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Bay Area Boxer vies for dog show championship

on February 5, 2011

As the Salukis competed in the Best of Breed competition at last weekend’s Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, one Boxer made his way to the corner ring, Ring 4, and waited patiently for his turn.

The lone Boxer, a 17-month-old male, was named Forest—or more formally, Gingerbread Black Forest Tradition. He was a rich tan, the color of caramel, with a solid white patch on his chest. He had an air of confidence, and stood quietly next to his handler, sticking his chest out like royalty. He was not distracted by the consistent string of dogs marching by.

His handler, Christina Ghimenti, who runs PawPrint Boxers in Hayward, just south of Oakland, sprayed down his back with a spray bottle.  His owner, Lenore Ryan of Sebastopol, wiped him off with the towel she had been carrying.

Ghimenti, who breeds, owns, and shows Boxers, has trained 14 American Champions—an American Kennel Club title awarded to dogs who win “points” for competing in shows.  Ghimenti’s latest victor—PawPrint Time For a Boi Toi, better known as Toby—took home his title in early January. With Toby now a champion, Ghimenti had switched her focus to Forest.  Still a young dog, Forest had only competed in 18 shows.

Waiting patiently along the edge of the ring, Ghimenti wore a thick gold necklace with a large profile of a Boxer hanging from the middle.  Her gold earrings, smaller in size, matched her necklace.  Pinned to her lapel were a silver American Kennel Club button and a gold Boxer button, engraved with the same profile.  She was dressed in a slimly tailored black suit, only broken up by the yellow piece of paper rubber-banded to her left arm.  Most handlers wear monochromatic outfits in darker colors—a handler’s clothing should in no way distract attention from the dog.

A large number 6 was written on the slip of paper attached to Ghimenti’s arm—the number identified Forest for the judge. “I know a good boxer, and this is one nice boxer,” Ghimenti said glancing down at him.  “He’s not mine, but he does go back to mine, so he’s family.  That’s the reason I show him.”

Ghimenti was in charge of Forest, so Ryan, his owner, was in charge all of the show dog’s necessities.  She carried a spray bottle, two small towels, and a Tupperware container filled with chicken, Forest’s favorite treat.

The two women weren’t nervous.  They have gone through the same routine so many times that now it’s habit.

The Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, held every year, is a conformation show, also called a breed show. Each American Kennel Club registered dog is judged against the breed standard, a specific set of physical and personality characteristics that the ideal dog should possess. In these shows, dogs are not being judged against each other, but rather against how closely they meet the standard.

When his turn arrives, Forest will “show” for a single judge, who will examine him carefully. All breeds are different, but when judging a Boxer, overall appearance and balance are considered most important.  The judge will pay special attention to Forest’s head and muzzle, the Boxer’s trademark, making sure they are in proportion with the body. The judge will want to see him run, since Boxers must look the part of a working dog—a Boxer’s gait should be smooth, strong, and filled with energy. His expression should be alert and intelligent; most judges will whistle, click, or snap in order to get the attention of the dog and see how he looks at them.

As Ghimenti, Ryan and Forest waited, barks and yips filled the air and echoed off the vacant seats in the empty-looking arena. Only the six rows of seats closest to the edge of the center stage held people.  The chairs, made of a brownish-grey metal and cushioned in a cracked dark orange leather, squeaked as the audience continually shifted seats, each person moving to get a better view of the breeds they hoped to see.

Even the giant announcers’ table, sitting importantly at one end of the hall and draped with a giant royal blue banner reading “Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show” in gold letters, seemed forgotten.  Only two people occupied seats toward one end.

There weren’t many announcements, anyway.  If spectators wanted to know what is happening, it was a better bet to just shell out $7 for the program, a 208-page gold book.  There were 12 show rings and 1,190 dogs—representing 131 different breeds—entered to be shown that Saturday. Another 1,138 dogs representing 128 different breeds were entered on Sunday.

The Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show is a two-day all-breed benched conformation show—“benched” means all dogs must essentially be on display for the duration of the show both days.  The spectators are allowed to visit with the dogs and their owners, breeders, and handlers.  That meant that Ghimenti, Ryan and Forest expected to be at work all day.

“It’s a very public thing,” said Ghimenti. “You are kind of on parade.  I don’t like this show as much as others.  You can’t go home, you have to be here from 10 am to 5:30 pm.  And you get fined if you go.”

Ghimenti said she felt tired, but it was hard to tell.  Ghimenti talks at lightening speed, and always has a smile on her face.

Ghimenti has been breeding and showing Boxers for almost 20 years.  She said that although she had always wanted a dog, she waited until she was married and had a house with a fenced in yard before she made the commitment.  After hours spent researching different dog breeds, she and her husband had narrowed the field down to three choices: a Boxer, a Brittany, or a German Shepherd. “We wanted a medium dog that was a good family dog and a good guard dog,” Ghimenti said. After attending a dog show, they decided on a Boxer.

Boxers are natural guard dogs, originally bred to fight and hunt game in 19th Century Germany.  The dogs would stand up on their hind legs and bat at their opponent when fighting,

hence the name Boxer. But Boxers are also known for their intense desire for human affection.  They are said to love children and are patient with little kids.  The American Kennel Club ranked boxers the sixth most popular breed in 2010.

Ghimenti got her first Boxer in 1993, female named Crystal. “Within the first 24 hours we were in love, absolutely in love,” Ghimenti said.  “She was a little dog and she had so much personality.  She was so smart.  She whipped our butts that first year.  We had no idea what we were doing.”

“They are an energetic breed and I’m an energetic person,” she continued. “When you have a Boxer, you have to have a good sense of humor, because it’s just not going to work any other way. You’ve got to laugh; you have to be able to accept.  The ‘B’ in Boxer is for bouncy, as far as I’m concerned—a happy bouncy.”

Ghimenti got into the world of dog shows in 1994, when, searching to adopt a pal for Crystal, Ghimenti joined a Boxer club, not realizing that clubs tend to be centered on showing dogs.  Ghimenti was quickly “bit by the show bug,” she said.

Through the club, and the shows she began to attend, Ghimenti met a breeder with a stud dog to sell. His name was Booker T— a strong dog with a fawn coat and a white stripe running down the middle of his face—and he soon became Ghimenti’s top champion, as well as one of the top producers in the breed.  Booker T produced 10 champions out of 14 litters. “Best thing I ever did,” Ghimenti said of buying Booker T.  “Better than my marriage!” she added, laughing.

Forest is Booker T’s great-grandson.  “They have the same temperament,” Ghimenti said.  “Very sweet, loves people, very gentle, still has fun . . . loves food.  My boys are very cuddly.”

As the rest of the Boxers began to slowly make their way to the ring, the Best of Breed Saluki was chosen and the Salukis received their ribbons. It was show time for Forest. His category—male Boxers from 12 to 18 months old—was first. As his category was called, Ghimenti entered the ring, keeping Forest in position—head held up straight—by using her Kangaroo lead, a special leash made of kangaroo leather.

Forest was the only dog competing in the category, but he still had to face a judge, Boxer expert Angela Porpora.  Porpora, who had hair halfway between blond and white, was dressed head to toe in brown. Her jacket shone as the light hit it; it was made of something that looked like snakeskin.

Stopping in the center of the ring, Ghimenti quickly bent down and “hand stacked” Forest, positioning his body to be ideally shown: head and tail up, big brown eyes looking straight ahead.  Some judges will not let a handler hand stack the dog, which allows them to hide all manner of sins.

Porpora slowly walked over toward the now perfectly positioned Forest.  She ran her hands over his muscles and coat. She opened his mouth and looked at his teeth.  She motioned to Ghimenti, signaling her to take Forest in a lap around the ring.  The judge wanted to watch Forest’s gait so she could observe his bones and muscles in action.

Ghimenti put out her hand out in front of her, a signal to Forest.  The dog jumped with excitement. Ghimenti took off in a slow jog.  The speed at which handlers run around the ring is dependent on which breed they are showing; faster for bigger dogs and slower for smaller breeds.  Ghimenti held the lead straight up in order to keep Forest’s head up and facing forward as he ran.

Then Ghimenti led Forest to and from the farthest corner of the ring to show how he could run in a straight line.  On his return run, Forest’s left ear flopped over a little.

Boxers, especially those that compete in dog shows, usually have cropped ears—ears that have been trained to stand up straight. The procedure is considered cosmetic surgery. With the dog fully sedated, a veterinarian makes a cut in each of the dog’s ears and then re-stitches them so they will stand up.  After surgery, the ears remain taped as the cartilage slowly grows upward.

But the slight flop in Forest’s ear didn’t seem to bother dog or handler. Eager for Ghimenti’s approval (and the chicken that she had hidden in her pocket as a treat for a job well done) Forest never took his eyes off of his handler.

The formalities completed, Forest was immediately named the category’s winner.  The judge handed Ghimenti a blue ribbon.  She walked straight over to Ryan, who was quietly standing hidden behind the crowd gathered at the edge of the ring, and handed her the dog’s first ribbon of the day.

Then it was time to wait again for the results of four other Boxer-related categories before Forest could compete for the Best of Breed prize. The other categories for Boxers are broken down by sex and coat color.  Boxers come in three-color varieties: fawn, which is a light tan to mahogany brown, brindle, which is black stripes on a fawn background, and white.  White Boxers however, cannot compete; the American Kennel Club disqualifies white Boxers, because 20 percent are born deaf.  The club discourages the breeding of whites Boxers in the hopes of decreasing the number of deaf dogs.

“Back in the day, they used to cull them,” Ghimenti said of white Boxers.  “They’d put them down before they even took their first breath.  They thought that the white color would make the dog slow, because they were often deaf and had such fair skin.”

Today, with advancements in science and genetics, breeders now know that a white dog will not be slow.  However, white Boxers are usually sold as pets, rather than show dogs.

Forest is considered fawn. As he waited to be called back into the ring, Ghimenti tickled the underside of his short and stubby tail to get it to perk up.  At a dog show, you are always on display.

Finally, it was time for the Best of Breed competition. Forest was competing against three other dogs: the other category winner, plus a Champion and Grand Champion.  (Dogs who have previously earned their Championship or Grand Championship are directly entered into Best of Breed.) Up against two more experienced dogs, Forest was going to have to work hard for a win.

All four dogs entered the ring and were instructed to stand in line.

Ghimenti, holding a dog bone in her mouth, knelt down in front of Forest, wagging her fingers—an attempt to keep him focused and standing still.  Then the dogs and their handlers made the customary lap around the ring, and the judge examined the first of the four dogs.  The other three waited.

A little girl, wearing a neon-pink T-shirt covered in rhinestones, leaned over the railing and cooed at the three Boxers standing below her.  While the other two competitors were distracted by her antics, Forest was completely focused on Ghimenti; the pair stood silent and almost motionless.

Then it was Forest’s turn to step into the spotlight.  The judge let out a friendly “Hi!” as Ghimenti and the dog approached. Ghimenti lined Forest up, perfectly parallel to the black tape on the floor.   The judge walked over and ran her hand across Forest’s back, making sure his coat and muscle condition were as they should be.

But despite Forest’s good performance, after all four dogs were thoroughly examined the Best of Breed prize went to a fawn Boxer named GCH Conquest-Rosend’s New Kid In Town, better known as Riley.  Riley is only 16 months old, younger than Forest, and already a Grand Champion. Forest has been competing for 10 months; Riley has only been competing for six.

Forest was awarded a lesser prize called Best of Winners—a match-up with his female counterpart in the 12-18 month old category. Waiting to receive his ribbon, Forest only had eyes for his handler, staring directly at Ghimenti, who shook hands with the judge and once again took Forest’s ribbon straight to Ryan.

Satisfied with the results, Ghimenti was anxious to get back to her booth and rest.  At benched shows, like this one, each dog is provided an area in which they are to be displayed. The dogs, as well as their breeders, handlers and owners, are required to be at their booth at all times.  They are only allowed to leave to groom or show their dog.

Wide benches sat back to back in row upon row throughout the expansive exhibition halls.  All the benches were highly decorated. Colorful blankets and towels padded every inch of bench and rugs of all shapes and sizes covered the floor.  One Mastiff breeder had created a large wooden backdrop painted to look as if it were a medieval castle.

Each booth serves as a large advertisement for its assigned kennel. Pamphlets, business cards, and candy were strewn across a small table Ghimenti had set up.  The booth was also decorated with towels with Boxers splashed across them, framed photographs of winning moments, and a giant display board covered in photos of dogs from her kennel, PawPrint Boxers, which she registered with the American Kennel Club in March, 2008.  Last year the club honored Ghimenti as a Breeder of Merit.

With so many dogs, Ghimenti said, “I could be at a show every weekend if I wanted to be, but I cut myself a break.  I show two to three weekends a month.”

While Forest will go home with his owner, Ghimenti has several other dogs of her own that she also shows.  Living in her home, she has five-year-old Brandy and one-year-old Ruby, as well as a new puppy, 16-week-old Bobby.  He is already beginning his training.

She also co-owns Toby, AKA PawPrint Time For a Boi Toi, her newest champion.  He lives up the street from Ghimenti with a friend of hers.  “She really wanted to finish a champion,” Ghimenti said.  “She begged.  And I mean she begged.”

But Ghimenti is very clear that no amount of begging will ever separate her from her new puppy. “Bobby is not going anywhere,” Ghimenti said.  “I’ve had people wanting to buy him.  His pedigree is stunning.  I’ve had breeders all over the country wanting to buy him.  Which is wonderful and lovely.   But . . . no.  He’s too cute.”

As Bobby gets older, Ghimenti will get busier.  The second half of this year, she will be gone a lot.  Most shows she attends are in California, but occasionally she has to stay overnight. Dog shows are social events for both the dogs as well as their human companions, Ghimenti said. “Everybody here is here for the same reason,” Ghimenti said.  “We love our breed and we want to show it off.”

“They are all nice places,” Ghimenti said of traveling to show her dogs. “It’s kinda neat.  You always find somewhere to eat.  Sometimes cocktails.  After we potty the dogs and we feed them, they go in a crate to go night-night.  We go enjoy ourselves.”

Ghimenti also shares her love of Boxers with people outside of the show circuit through her website, “My website is the biggest breeder Boxer website,” Ghimenti says.  “My side hobby is web design.  It allows me to share my dogs—and not just breeding and selling—but the dogs in general.  When people have questions, it’s a point of contact for them, wherever they are.”

Ghimenti’s entire extended family of dogs is displayed on the site, including Forest. “It’s not just breeding though,” Ghimenti said.  “I have a whole sub-website called  You can pretty much guess what that’s about.”

Ghimenti started pulling photos off of the large display board behind her. “This is you how you spell dignity,” Ghimenti said, holding up a picture of a Boxer dressed in a cowboy outfit.  She turned around and grabbed another picture.  It was of Booker T wearing a foam Statue of Liberty crown.

“On my website, the caption on this photo is: ‘My mom went to New York City and all she brought me back was this stupid hat,’” Ghimenti said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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