Before I met our May cover girl Brenna Potash, the only thing I knew about dog shows was what I saw on television after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Watching the National Dog Show presented by Purina on Thanksgiving was just another way to keep myself on the couch and out of the kitchen. And as many of you who have watched it know, it’s fun! All those cute dogs running around, the judges scrutinizing their teeth, the handlers brushing and combing and fluffing their fur.
But that’s all I thought it was—a chance for devoted owners to show off their pampered pets in what amounts to a beauty pageant for pups. That was before I met Brenna, a fifteen-year-old McIntosh High School student who has handled dogs in the show ring since she was in middle school and aspires to become a professional handler and veterinarian.
Already poised and mature, she sets me straight when it comes to the purpose of a dog show. During a show, each dog is judged not against the other entrants, but against the standard, or ideal, of its breed. “The judge is looking for the perfect dog, who can then go on to produce more generations of better breeds,” Brenna tells me. Everything is held up to the standard, from the dog’s appearance, eye color and shape, height, weight and ear placement to his movement and temperament, all in an effort to find the best of the breed. To this end, what goes on behind the scenes may be just as important as what happens in the ring. Dog shows such as the Westminster Kennel Club show are “benched,” meaning that entered dogs are required to stay in assigned areas while not in the ring to let spectators, owners and breeders interact and educate themselves about the breeds.
“This isn’t a froufrou sport. We get down and dirty working with the dogs and it’s hard work,” Brenna says. It is an important point, and one that comes up again and again as we talk and Brenna attempts to set straight the misconceptions surrounding her chosen field.
Brenna’s future has always been tied to man’s best friend, from the day she came home from the hospital as a newborn and the family’s Dachshund licked her face. “I’ve always loved dogs,” she says, and as an only child, she grew up surrounded by them. In the Potash family home, the click-click of doggie nails can always be heard echoing through the house.
Longtime owners of Dachshunds, parents Marty and Laura attended an Atlanta Dachshund field trial with Brenna in 1999. A few years later, in 2003, they were invited to a meeting of the Dachshund Club of Metropolitan Atlanta.
That meeting would prove to be a turning point in Brenna’s life. It was there that she met Anne Carson, a Dachshund breeder and longtime member of the Club who currently serves as president.
“The meeting was at Anne’s house in Atlanta, and afterward she invited me to take a tour of her kennels. Seeing them, my jaw dropped,” Brenna says, her face lighting up at the memory. “I knew from that second that I wanted to have one of her dogs and become a handler.”
Her wish came true. When a litter of puppies was born, Brenna visited the Carsons every weekend, playing with the dogs. Anne watched carefully to see which dog would bond with the young handler-in-training and eventually gave her a little black and tan longhair Dachshund puppy who would come to be known as Domino.
That summer, when Brenna was eleven years old, she spent as much time as possible at dog shows around the area, watching and learning, soaking up as much information and experience as she could. Brenna and Domino (officially named Ch Twelfth Night Be My Sugar) entered the ring for the first time when she was eleven and he was six months old. Their first win came in their second show.
Brenna recalls that first moment in the ring, “I was nervous but pumped up,” she says. “I had a great support group, my whole family was there and so was Domino’s breeder, Anne.” She knew she was where she belonged, right there in the ring.
“It is still hard to believe,” says Brenna’s mom Laura Potash of her daughter’s early success. “As the mom, driver, kennel helper and cheerleader, this has been a wonderful ride to be on with my daughter. We’ve put 89,000 miles on my car together.”
Domino is also pretty proud of his success in the ring, it seems. “He loves the attention he gets in the ring,” Brenna says. “His tail goes up and he knows people are cheering for him.”
A year after their first show Brenna went on to handle Domino to his championship, earning the “Ch” in front of his name. The title of champion is earned after defeating a certain number of dogs to earn 15 points and two majors in officially sanctioned dog shows.
In the three years following the championship, the pair have racked up an impressive resume of wins together: many Junior Showmanship wins, multiple Variety wins, three Group placements, and two Group wins. The Group winner goes on to compete in Best in Show, the final round of a dog show. Additionally, Brenna qualified for the American Kennel Club Eukanuba Championship and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in 2006 and 2007, both events that gain national attention.
Along with showing Domino, Brenna also competes in Junior Showmanship, an event that evaluates the handler rather than the dog. “It’s kids versus kids,” Brenna explains. “It’s all about how the handler presents the dog. It’s tricky, because we’re supposed to be the ‘invisible handler’ but at the same time, you don’t want to get lost in the crowd.”
A dog show works like this: first a dog competes to be the best in his variety. In Domino’s case, that means being the best longhair Dachshund at the show. Next is the group round, where all the best breeds compete in their group. Dachshunds are part of the hound group, and there are seven groups in all. Placing first in the group means that a dog is the best of his entire category and one of seven finalists. Those seven finalists compete to be Best in Show, or best dog of the entire competition. For those who have watched dog shows on television, this should be a familiar scene.
When asked about being number one in her group for the first time, Brenna’s eyes widen as they must have in the ring when she was only 12 years old. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “There were so many other top dogs there that we beat. I just started crying.” The large blue ribbon hangs framed on the living room wall as a reminder of the moment.
“Going to Best in Show was nerve-wracking,” she recalls. “I didn’t even think about winning. It was just awesome to be there.” She’s been there twice now, a remarkable accomplishment for a freshman in high school.
As remarkable as her journey has been, it has not been without bumps along the road. This past December, Domino was injured in what Brenna’s mom calls “a freak accident.” He was playing at home and something went wrong with his back, temporarily paralyzing him and sending him into surgery. While the family’s focus was making sure Domino healed, the Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show was just around the corner, less than two months away.
Re-enter Domino’s breeder and now good family friend, Anne Carson. She offered Brenna her retired dog Ch Twelfth Night Call The Wind, the half-sister of Domino. Mariah, as she is called, is also a black and tan longhair Dachshund like Brenna’s dog.
“I felt that Brenna had worked so hard to get to that point and showed so much promise, I had to do whatever I could to help her,” Anne says.
With limited time, Brenna and Mariah began working together and were only in the ring six times before heading to New York City and Madison Square Garden.
“This was hard on Brenna but it taught her a lot about life,” Laura Potash says. “She and Domino have a long road of recovery to do together but if you know this pair, you know nothing will hold them back.”
Despite the setback, Brenna remains as focused as ever on her goals of becoming a professional handler and veterinarian, even though dog shows come at a price.
“My friends think dog shows are dorky,” she says when asked how her peers react to her chosen path. “It’s easy to get my feelings hurt, but I know it’s just because they don’t understand what I do. So I try to explain to them that this is my sport just like they have their sports and cheerleading and other hobbies. When they come to a show they understand that it is serious, there’s a lot of pressure involved.” She reiterates that dog shows are hard work, more than just people running around with their dogs.
“It can get tense,” she says. “People will try to intimidate you or do things to distract your dog while you’re in the ring. It can also be very political.”
While dog shows leave little time on the weekends to hang out with high school friends or go to parties, they have also given Brenna a new circle of friends.
“My dog show friends are just like me, we have the same train of thought and we understand each other,” she says. Her best friend, Nicki Louchios, also shows dogs and the girls help each other out and also compete against each other. If one girl is showing, the other is helping carry supplies. And when one friend beats the other? They are completely supportive and happy for each other, Brenna reassures. Parents Marty and Laura are also supportive of her career path.
So is it all about winning? “Losing is hard,” Brenna admits. “I just try to move on. The best always lose first, I say. I don’t plan on winning and then quitting to go out on top. I want this to be my career, so I have to get used to rejection. It’s not all about winning but the quality of how I’ve shown. Even if I don’t win, I still try to do the best job I can. I lose a lot, but I keep going; I love the thrill of the ring.”
Along with showing Domino and Mariah, Brenna also handles Chloe, the family’s red smooth Dachshund, in field trials, where dogs are judged on their ability to track a rabbit’s scent line. They have also tried earthdog, where a dog goes into a tunnel looking for prey. Dachshunds were originally bred as badger hunting dogs, to track prey both above and below ground. In fact, Dachshund translates to ‘badger dog’ in German, the country where the breed was first developed. Brenna also handles Kodi (CAS/Eudora’s Kodiak Shadowdancer), an Akita owned by Bill and Alicia Klenk and Cindy Smith. The pair are working towards earning Kodi’s championship title.
With her passion and dedication, Brenna’s future in dog handling looks bright. This summer she will travel with and be mentored by a woman she calls her “hero,” Angie Lloyd, a professional Dachshund handler who won Westminster’s Junior Showmanship title in 1998 and went on to win the Junior Shownmanship title at Crufts in England. “She told me she’s been watching my career,” Brenna says, still slightly awed by the prospect of someone she admires so greatly knowing who she is. “I don’t think she has any idea how much her praise means to me. I look forward to learning a lot from her.”
Breeder Anne Carson agrees that Brenna has a long career in dog handling ahead of her. “She shows the dedication needed to become a big success. She possesses not just a natural ability, but also the ability to apply herself and do the hard work neccessary in this field.”
And what advice would Brenna give to other young people who are passionate about their hobbies and sports? “Pursue your dream, no matter what anyone tells you,” she says. “It’s your life, and you just have to go for it.”