Amateur Sacramento dog handler heads to Westminster Dog Show

Becky Buckman, center, and Tiki win the Puppy Sweepstakes in Las Vegas in May 2014.
Becky Buckman, center, and Tiki win the Puppy Sweepstakes in Las Vegas in May 2014. Courtesy of Becky Buckman

In just eight months, amateur dog handler Becky Buckman has turned her bichon frise into a champion show dog on his way to the famed Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

Buckman and her dog, Tiki, left Sacramento on Friday for the show in New York City. Buckman, a retired legal assistant, will go up against professional handlers with years of experience in the ring at Westminster, the longest-running dog show in the U.S. and one of the premier dog shows in the world. It will take place Monday and Tuesday.

Tiki is Buckman’s first show dog.

“If someone had asked me 10 years ago what I would be doing, I would not have said showing dogs,” she said, laughing.

She got into the sport because Tiki’s breeder wanted to take him to dog shows. When Buckman, 57, realized that meant her dog would be gone for a couple of months at a time, she decided to show him herself.

She bought a show-dog primer and started taking classes with a local professional handler, Jean Gauchat-Hargis, who has been showing dogs since age 8.

“The first class was the funniest,” Buckman said, laughing. “We got there and I had no idea what equipment I needed or anything.”

She showed up with her dog in a harness and waste bags hanging off the leash. When Gauchat-Hargis asked her what she was doing, Buckman said she wanted to show Tiki.

“Well, not like that,” Gauchat-Hargis replied.

She went and got Buckman a show leash.

Buckman has learned a lot since then. In the last eight months, Tiki has won enough competitions to make him a champion in the eyes of the American Kennel Club, and traveled with Buckman for months at a time to dog shows in Montana and Idaho.

“That’s where I really learned, doing it every day,” she said.

The pair even had a brush with dog thieves in Idaho, but Buckman caught them in the act before they could snatch Tiki.

Showing a dog is time consuming, Buckman said. To keep Tiki’s muscles properly toned, she walks him at 3.2 miles per hour for 2 1/2 to 3 miles every day. Then she uses her cul-de-sac in the Pocket as a makeshift ring to practice showing him.

“The neighbors come out with their dogs and watch,” Buckman said. “Sometimes I give him a break and take their dogs around.”

In order to be shown, a dog has to have the proper lineage and grow to the dimensions considered breed standard by the American Kennel Club. Tiki’s birth name is GloryB SAKS Overtop The Wow Factor, which explains his lineage to those who speak the language of breeders and show dogs.

The handler and dog have two minutes in the ring to demonstrate their star quality to the judges. Gauchat-Hargis said presenting the right image is a matter of teamwork.

“You have to have a dog and a handler that have bonded, who love each other and who work together as a team,” she said. “If you don’t have that then the picture doesn’t show to the judge.”

Gauchat-Hargis said it’s unusual for someone new to the ring to go to the Westminster Dog Show.

“But (Buckman) loves it and she has the gumption to go,” Gauchat-Hargis said. “She’s going to be competing with people who have been showing for 30 years.”

Gauchat-Hargis herself has been in the business for that long. She will be showing one of her own dogs and two of her clients’ dogs at Westminster.

Her dog, a keeshond named Cubit, is the fifth-highest-ranked show dog in the history of the breed. She said she’s been to the Westminster Dog Show eight times in the past 15 years.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “And it’s been a lot of work to get there.”

Gauchat-Hargis said she thinks Buckman is doing really well. The experienced handler said Tiki reached champion status quickly and that Buckman should be proud.

Gauchat-Hargis said most dogs really enjoy show business. She’s never had a dog that didn’t like to be shown.

“You have to realize that these guys get the best attention imaginable,” she said. “They are pampered and primped, groomed regularly and given the best food and water. And they love the applause and the attention.”

Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006