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Making of a Champion

By: David Hinckley

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Presumably you don't become the winning-est St. Bernard in the history of dog shows without knowing a few tricks. But whatever strategies Ch. Trusts Gentle Ben V Slaton has locked inside his large, wrinkled and very furry head, he's keeping to himself. About an hour after he was selected the best St. Bernard at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club show, defending a title he won in 2000, Gentle Ben is in his crate, sound asleep, face buried in two equally large and furry paws.

"You want to know what he does the day of a show?" asks Joe Wolf of Canton, Ohio, his owner. Wolf chuckles and points to the crate. "That's pretty much it." Gentle Ben established himself some time ago as the Michael Jordan of St. Bernards. He has won 32 best-in-show titles, one of his many records, and his presence at Westminster this year is a major reason only three other St. Bernards were registered for the competition and only two actually entered at Westminster this year.

"You know you're not going to beat Ben," says Randy Sleep, who owns one of those two competitors. Sleep and his wife drove to New York from Denver with Westhaven Polaris V, informally known as Larry, and they'll go home with an Award of Merit. "The award of merit was our goal, so we're happy. And Ben's a fine dog. Judges love him and his record speaks for itself."

Some Saint owners think Ben may have a slight advantage because he's a long-haired rather than short-haired Saint. That means when he's groomed for a show, he fluffs up to look considerably more imposing than his 175 pounds. St. Bernards being the quintessential big dog, it never hurts to look even bigger.

What It Takes

To win as consistently as Ben, though, requires more than bulk. It requires style and personality, and Ben has those qualities, too, at Michael Jordan levels. "Some dogs are a little laid-back in the ring," says Wolf. "Not this guy. If anything, he's sometimes a little too exuberant."

While many show dog owners farm out the handling and grooming to professionals, that isn't the case with Wolf and his wife Shirley, who co-own Ben with Linda Bulicz and Janet Lange. "Joe handles him and I groom him," says Shirley Wolf, who says Ben was less than three months old when his potential started to show. You develop an eye for show qualities when you breed dogs, says Shirley, and the Wolfs know St. Bernards. They currently have 15. "The important thing is not to get kennel-blind," says Shirley. "You can't start thinking that because they're your own dogs, there's automatically something special about them. You have to know what you really have."

At around 16 to 18 months the dog has grown into his or her final form, which is when the owners' skill kicks in. "You have to have the dog," says Shirley. "Then you have to know what to do with him," which is where grooming and handling come in. "Joe's the best St. Bernard handler there is," she says. He used to show Newfoundlands and Great Pyrenees for friends, but now he sticks to their own Saints. "I like making the decisions," he says.

In Ben's case, that decision was to get him out to as many shows as possible. He entered about 130 last year, which put the Wolfs and their motor home on the road pretty much constantly. "We take two weeks off in December," says Shirley. "That's the only time we're not grooming and bathing him for shows."

After his win at Westminster, Ben's day would include some nap time and chow. He eats eight to 10 cups of dog food a day. And then, another full grooming for the evening competition, where he would compete for best in the working group.

And so at what age does he retire and let all the other dogs figure out how to challenge his records? "I want to pull him out at the end of the year," says Joe. "But I don't know if we will. That's a point on which my wife and I don't agree at the moment."

Don't look to Trusts Gentle Ben V Slaton for the tiebreaking vote on this one. He's sound asleep.

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