BROADALBIN The best giant schnauzer in the country lives in Broadalbin.
Dora is 80 pounds of perfectly square schnauzer build, a masterpiece of canine physique and the pride and joy of Doug Hill.
Many dog owners might think they have the best of a certain type of pet, but Hill has actual proof. Last year Dora was judged No. 1 of her breed by a series of dozens of dog experts at scores of dog shows all across the country.
There wasn’t much of a prize aside from the stacks of ribbons, but Dora was invited to compete in one of the most prestigious dog shows in the world — the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Manhattan, set to take place Feb. 12.
“It’s a world-class show,” Hill said, noting that it’s a big enough deal to garner ESPN coverage.
Dora will be up against 3,500 other dogs of every breed, but Hill has high hopes. All the past awards gave both him and Dora confidence, but it’s more than that. It’s about proportions, which Hill happens to know something about.
“Every breed of dog has a set of standards,” he said, “things that describe the perfect animal.”
For example, the friendly eyes and happy expression worn by golden retrievers is actually required by official American Kennel Club golden retriever standards.
The giant schnauzer has its own set of standards. It needs to be square in profile, as tall as it is long, with a strong rectangular head. There’s a whole list of rather nit-picky requirements detailing things such as ear placement and shoulder size, but Hill said it all comes down to proportions.
“There’s a dog I see at a lot of shows with a magnificent head,” he said, “but it’s too big for its body, so it looks sort of funny.”
Dora, he said, has perfect proportions, and he should know. He’s the president of the Giant Schnauzer Club of America and knows the standards like the back of his hand.
The Westminster Show is run like most other dog shows. Dora will be judged first against a group of other giant schnauzers. Then if she does well, against the best of other breeds of the working group, like the Great Dane, Rottweiler and Siberian husky. If she is closer to the standard of her breed than the others are to theirs, she’ll go on to the final round, judged against the best dog of the other breed groups — sporting, hound, herding, toy and so on.
“That’s when the standard becomes very important,” Hill said. “It’s hard to judge totally different types of dogs against each other.”
Aside from the quantifiable stuff, Dora has a certain something extra that can’t be bred or trained.
“She loves showing,” he said. “That’s the real difference between a great dog and a champion.”
His other giant schnauzer, Serious Black, is such a dog — a champion who prefers lounging on the sofa at home to strutting at dog shows.
Hill started showing giant schnauzers with his partner Luke Norton a decade ago.
“It was a pretty cheap way to spend a weekend,” he said, recounting how Norton would break out the kitchen scissors, not allowing Hill’s two left hands near the extensive schnauzer grooming process.
Many of their first giant schnauzers did well, drawing the two dog lovers to shows in ever-expanding rings from their home in Broadalbin. But Dora’s perfection demanded a whole new level of commitment — and funding.
They hired a professional handler to travel with Dora to shows in Florida and all along the West Coast.
“I have this day job,” he said of his job selling advertising for The Daily Gazette.
Counting the airfare, the handler’s fee and hotel rooms, Dora’s year on the show circuit cost over $100,000. Luckily, Hill and Norton managed to dodge most of those costs.
Robin Greenslade, who originally bred Dora, runs a kennel in Florida. It’s a pretty big deal for a breeder to have created schnauzer perfection. Dora is good marketing for her kennel, so Greenslade offered to foot the bill.
“It’s easier to sell a litter of puppies if they’re connected to a champion,” Hill said.
The problem is, she’ll never make back her investment. Puppies can’t realistically sell for more than a few thousand dollars and the demand for giant schnauzers isn’t strong enough.
In a few years Dora will retire and have some finely bred puppies. With her record, especially if she does well at the Westminster show, the pups will be easy to sell. Even so, Hill won’t get close to making back his part of the show costs.
No part of breeding is a moneymaker. For Hill at least, it’s about stewardship.
The giant schnauzer was bred over hundreds of years to bring cattle down from Bavarian mountains, guard herding families and pull heavy carts. That history is kept alive in every member of the breed, but numbers are declining.
“People don’t need a dog to pull carts anymore,” he said, “which puts the giant schnauzer in an uncomfortable position. They don’t really have a place anymore.”
They’re work animals in an age of pets. People want a dog they can leave inside.
Hill has taken it upon himself to keep the legacy going. By showing his dogs and only breeding the very best, like Dora, he hopes to improve the breed while it’s under his care.
Dora will be judged at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Feb. 12 under her official name, Kenro’s Witching Hour.