If your only familiarity with dog showing is through comedy film “Best in Show,” there’s a lot you’re missing out on, according to one local couple.
Nancy Lewine and Jenny Cochran, of Harleysville, are the owners of five award-winning show dogs, all of whom will be participating in The National Dog Show, held this weekend in Oaks.
The purebred golden retrievers have competed around the nation, raking in scores of awards; Tracker is their first conformation champion and is ranked among the top-20 goldens in the nation.
Cochran, a fourth-grade teacher, showed her Newfoundland many years ago and after she and Lewine, a management consultant who had experience with breeding, met and became a couple about 14 years ago, the dog lovers decided to revisit the show world.
“I had mother-son golden retrievers and they passed away very close together in 2011. That opened the door for us to get our first show dog, which was Tracker,” Lewine said. “Then we got Skye shortly after to breed them and, since that time, we just really went all in and haven’t looked back.”
The dogs compete in conformation — the ring-style setting in which they’re judged for conformation to their breed, in style and appearance — as well as performance. The dogs attend conformation classes and work with professional handlers; Cochran also became a handler about a year ago.
“I call myself the executive producer, handling lots of stuff around making all this happen,” Lewine said. “It’s not my dream to get in the ring, though I have, but that’s been more Jenny. So it’s a good complement.”
“One of the big things with a show dog is keeping them engaged in the ring and making it be fun and exciting for them,” Cochran added. “This is their job but it has to be something they want to do, and love doing as well. There are some dogs who don’t enjoy it, even though they’re well-bred. They want a performer, a dog who is going to love being out and about and touched and in the spotlight. So it’s important for our dogs to be well-trained, obedient, well-mannered dogs for the front end, and then the back-end titles are the performance titles.”
The dogs take part in a range of performance titles, such as dock diving, tricks and competition obedience.
“We call it a well-balanced dog: a champion on the front but performance titles on the back end as well,” Cochran said.
With so many competitions, the family is often traveling.
“Tracker’s been in the top-20 goldens in the nation two years in a row so to do that, we have to be out every weekend,” Lewine said. “Tracker’s been on the road with his handler a lot and then a lot of times we’ll go to shows and take everyone with us. We have an RV so everyone piles in, all the dogs come with us and we basically go camping for a weekend.
“It’s a lot of chaos,” she laughed.
“And that’s where my teaching comes into play,” added Cochran, noting the couple’s human kids are grown and out of the house, and their parenting experience also helps to keep the dogs on track. “We have schedules we maintain and exercise periods. Goldens are athletes; they’re bred to be dogs who go to work in the fields so we make sure our dogs have the exercise they need in varying ways. A lot of the work we do is because we enjoy it and we get to all spend time together.
“And then at the end of the night, they’re tired out and we all can sit down together and watch TV,” Cochran laughed.
The family is often growing and changing, as the couple also breeds the dogs.
That side of their work, they noted, takes careful planning — though they have to be adaptable as well.
“It’s about having a plan A, B, C and D,” Lewine said. “Nature’s in charge. Bitches come into heat every six months, though it’s sometimes less and sometimes more. You have to have your breeding plans loosely scheduled; we look at it as both a science and an art.”
Gestation is about nine weeks, and once the mother gives birth, the couple supports and monitors her health while taking care of the puppies. They offer a puppy-matching program to ensure prospective families are a good fit for the different members of the litters.
“We spend a lot of time with our puppies, so we get to know them well and we’re looking for matching up potential families with the idiosyncrasies of their personalities and their temperaments,” Lewine said.
Once matches are made, families join an extended network of what the couple calls the GoldenSoul Family. Pet parents from their dogs’ litters have a private page on their website where they can stay in touch and share information and photos, as well as seek resources and advice.
They also frequently get together throughout the year for reunions and birthday celebrations.
“Breeding is more than just putting two dogs together and seeing what happens; there’s a lot more to it,” Lewine said. “It’s a very special honor to be able to bring these new lives into the world and then match them to the families that are going to care for them for rest of their lives.”
The couple emphasized that, despite being award-winning competitors, their own dogs are still part of their family.
“People have a pretty distorted and narrow view of show dogs,” Lewine said. “One of the things we’ve been complimented on is that our dogs are still dogs. There’s no difference between them and a dog down the street. When Tracker’s home, he’s our buddy; these are dogs who are just real-life dogs. They’re well-bred and enjoy going in the ring but all of our dogs are also our pets.”
That’s a lesson the public can learn through The National Dog Show, which tapes this weekend and airs on Thanksgiving on NBC.
Both through the televised event and their interaction with fans at the show, the couple gets to educate the public about the many different kinds of dogs and each breed’s strengths.
“The public gets to see the wide variety of breeds that are out there and be educated on what they’re looking for in a dog and what would be best for them,” Cochran said. “It’s a chance for us to educate the public on golden retrievers and what it means to be a good golden retriever. We can help point people in different directions for which breed might be good for them.”