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Defying the Odds – Swagger & Colton

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74 – June, 2015

It’s arguably the most difficult Achievement in our sport… Winning over 100 Best In Shows with a dog you bred, own and handle.

By Amy Fernandez

It’s hard to describe the collective energy and optimism reverberating throughout the racing world since American Pharoah reclaimed the Triple Crown. Only one recent event in our sport compares to the scope of that miracle – Swagger. Actually, when considered in context, it’s way bigger because homegrown projects rarely make headlines at Westminster.

A few class dogs have done the impossible since Westminster began offering Best In Show in 1907. But as a rule, non-champion equals non-contender. Possibly, the most notable exception happened way back in 1945 when the Scottie dog, Shieling’s Signature, broke every rule and defied every prediction. Like legions of hobby breeders before and since, Howard and Molly Snethen had a rock solid track record of presenting top-notch dogs in a breed dominated by invincible professionals armed with awesome imports. Two-year-old Shieling’s Signature represented the fourth generation of their breeding program. No one was surprised when he picked up his last major and became their thirteenth champion at Westminster that year. The rest of the day was another story.

Mr. Snethen’s shock probably exceeded the audience reaction when he found himself facing off against five lethal challengers for Best In Show. That fact became obvious when he managed to lose his dog on the down-and-back. Like all savvy show dogs, this diehard Scottie required no chaperone to execute the move including a flawless four-square free stack. Needless to say, the crowd went wild. Those are the moments that make history and sell tickets. But like the Triple Crown, the fancy long ago became resigned to the fact that those days were gone. That’s until 2013 when the Old English Sheepdog class dog, Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect, rocketed from BBE to Reserve Best In Show. Predictably, the crowd went wild.

Swagger’s owner/handler, Colton Johnson, admits that he didn’t immediately grasp the significance of that moment. “Someone came up to me and said that Westminster has been a graveyard for so many dogs, this is where it ends. It was so refreshing to see a dog’s career start there for a change. It’s so true, but I never thought about it until then. It was a revelation.” Then again, Swagger’s entire career has defied belief. “At his very first show he won an all breed Best In Show, his second show he went Reserve Winners Dog at the National as a nine month-old puppy, and then at seventeen months Westminster was his third show. It was the beginning of his career and the highlight. It was crazy! I never imagined winning the breed let alone the group or Reserve Best In Show from the classes. It was a very cool thing.” That’s a world class understatement. That win marked the start of Swagger’s three year starring role at the Garden, which included Group Fourth last year and another Group First this year. That’s the tip of the iceberg. “He swept several big competitive clusters like Ventura, Canfield, Louisville, Portland. Those are big shows with 2000+ entries and the top dogs from all over the country. And he didn’t win just one or two or half of them, he won the whole thing!”

Swagger’s overwhelming success has been hard to miss, but just in case anyone spent the last couple years stranded on Gilligan’s Island, his blitzkrieg show campaign saw him garner over 113 Best In Show wins for owners Ron & Debbie Scott and his breeder/owner/handler. Colton underscores his apprecation to Swagger’s co-owners for their support. That unequivocally dazzling career was made more dazzling by the situation at the other end of the leash. “I was very confident in the dog. We knew he was one of the best we’ve ever bred, so we just did our best to present him to the fancy. We always did it [showed the dogs] ourselves. There was never any question of getting a handler.” This owner/handler success became a motivational symbol for fanciers at every level of the sport. Even so, the trajectory of Swagger’s career was obviously guided by informed decision making. Technically, Swagger was his first litter, but Colton Johnson didn’t wander into his first show last week. Both members of this team entered this fray with serious street cred.

“My parents showed their own dogs before I was even born,” Colton says proudly. Colton’s parents, Doug and Michaelanne, opened their Colorado Springs grooming and boarding kennel in 1977. Colton and his sisters grew up learning the family business, but more importantly, they grew up with a crucial advantage that has become increasingly rare in this sport. As heirs to the Bugaboo dynasty, they were instilled with irreplaceable experience and dog sense. Colton’s parents devoted decades to perfecting the Bugaboo bloodline established by their mentors John and Edie Shields. And it has paid off. He says, “If you have done well enough in the breed and consistently bring the judges good dogs, as my parents have done for 40-plus years, I feel they will recognize you for that. If my parents were to walk in the Old English Sheepdog ring against some high profile handler, I think we would get equal consideration because the judges know that we are passionate about this breed and they want to reward that passion.”

Decades of Bugaboo success confirms that premise. A few of these milestone achievements include GCh. Bugaboo’s Big Resolution, the 2006 top Herding Dog and Westminster Group winner, and the breed’s top winning bitch, GCh. Bugaboo’s Georgie Girl, who went on to produce the famous Swagger. Among many other honors, the Johnsons received the AKC Breeder of the Year award in 2006.

Colton says, “Judges don’t invariably put up their friends. All things being equal, it’s natural to lean toward the person you know. If I couldn’t make up my mind between two dogs, I would probably do it, you would, too. But that doesn’t happen very often.” To illustrate his point, he admits that when he loses, “The judge will ask me ‘why are you showing this Colton? You shouldn’t be showing this to me. You know better.’ Just like those professionals out there winning, they hold me to a higher standard.”

Rather than conceding defeat to professional handlers, Colton advises owner/handlers to reevaluate their own efforts if they aren’t winning. “It’s not all politics. Look at what is on the end of your lead. Your dog’s conditioning may not be up to par. Compare that to the dogs these top handlers bring into the ring. They are in impeccable condition, and are well-trained, happy, and perfectly groomed. They don’t lie on the couch all week and go to shows on the weekend. They get road worked and maintained every day. This is a dog show and presentation counts,” he says.

Colton continues, “Rather than making professionals out to be the bad guys in this sport, new people have to be open minded and willing to learn. If you like someone’s dogs and they are doing well, you should talk to them. Ask questions, then go home and work at it. Strive for high standards and pay your dues. There is a reason they call them professionals. They are paid to present those dogs at their best. If they weren’t doing that, they wouldn’t have a job.”

Of course, Colton’s perspective on this situation derives from his unique position in this wild, wooly sport. He’s also a second generation professional handler who has garnered immense success in his own right. But even this veteran professional concedes that Swagger’s career has been way more than he bargained for. “That was all different from any dog I have shown in my entire career. When I passed Doug Holloway and his Schnauzer (Ch. Parsifal Di Casa Netzer) for top owner/handler of all time, I didn’t think much of it at first. It’s not like I set out to break that record. It just happened within the whole experience. But later, when I sat back and thought about it, I got goose bumps. There are some phenomenal owner/handlers in that group. These people have been my idols and role models, and the fact that my name is in there with them is an incredible honor. Whether you are an owner/handler, professional, or breeder/owner/handler those accomplishments represent a lifetime of work and dedication,” he says.

It’s difficult to argue with Colton’s perception of the situation or reemphasize the incalculable personal investment required to achieve that level of success. Likewise, collective focus on that kind of excellence would launch every aspect of this sport to unimaginable heights. However, the ongoing dedication that motivates that kind of commitment stems from an underlying confidence that it eventually be recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for a sizeable percentage of today’s exhibitors. Their ongoing experiences are more comparable to fighting in the trenches on the losing side of a war.

Swagger’s career has done plenty to revitalize the sport but Colton acknowledges that everyone is responsible for its future. “I think a big reason this sport is declining is that we, as a dog show community, are not paying enough attention to the new people trying to get involved. Those who have grown up in this world have a responsibility to teach and mentor new people,” he says. And he is out there on the front lines doing his part. “We are pretty fortunate to have a boarding kennel where we can offer handling classes. We are always helping and mentoring new people. Whenever we have time at shows, we watch them in the ring so we can give them some pointers. If they have an issue and we can’t help, maybe they need help grooming a drop-coated breed, then we refer them to someone who does very well with that breed, usually it’s a professional handler, sometimes it is a breeder. Either way, if we don’t know the answer, we will put them in a direction to get the help they need.”

In his opinion, elitist mentality is the biggest obstacle standing in way of its future growth. “We are all here for the same reason, we love our dogs. They sleep in our beds and we all walk around waiting for them to pee and poop and then we scoop it up. There is nothing elitist about it.” Swagger may be the premier example of this inclusive, egalitarian philosophy. “No one is ruled out of his social circle. He gets along with everybody: he loves kids, older people, special needs people, cats, horses. If another dog went after him, he would probably run up and lick its face.”

Although he is semi-retired, his schedule hasn’t slacked off a bit. Colton says, “He is kind of a local celebrity around here. People enjoy seeing him and he enjoys people, so we are taking advantage of that.” Along with schools and retirement homes, his public relations blitz has opened doors for him at the state capitol in Denver. Last March Colorado became the first state to officially designate May 1 as National Purebred Dog Day. “We took him up to the senate and they declared Swagger the Colorado State Dog.”

Aside from enjoying his new role as America’s purebred ambassador, “We are just hanging low, enjoying this year. I am going to try to get his herding title, but we haven’t been to too many shows. Last year we went to enough shows to last us for a while.” True, but neither half of this team is prepared to go cold turkey. “We do some local shows. Swagger isn’t shown, but he always comes along.” Colton doesn’t have much choice. “When he hears the van or the RV start up he loses it. No way is he staying home.”

On the same note, no one is jumping on that other defining feature of retirement. “He is gonna be a good old, hairy housepet. I don’t know if I will ever shave him down. For now, he will stay in full coat. Who knows, one day people might see him in the ring again, maybe even the juniors ring with my kids.” Meanwhile Swagger is concentrating on the most important legacy he can contribute to the sport. “He has produced some beautiful puppies. So far, he is proving to be a great sire.” No matter how you spin it, that truly is the bottom line of this business.

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Posted by on Jul 11 2015. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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