By Jenn Watt
Christopher O’Mara spends much of his time with four-legged friends; from Monday to Thursday he’s a dog groomer with Pretty Paws Pet Boutique and Spa in Haliburton and on weekends he packs his pups in his Dodge Caravan and hits the road competing in shows across Ontario and the northeastern United States.
O’Mara fell into the world of dog showing in 2015 when he bought his Bedlington terrier Howie.
A rare breed with puffy lamb-like fur the Bedlington terrier offered him a grooming challenge but the breeder said he was only willing to part with Howie as long as O’Mara was willing to show him.
“Part of the deal when I got the dog was that I would learn to show him and try to show him to a Canadian championship” O’Mara said.
“I agreed that I would try to learn how to show him and then it became one of those strange addictions because it’s a really fun world and my experience with it has been a really social one. I’ve made a ton of really really good friends on the show circuit across North America and so that’s what keeps me going out to them.”
Howie is now semi-retired and O’Mara has branched into the world of Whippets a medium-size hound with a silhouette reminiscent of a greyhound.
He wasn’t sure at first about the world of dog shows but it didn’t take him long to warm up to the concept.
“It was the first show I went to I kind of was looking around and thinking this is a special kind of crazy … but at the end of the weekend I thought I’m coming back to do this again” he said explaining it gave him concentrated time with Howie.
“It’s those moments of complete 100 per cent focused time with your dog where your dog is giving you absolutely everything they can to give you their best. It’s a test of your training skills also – how well is this six-month-old puppy going to react to being in a room with 200 dogs? Or in the case of bigger shows like Crufts that’s a show with 28000 dogs.”
Crufts which takes place each year in Birmingham England is billed as one of the biggest dog events in the world. This year O’Mara attended to cheer on a dog and help its handler. He said he plans to go back next year and hopes one of his Whippets will qualify.
The world of dog showing can be as laid back or as intense as you make it O’Mara said with some people who “live breathe eat and sleep” showing dogs and others who don’t dedicate quite as much time to it.
Aside from his pet grooming business and regular trips to dog shows he also breeds Bedlington terriers and Whippets.
First he bred a Bedlington litter (which he jokingly calls a “singlington” since it was a litter of one) with the offspring having a tail too short for showing. That dog ended up living as a pet with one of his friends in Montreal.
He’s also purchased a foundation stock of Whippets but they’re not old enough yet to be bred. It will involve health testing including eyes heart elbows hips and knees. The process is long and there are no guarantees.
“You do invest all of this money up front in addition to the purchase price and you may never breed that dog” O’Mara said.
“It has to be about love and the dogs … it can’t be about money. I gotta tell you it’s an expense not an income” he said.
Preparing to show a dog isn’t a matter of getting out the scissors and a bottle of shampoo the week before; it’s a process that starts when the dog is a puppy and includes not only appearance but performance and poise – of dog and handler alike. That means obedience manners and leash training getting them used to the kennel and to strangers.
“With the Whippets we also then are really looking at conditioning because Whippets are a muscular breed. They need to exercise long distances running regularly” O’Mara said.
The process of showing the dog can be stressful with an audience fellow dog handlers and esteemed judges following your every move.
“I would say 80 per cent of the time if something goes wrong in the ring it’s not because of something the dog has done. It’s because the handler has done something wrong. Either I cut the dog off so she didn’t move right or I had the leash too tight up so her neck was up and back instead of out and forward so that affects their movement. It can be really nerve wracking” he said.
And every once in a while something does go awry.
“I’ll never forget Howie … I got him at Thanksgiving and then winter came so all of his show training was indoors and the first outdoor show was on grass. I had worked so hard to potty train that dog so that he would go to the bathroom outside on the grass and we walked in the ring on the grass and the first thing he did was poop” O’Mara laughs “And you can’t reprimand them because you’ve literally spent seven months training them that this is where [the dog goes] to the bathroom so you just have to deal with it.”
In his relatively brief dog showing career O’Mara’s had success with both Howie and Fame his Whippet.
This fall Fame won “best puppy in specialty” at the Great Lakes Whippet Club. Howie won “best of winners” at the Hatboro Dog Club in the U.S. on the Montgomery Circuit a highly competitive terrier circuit.
“Winning best of winners there was a huge honour” he said.
His long-term goal is to go back to Crufts with his own dog.
“All of my girls right now are not home-bred. They are dogs I have purchased from other breeders as my foundation. My goal is to take something that I breed show it to championship or grand championship in Canada and make it to the Crufts qualifier. That’s my goal” he said.
O’Mara is an enthusiastic promoter of dog showing. His nephews have shown an interest in getting into the sport and he encourages anyone curious about the process to attend a show. One is scheduled in Lindsay for the weekend of April 26 to 28.
During his time showing dogs he’s made lifelong friends and had fun. While he’s always aiming to win O’Mara said you have the best time when you keep things in perspective.
“You just have to want it to be fun. I think the hardest thing to teach new people – but the most important thing – is that it is about the dog. It’s not about you and your feelings … At the end of the day it’s really just a dog show you know? We’re not negotiating world peace. We’re not trying to come up with a solution to Brexit. This isn’t brain surgery. It’s a dog show. It’s as much stress as you let it be.”