To many Americans the animal commonly and mistakenly known as the "French" poodle is an object for tolerant, if not derisive, laughter. But to one American better equipped to know than most, the poodle is no more ridiculous than he is French. In fact, according to Miss Anne Hone Rogers, a no-nonsense girl who stands 6 feet 2 in her usually sneakered feet, the poodle, whether toy, miniature or standard, is perhaps the finest breed of dog extant. He is intelligent, he is adaptable, he is a born showman, and his thick, curly hair is a continuing challenge to a dog handler's skill with scissors and clippers.
Miss Rogers is not only a professional dog handler—one of almost a thousand in the country—but one of the best in the field. She was the first woman professional ever to handle a best-in-show at the Westminster, and she is the only woman ever to win three best-in-shows at this World Series of show doggery. All three were poodles. Next week, when Manhattan's Madison Square Garden echoes again to the yelps of the finest canines in the land. Miss Rogers will be there, handling some 25 dogs of sundry breeds, including some of the best poodles she has had. Should she happen to have a best-in-show among them—a prospect that is not too remote—Anne Rogers will have tied the alltime record of four Westminster winners.
"So what?" the uninitiated might comment. "What's so great about being on the other end of a leash while a beautiful dog walks around a ring showing off?" But, as Anne Rogers has often proved, merely showing a superb dog is not enough to win a prize.
"You can have the greatest dog in the world," she says, "but unless he goes into the ring and displays that greatness you might just as well have a plug." Anne Rogers can get the most out of a dog in the ring by using grooming, training and gamesmanship to offset what might be considered a deficiency in looks. As a case in point, take Ch. Wilber White Swan, a white toy poodle that gave Miss Rogers her first Westminster winner in 1956. "That dog," says one poodle breeder with edged finality, "was not that great." Under severe pressure even Miss Rogers will admit that, while maybe Wilber was not exactly the greatest toy poodle ever seen in terms of breed standards, he was one tremendous showman. "Wilber had nights when he was great," she says, "and he was great in the Garden the night he won."
But what helped make him great was the manner in which Miss Rogers handled him before he even entered the ring. After Wilber won a best in the toy group, she dispatched him to his bench in the Garden basement to await the best-in-show competition. A guard hovered over the bench, making certain that Wilber, an exuberant ham, did not put on a show for anyone who wandered by. "When Wilber entered the ring," Miss Rogers recalls, "he had all that spark stored up in him until he was quivering like a taut bow." But the story does not end there. Wilber White Swan was one of six finalists to strut his stuff. The first was a boxer bitch, and as she pranced through her performance the crowd applauded wildly. Next came an English setter that cruised around the ring in splendid fashion, leg and tail feathers fluttering gloriously, as the Garden crowd screamed its approval. Wilber quivered all the more. "He thought," says Miss Rogers, "that the applause was for him." Then the judge pointed to Miss Rogers. As Wilber started off, he came to a gap in the ring rugs, ordinarily a formidable chasm for a dog as small as himself, but with absolute aplomb and dash he leapt over it without breaking stride. The crowd cut loose with the kind of frenzied cheers, shouts and cries of joy that the Russian press reports as "a great commotion in the hall," and by the time Wilber had gaily finished his turn—and he insisted on covering just as much ground as the boxer and the setter—the overwhelmed judge took an almost perfunctory look at the last three competitors, then awarded self-confident Wilber the purple-and-gold ribbon. Hats flew in ecstatic salute. "Wilber," recalls Miss Rogers of her megalomaniac champion, "always thought that he was a standard poodle and not a toy. He thought that he was a tremendous dog. He was absolutely fearless."
Anne Rogers' fondness for dogs, megalomaniac or otherwise, dates from her earliest childhood. "She was surrounded by dogs from the time she was in a baby carriage," says her father, William Rogers, a retired Railway Express executive who lives with her in Mahopac, N.Y., 50 miles north of Manhattan. "I used to take her and four dogs, wire-haired terriers, for a walk, and you can imagine what a time I had." When the stock market crash wiped out the Rogers family investments Mr. Rogers went to work for Railway Express; Mrs. Rogers turned a lively interest in wirehaired terriers and English cockers to use by setting up a dog shop for Abercrombie & Fitch. Because times were rather tight and the Rogerses did not wish to impose a doggy life upon their daughter, they left her to live weekdays with her Hone grandmother in Flushing on Long Island. But on weekends Anne and the dogs struck up a friendship that has never cooled. After putting in several years at Abercrombie's, Mrs. Rogers opened Dogs, Inc., a sort of canine boarding house and beauty parlor, in a brownstone on East 52nd Street, and daughter Anne was an enthralled visitor every Saturday and Sunday.
In time Anne became a child dog handler, but she was no prodigy. In fact, she never won so much as a junior showmanship competition. Nonetheless, it was dogs, dogs, dogs all the time. "In high school I was the dog lady," Miss Rogers recalls. "All my compositions and themes had to do with dogs. I was always drawing dogs. I very seldom entered into the outside activities that the other kids did." Upon graduation from high school in 1946, Miss Rogers, to the regret of her family, spurned two scholarships to join her mother at Dogs, Inc.
For the first three years life in the brownstone was far from exciting. Miss Rogers, in fact, led a dog's life. She was put in the basement of the establishment to comb, clip and scissor any dog that a passing customer brought in for the works. "I hated it," she says. "I begrudged every minute I spent on a customer's pet when I could have been working on a show dog. I just hated it!" But as much as Miss Rogers detested her spell in the basement, it was, she now admits, a valuable apprenticeship.
In 1950 the brownstone burned down (fortunately no dogs were hurt), and Mrs. Rogers moved her kennel across the Hudson River to New City. She stayed there until neighbors complained about the barking. In 1954 she and her daughter took over a kennel in Mahopac. Before Mrs. Rogers died in 1960, she had the satisfaction of seeing her daughter move to the first rank among handlers. Anne Rogers began her rise with Highland Sand Magic Star, a miniature black poodle, in the early 1950s, and she capped it with the victory of Wilber White Swan at Westminster in 1956. She won again at Westminster with a miniature bitch named Ch. Fontclair Festoon (Tina for short) in 1959 and again in 1961 with Ch. Cappoquin Little Sister, a black toy bitch. Tina was, in Anne Rogers' opinion, the finest dog she has ever handled. As a matter of fact, she calls Tina "the best dog I've ever seen." Tina died a year ago, but Miss Rogers can still become emotional over her. "I don't know if you should ever show a dog that you feel so strongly about," she says. "Everything becomes a matter of life or death." Miss Rogers handled Tina in 68 shows, and in 58 of them Tina won at least a best-of-variety. She lost only 10 times, but every loss is etched, bitterly, in Miss Rogers' memory.
At Mahopac today Anne Rogers lives in a converted stone barn with her father, a friend, Joy Brewster, five house dogs, three cats and countless tropical fish. The kennels are out in back and, all told, they house 100 dogs. Customers pay a minimum of $1.50 a day board for each dog and a fee of $25 to $35 every time the dog is entered in a show. Should the dog win a group competition, Miss Rogers gets a bonus of $50. If he takes a best-in-show she gets an added $50. On the average, Miss Rogers attends 90 shows a year, ranging from Maine to Florida and as far west as Chicago. Much of the time she drives, frequently covering 3,000 miles a month in a 1959 International Harvester truck. To help her, she employs one full-time assistant, a young man named Richard Bauer, a full-time kennel man and three part-time helpers.
Preparing a dog for the ring can be arduous, depending upon the breed. A chihuahua, for instance, is simplicity itself, but these tiny dogs are difficult to kennel because of their susceptibility to colds. On the other hand, a poodle or any of the terriers requires a great deal of painstaking effort. "It takes at least a year to get the main coat of a poodle into condition," says Miss Rogers. "Before the dog is shown for the first time you will have show-trimmed it three or four times to get the lines right." Even more taxing is a terrier, especially a large one like an Airedale or a standard Schnauzer. "The hair of a terrier," says Miss Rogers, "is not cut but plucked right out of the skin." Because of this, terrier handlers usually have very wide and calloused thumbs. "As the hair grows older, it is easy to pluck," says Miss Rogers, "but the dog's coat has to be timed, from the time when the hair is plucked to the time when the texture and length are just right for a show. It takes 13 weeks to get a dog like a Schnauzer ready for a show." Perhaps because of this, terriers are usually a very strong group in any show. "Terrier men," says Miss Rogers, "simply won't spend time on a bad dog. But because of all the work, we don't have young handlers coming along. It was through the influence of the terrier people, my mother among them, that I got the perfectionist attitude in turning out poodles."
Mature show poodles get either one of two trims: the Continental or the English Saddle. In the Continental the poodle's hindquarters are closely shaved and a rosette may be cut over each hipbone at the option of the owner. Each rear leg has a single bracelet from hock to heel. In the English Saddle trim a blanket of hair is left over the hindquarters and there are two bracelets on each rear leg. The trims are believed to have originated when the poodle was first used as a retriever in its native Germany. The main coat kept the dog's heart and lungs warm in cold water while the cropped hindquarters allowed him to swim without getting bogged down. "To look well in a Continental trim," says Miss Rogers, "the dog has to have almost perfect hindquarters. The English Saddle trim is artful. You can 'shape' the dog."
Shaping a dog to emphasize its strong points and minimize its weak points is one of the main arts of handling. If, say, a poodle has too long a back—i.e., if the distance from the shoulders to the tail is greater than that from the shoulders to the front feet—the dog is trimmed so that his main coat is brought back beyond the last rib to give the illusion of conforming to precise standard.
But mere tricks of coat cutting and showmanship are only part of the game. A top handler like Anne Rogers must be a full-time dog psychologist to get the most out of some of her charges. Take her favorite Tina, for example. "Tina," says Miss Rogers, "had a bad habit of chewing pieces out of her coat. She'd wreck it overnight, and after she did this several times in the kennel—out of boredom, I suppose—we brought her into the house, where we could keep an eye on her. But then, as a result of living with people, she became blasé, and at a show in Philadelphia in December 1958, just two months before winning at the Garden, she became so plodding that she lost. I had to leave her to go to the Florida shows in January, but I left strict instructions that she be put back in the kennel. If she ruined her coat, too bad, but I wanted her to get her zip back and not be a spoiled baby. It worked. At Westminster she didn't chew her coat, and she did show like her old self as she came prancing, not plodding, into the ring."
The week before Westminster is always the most hectic time of the year at Miss Rogers' ménage. This week friends from all over the country will be dropping by at Mahopac with their dogs, while everyone is tearing around getting ready for the Garden. Miss Rogers will be chain-smoking more than ever and snapping up every half-dollar she sees. Superstitious to an extreme, she regards half-dollars as lucky pieces, just as she does the dice which she sews to the end of every show lead. Among the potential Westminster winners thus protected against fate at the Garden this year will be a one-year-old named Karlena's Musical Rattler II, better known as Junior. ("What else?" says Miss Rogers.) Junior is Miss Rogers' very own dog and a splendid-looking animal but, unlike most of her favorites, he is not a poodle but a coonhound. And he is not a bit likely to make best-in-show. Junior's father, Ch. Karlena's Musical Rattler, holds the record at Westminster for most consecutive best-of-breed wins, and was never beaten anywhere by any other coonhound, but Junior—Miss Rogers confesses—is not quite the dog his father was. She is entering him in the show just the same. Why? "I always have a coonhound at the Westminster," says Anne Hone Rogers, a dog lady who believes in adding luck to good management. "It's a superstition."