DUXBURY -- Betsy is having a day of beauty. First she'll get a shampoo and blow dry. Her luxuriant hair will be styled by her favorite Mason Pearson brush. Next she'll have a pedicure, with her nails cut short and buffed shiny, just the way she likes them. She'll even have her teeth done: scaled with a special instrument to remove the tartar, then gone over with an electric toothbrush.
Betsy gets this treatment once a week. Betsy is one lucky girl.
Anne Bowes is rightfully proud of her Pembroke Welsh corgi, who stands 11 inches at the shoulder and weighs 23 pounds. "Isn't she just beautiful?" she asks. It's a rhetorical question, because Bowes thinks Betsy is gorgeous, and Bowes knows gorgeous corgis. For 37 years she has bred, raised, trained, shown, and judged them.
Today, Bowes and Betsy will strut their stuff at the 129th Westminster Dog Show in Madison Square Garden. The Show, for the uninitiated and cat people, is the Super Bowl -- and World Series, Wimbledon, and Kentucky Derby -- of dog shows. Bowes has shown and judged there before: in 2001, her bitch Holly got an award of merit. But this year, she thinks she and Betsy have a chance of doing even better.
At Westminster, blood lines mean as much as they do in the Mayflower Society. Only pure-blooded, pedigreed AKC-registered dogs need apply, and only the cream among them make it in. The Westminster Kennel Club, which sponsors the show, was "formed by a group of gentlemen who cared passionately for the sport of pure-bred dogs," according to "The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster," by William F. Stifel.
"The AKC (American Kennel Club) says that dog judging is not brain surgery, but most exhibitors think it's more important," says Bowes. She's a woman who laughs easily; though she takes the showing part seriously, she's not priggish, like some professional handlers are. She loves her dogs, she baby-talks them, tousles their fur and happily accepts lots of wet kisses. And, yes, they are allowed to run in the yard and even get dirty. "Hey, I know it's only a dog show," she says. "We're not solving world hunger."
Still, she'd love to crack this canine cotillion, where the country's most elite dogs compete. Betsy-- her full name is actually Champion Heronsway Patriot's Dream -- has a blue-blood pedigree that goes back eight generations, all bred by Bowes. Betsy's mother was Champion Heronsway Affair to Remember, and her father was Champion Heronsway Sam I Am.
To become a champion, a dog must participate in many shows and accrue many points. Of all her corgis -- and right now, Bowes has a dozen in residence -- she thinks Betsy has the best shot at Westminster. "She's got a beautiful head. She's got beautiful big ears. She's got dark eyes that are just the right shape, a nice short muzzle, perfect markings up the front, nice big feet, oval-shaped, which are set way underneath her -- that's very important," says Bowes. "She's got good bones, her shoulder is well-laid, she's got a lovely reach of neck, a lovely arch that goes into a dead-level drop line."
In other words, Betsy has a killer bod. And she moves well. In the ring, she's the dog equivalent of Claudia Schiffer on the runway. "For this particular judge, I'm betting that this is the right dog," Bowes says. The serious dog world is a small one; those within each breed get to know one another over the years.
Bowes's home is a shrine to corgis. She has converted the garage and part of the house into a warren of dog rooms. There's the puppy room, the kennel room, the grooming room, and the office, then the dog kitchen, where the feed is stored and bowls are filled. The other side of the house is reserved for Bowes and her saintly husband, Rick, who, even though he's allergic to dogs, loves them and has put up with them for 37 years. Bowes started breeding the dogs because she wanted something to do at home while she was raising children. (The Boweses have two grown daughters.) "I've likened it to living on a farm," says Rick, former publisher of the New England Journal of Medicine and now a publishing consultant.
Anne Bowes actually co-owns Betsy, which sounds weird for those of us with dogs of dubious parentage and casual grooming. But it's not unusual in the dog-showing world. Betsy is the pet of Pam and John Davies, who live in Lake Placid, N.Y. But whenever she's in training for a show, she comes and spends weeks at a time with Bowes.
Aside from the boatload of ribbons, certificates, trophies, and crystal and pewter bowls, the Bowes home sports corgi rugs and towels, corgi light-switch plates, corgi pictures and portraits, corgi figurines, corgi mirrors, and sun-catchers. Bowes wears corgi jewelry; she has a particularly fetching gold choker with a corgi head.
Magazines with names like Dog Week and The Canine Chronicle spill off her desk. These are big, glossy affairs where Serious Dog People take out full-page ads to showcase their champions, in the hopes of getting some buzz going for Westminster. "I don't play that game," Bowes sniffs. She knows that Westminster is geared toward professionally handled dogs who have celebrity sponsors such as Bill Cosby. Still, she loves the spectacle: the magnificent dogs, their prissy handlers, the pomp and circumstance that was spoofed in the film "Best in Show."
"But the wonderful thing is, there's room for the millionaire and the mail carrier," she says. "If you have a good dog, you have a good dog." Bowes calls herself "a professional amateur." She can't afford a handler, and likes showing her own dogs anyway. She jokes that her autobiography will be titled "Life Is a Bitch." "Bitches are my life's blood. My whole life is governed by the hormones of my female dogs."
A hot ticket
Getting your dog into Westminster is harder than scoring tickets to Red Sox-Yankees playoffs. Only the top five dogs in each breed are invited. The rest of the dogs -- Betsy included -- had to get accepted via an entry process that opened at 8 a.m. and closed 10 minutes later on Dec. 3 in Raleigh, N.C. Bowes used an entry service -- yes, they exist -- to hand-deliver one application; she sent two other applications through regular mail and FedExed another one, just in case.
For the past month, Bowes's life has been governed by all things Westminster, as she prepares Betsy for the show. On a recent day in late January, as Bowes dons her jacket and reaches for the leash, Betsy madly wags her rump (Pembrokes have no tail). It's time for "road work," a brisk walk of 2Â½ miles, done four times a week.
Three weeks before the show, Bowes is nervous. A blizzard has dumped more than 2 feet of snow, and road work has been impossible for several days. Worse, Betsy has been losing fur. Bitches do that six to eight weeks before they go into heat. Bowes has another corgi, Alice, on standby should Betsy really start shedding. But she's hoping that won't happen.
Two weeks out, the weather has improved, and Bowes is making up for lost time. Betsy and Alice trot ahead of Bowes, their short legs a contrast with her long ones. Occasionally, one of the dogs will limp, and Bowes will take her glove and brush off a paw. "The problem with walking in the winter is they put salt on the roads and it hurts their feet," she says.
In late January, Bowes takes Betsy to a dog training school in Pocasset, where she works her and Alice in front of mirrors. Bowes is pleased. "I really think I have a good shot if she holds on to her hair," she says. By "good shot," she means an award of merit, given to the best two or three Pembroke Welsh corgis in a group of 16.
Best in breed? "I really would like to do that one time before I die."
Best in (herding) group? "To get even a placement would be thrilling."
Best in show? "Those dogs are of a whole different caliber. They go to 140 shows a year. It's all they do."
(A corgi has never won at Westminster.)
What if your dog gets in the ring and blows it? Has a bad hair day, or indigestion? Betsy, like any creature, responds well to bribery, or, as Bowes calls it, "positive reinforcement." Bowes knows that some people snicker at the cosseted canines, while others feel sorry for them. She begs to differ. "These dogs love it. People come by and pat them and tell them how fantastic they are. At Westminster, they're like movie stars. I don't show dogs who don't love it, because it's all about the dogs."
She knows, too, what people say about the owners/breeders/handlers. And she agrees: "We're all kind of nutty."
The chemistry between Betsy and Bowes is evident. The dog responds attentively to her body language and commands. Naturally, there's an endless supply of treats in Bowes's pocket. Treats makes the doggy world go round.
"We make a lot of different kinds of bait," says Bowes, "We make liver cookies. We use a lot of beef or chicken hot dogs for training. Also, string cheese. You want to use something they love."
Twelve days before Westminster, Bowes takes Betsy and Alice to MasterPeace Dog Training in Franklin, where one of her favorite trainers works. There are 13 dogs in the ring, and each is inspected and put through their paces by Charlotte Newton. The place is eerily quiet, and no dog is sniffing anyone else's privates. "They're trained that way," says Bowes.
Betsy prances around the ring like a prima donna. Bowes sets her on a table and Newton runs her hands over Betsy's shoulder blades, her ribs, her loins, her rear legs. She examines her teeth as Betsy grimaces. "Very good!" says Newton. "And look at those ears! Great ears!"
Then the women talk clothes. "What do you think I should wear?" asks Bowes. Westminster Rule No. 4,658: Never clash with your dog. "I'm going to be standing right behind her while she's on the table, and I want something that will look good," says Bowes, explaining that the handler of a black dog would never wear black "because the dog would disappear."
The women decide that Bowes should wear a "beautiful, sparkling color" that will set off Betsy's elegant honey and white coat. "Burgundy?" asks Bowes.
"You know what would be absolutely killer?" says Newton. "Violet."
In the end, Bowes decides to go with the purple suit she bought for a show last year (and into which she had deep pockets custom-sewn, the better to hold bait). She will also be wearing an enamel corgi pin on her lapel, for good luck.
Ten days before Westminster, Bowes takes Betsy to dog shows in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she wins two "best of breeds." This is a dry run for New York. "It's very noisy and crowded, and that's what Westminster is like," says Bowes. Betsy returns home to Lake Placid with her other owners, the Davies, who will bring her to Westminster.
The couple are under strict orders to give Betsy lots of outdoor time. "She'll hold on to her hair a little longer in the cold, and she needs ultraviolet light for her pigment," says Bowes.
In Lake Placid, cold air is not a problem. "Her coat looks very good," says Pam Davies, a nurse. Betsy usually sleeps on their bed, but not while she's in "boot camp," as Davies puts it. "Right now, she's very insulted by it," Davies says, laughing.
The week before the show, Bowes is feeling good. "Thirty years of breeding have gone into Betsy," she says. Though she won't show Betsy until today, she headed to New York for the weekend for a number of dog seminars at Madison Square Garden. Sunday -- Bowes's 60th birthday -- Betsy arrived with the Davies, and is staying in their hotel room, across the street from the Garden.
Yesterday, Bowes went to the Garden at 5 a.m. to wait in line for a grooming spot backstage. Betsy shows late this afternoon; only whippets and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons come after Welsh corgis.
So far Betsy seems be taking it all in stride. "Betsy's never been in the city, so we were concerned," Bowes says. "But she's taking to it fine."
Bowes is the nervous one. Today she has to have Betsy in the Garden by 11 a.m. She'll leave her hotel, a block away, at 10. "I don't want to be late."