at the club’s Dog Show in Helfin Saturday. In the tents’ shade, dog owners were busy fidgeting with tufts of dog-hair, brushing and clipping them into prescribed shapes.
It took the club a year and a half, vice president Karen Seriana said, to plan the show, which had more than 650 show dogs of all breeds in attendance for the weekend’s competitions.
Saturday was the 35th show organized by the club, and “Sunday will be 36,” said NeSmith, referring to the standard practice of having separately judged shows in one weekend. People came from as far away as Canada to see their dogs compete, their massive motor homes parked like sardines out across the field of the Cane 9 Creek RV Park.
Lorri and Jimmy Mills drove from their home just outside of Mobile. Photographs of Mufasa’s grandfather and father line a wall inside their RV.
Mufasa’s breed is redbone coonhound. “Just like ‘Where the Red Fern Grows,’” Lorri said, referring to the book and 1974 movie.
He won his breed at the Westminster Dog Show last year at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This coming February will be his last Westminster show. Mufasa is an American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club world Champion, which means he beat out all the other breeds of hounds to become the top dog.
“It’s time for him to retire,” Lorri said while cooking dinner for her family inside their RV. “I’ll retire him while he’s on the top.”
Mufasa will turn six this year, and has been ranked as number one in his breed for three years. He’s got “pups” and “grandpups” that will soon be ready for the shows, while other offspring live on a yacht in Orange Beach and hunt bear in the woods of Canada, Lorri said.
Lorri was born in a raccoon-hunting family. Hounds were always around. “My grandfather used to take me when I was a kid,” Lorri said. “He used to shove me up a tree with a stick and tell me to knock the ’coons out.”
Lorri works as a machinist at an oil refinery and her husband, Jimmy, is an engineer at a shipyard that builds ships for the U.S. Navy. They travel at least two weekends each month to attend dog shows, from California to New York.
But Mufasa isn’t just pretty. The breed standard requires that the dog not only be of show quality, but they have to hunt, Lorri said.
“My grandfather taught me that. He said, ‘you can feed an ugly one just as good you can a pretty one,’ but pretty is as pretty does. He’s got to be correct in the woods, and he is,” Lorri said.
And dog shows can be just like any other sport, where a good play leaves an itch to keep playing. That’s what Kelli Clark of Johns Creek, Ga., said Saturday.
Clark had always wanted a Portuguese water dog, but they were always so expensive, she said. When President Obama’s family got their water dog named Bo, Clark said the prices got even worse.
Clark finally got her beloved “Skylar” a little over a year ago and they’ve attended countless shows since then.
“He’s the best,” Clark said. “Well, I’m sure everybody says that about their dogs. But he’s a sweetheart.”
Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t, Clark said. It’s almost like golf.
“That one putt. That one great shot, and it keeps you coming back,” Clark said. At six months old, Clark said, Skylar placed well in his first show “and that was it.”
Skylar had a professional handler for that first show, but Clark, who works for a premium cable television network, started taking classes and learned how to groom him.
“It’s scary (showing a dog) the first couple of times, because it’s all on you, and you’re putting yourself out there to be rejected, almost,” Clark said.
Ursula Dudek was busy brushing out her 13-month-old Shetland sheepdog named Scarlet on table underneath a tent. Dudek met her husband, Buddy Character, at a dog show.
The idea is to groom them so they don’t looked groomed, Dudek said, dabbing a bit of talcum powder onto Scarlet’s paws before brushing it away.
Character said he’s been breeding Shetland sheepdogs for four decades. He said they’re just good dogs.
“If you ever have a Sheltie, you won’t ever want another breed,” Character said. “Ever have one, you’ll see what I’m talking about.”
There’s no money to be made in dog shows, only ribbons, Character said. Unless, that is, you’re a professional dog handler who doesn’t mind working shows every weekend, he said.
That’s what Sue Cassel from Shreveport, La., does. As a professional handler, Cassel works with other people’s dogs, preparing them for shows and walking them out in front of the judges.
Cassel was there Saturday with a Rhodesian ridgeback named Rihana. Brian Forehand, from Enterprise, bought Rihana about a year ago. Saturday’s show was Forehand’s first, and he and Rihana were there just to get the hang of things.
Rihana isn’t yet ready to strut in front of a judge, Cassel said. She needs to lose a few pounds and get rid of her stage fright. Cassel also had two other dogs with her that would be competing over the weekend.
There’s just always been something about ridgebacks, Forehand said, and when he moved onto a place with enough land he decided to get one.
A distinct line of backwards-growing hair runs up Rihana’s back, ending with a twist of hair like two lollypops at her shoulder blades. Thus the descriptive name, ridgeback.
“She’s got great heritage,” Forehand said. “Champions running down (both the mother’s and father’s bloodlines) and so I didn’t want to stop that.”
Forehand said he tried to learn how to show the dog himself, but it’s a full-time job. Best to leave it to the pros, he said.
Cassel has been showing dogs since 1978. First her own, then others. She agreed with Character, that the only way to make a living in the dog show circuit is to hustle.
“You have to be out every weekend,” Cassel said. “We do make good money, but this isn’t an easy job by any means.” Long hours, and heavy lifting as the dozens of cages and pens are loaded and unloaded, Cassel said.
“My husband always says, ‘you’re never home,’” Cassel said, and so she’s skipping a show this year to be home at Thanksgiving.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been home,” Cassel said. “I guess you could call us a traveling circus.”
Star staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563 or on Twitter @burkhalter_star