When the top dogs in the world strut their stuff in the Westminster Kennel Club 135th Annual Dog Show next week, they'll be accompanied by some top-notch handlers -- including a sixth-grader from Woodstock.
Marie Stahmer will be in the ring alongside her grand champion Boston terrier, Mojo. Marie is just 12 years old, but she's earned the right to show at Madison Square Garden, and so has Mojo.
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And, for at least one conformation event at New York City's quintessential dog show, Marie will compete against adult handlers, even professionals; she's also entered in the Junior Division, where finalists earn college scholarships.
The Creekside Middle School student has been entering American Kennel Club shows for a year and a half now, and Mojo -- whose show name is GCH (grand champion) Kennedy's Wild Traveling Man -- has only been at it a year. But both seem to have a natural gift for the show ring, and together they're bringing home one ribbon or trophy after another.
Marie has been named Best Junior Handler four times in Midwest events, and in August was ranked nationally as the No. 2 junior handler for Boston terriers.
For his part, Mojo has nearly two dozen Best of Breed titles. Each one forwarded him into group competition against other nonsporting breed winners, and so far he has placed four times in the nonsporting group.
"I like the sport (of showing dogs)," Marie said. "I like showing Mojo because I've been the one who's trained him and showed him, and now he's No. 30 in the country."
Indeed, Mojo is Marie's own dog, a surprise for her 11th birthday in November 2009. The pup had arrived in late October on a flight from Massachusetts, where he was bred, and was boarding in secret with a family friend.
Marie was planning a bumblebee get-up for a Halloween costume contest, and she thought it would be fun to dress the friend's Boston terrier in a matching outfit.
"But instead of using her dog, they used Mojo, and they dressed him up," Marie said. "It was funny because I kept calling him her dog's name, and they said, 'That's not Emma,' and I was really confused.
"I was kind of in shock because I'd wanted a dog a long time," she said.
Mojo was only 4 months old when he agreeably wore the bee costume to meet his new owner.
"When I started looking for a Boston, I decided I wanted to get one of the best," said Marie's mom, Lauren Fisher, who turned to Kennedy's Wild Bostons in Orange, Mass. "We got lucky. He's turned out to be a beautiful dog, and he loves to show.
"Will he ever be No. 1? We're not sure how far he'll get, but he finished this year in the top 30."
Fisher herself competes in a dog training sport called Schutzhund, in which German shepherds are evaluated for their police dog skills. That's how Marie first became involved with dogs.
She was 6 years old and weighed 68 lbs. at the time. The dog she showed in German conformation weighed 95 lbs., "but she would win with him, and she got all these big trophies and she loved it," Fisher said.
Marie enjoyed interacting with canine friends so much that she began thinking about the AKC's Junior Division, where the handler is judged on his or her ability to present the dog well.
Her first time as an AKC contestant, Marie won Best Junior Handler with Lindsey, a friend's Boston terrier, in the ring. When Marie later began showing Mojo, it took a while for him to get the hang of it. He tried jumping off the judging table, but Fisher said he was just nervous.
She hired Kent Meyer, a professional handler from Belvidere, to teach Marie the finer points of showing a dog -- including building his confidence at judging.
Showing a dog well is harder than it looks, Fisher said. In conformation, where the animal is judged on how closely its physical traits match those considered ideal for the breed, the handler's job is to show off the pooch without getting in the way.
That means getting the dog to cooperate with tasks like stacking (setting up the paws in a square), showing the bite, or leading the dog in floor patterns such as a triangle, an L, or a T.
"You have to have a good dog, no doubt about it," Fisher said. "But a good handler can make a dog look better. Every dog has something that isn't quite right. A good handler knows what their dog's weakness is and compensates for it.
"If the person doesn't know how to show the dog to its best," she said, "you could have a very good dog lose and a so-so dog win."
At AKC events, points are issued to winners based on many variables. Mojo earned enough points to become a champion last April and a grand champion in July. Only champions are eligible for Westminster.
Marie said she's happy for Mojo when he wins, but their relationship is about more than points and titles. Mojo curls up on Marie's bed at night and enjoys being a family pet in a home that also includes Fisher's husband, Mike, and Marie's younger sister, Ashley.
"When we're not at shows, I usually sit around with Mojo, and he brings me his toy," said Marie, who also trains a horse and often shows other people's dogs. "I throw it to him again and again, and he thinks that's the best thing in the world."