Lenny, a 3-year-old treeing Walker coonhound, should not be a champion.
When Jordan Confer met the dog — a rescue — he was skinny, skittish and terrified of his new owner. Naturally, it was raining that day, Confer says.
Lenny’s rescuers figured that Confer, a teenager who was becoming increasingly involved in dog shows, could learn a few things as Lenny’s owner. They didn’t expect much more.
Next week, Confer, 19, and Lenny will take on the 139th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Manhattan for the second time. Last year, he was invited to the show and competed as a junior handler and in the breed competition.
Handling and showing dogs runs in the family. Confer’s close family member Liane Paulson also competed at Westminster last year. She says Confer and her 14-year-old son, Shane Paulson, basically grew up together, and this year, Shane will join them at Westminster to compete at the main breed level.
The family members will travel together, as they often have since Liane introduced both boys to dog shows roughly 10 years ago. This time, they will leave their homes in Sierra Vista to compete in New York — in the “World Series of dog shows,” Liane says.
“I’m very excited just to have the experience to be able to say I went there and did that, and I’m very excited to show my dog,” says Shane, whose Polish lowland sheepdog, Stuart, will join him. “I am nervous, because I know it’s a huge show and is viewed on the Internet and TV. … It’s just nerve-racking.”
Last year Lenny received an Award of Merit within his breed, meaning that although he did not win a Best of Breed or similar title, a judge deemed him to be an exceptional entry among other competing treeing Walker coonhounds.
This year, Lenny is the No. 2 treeing Walker coonhound in the country and the top male in the breed, says Nancy Winton, 68, one of Lenny’s breeders. The pair also boasts multiple Group wins, a few Reserve Best in Shows and at least one Best in Show, Winton says.
“It’s a sport dominated by girls at this age,” Liane says. “People are really excited to see boys doing it, and both of these boys, because they have dogs in their lives, neither one of them has gone in any bad directions.”
Liane, who breeds Parson Russell terriers, also took a rescue dog to the show last year. The dog was rescued out of a pet home after a Dalmatian attacked him. She didn’t want Jordan going alone to New York, so she took a dog “just to have fun.”
This year, she will compete with Foxy, another Parson Russell terrier, who, like Lenny, comes to the Westminster show with a Grand Champion title. Stuart has a Champion title.
“Shane has gotten Best Junior,” Liane says, and Foxy has placed third and fourth in terrier groups and will be at the American Kennel Club Meet the Breeds event in New York next Saturday.
It has been a long road.
“I was told that (Lenny) would most likely not be a show dog just because of the way he was acting,” says Confer, holding Lenny’s leash tight as they sit in a park. “I wanted to make him my juniors dog, so I just started working with him.”
Lenny was rescued about two years ago after being sold by his Ohio breeder to a man in Flagstaff who intended to hunt bears and mountain lions with him.
“He had the dog about two weeks, and in that time, the dog wouldn’t eat and didn’t like being there,” says Winton, Lenny’s co-breeder, who is based in Vail. “The guy just threw him out in the backyard and wouldn’t do anything with him. He called me to say: ‘I’m going to dump this dog at the pound. Do you want him?’ ”
Winton, along with friends Kay Purchiss of Sahuarita and Vitra “Vi” Harrison of Benson, scrounged up the $500 needed to buy Lenny back.
Purchiss and Harrison made the road trip north while Winton worked.
“When we got the dog, he smelled of pig or cow feces and had green legs like he had been sitting in it,” Harrison says. “He was very shy and bashful of the guy.”
Winton took the dog in and coaxed him to eat. “Satin balls” are used to put weight on dogs and are made of hamburger, wheat germ, molasses and other ingredients. These tempted Lenny’s taste buds. “I was up to my elbows in hamburger,” Winton says.
Until that point, Confer had mostly shown Liane’s terriers, occasionally stepping in to help Purchiss, Harrison and Winton when they needed a hand in the ring. He fell in love with treeing Walker coonhounds after meeting and showing one of Winton’s.
“We are like his granny groupies,” Winton says of her friendship with Harrison, 56, Purchiss, 57, and Confer. “He would take our dogs in Group because he was learning. … He would run them around the ring for us because we were too tired.”
At about the same time that Lenny arrived in Southern Arizona, Confer was looking for a treeing Walker coonhound of his own. After about three months of TLC at Winton’s, Lenny moved in with Confer. Now he is the owner.
Within several months, Lenny and Confer were competing.
“I took him to PetSmart a lot and Lowe’s just to get him used to the building and people,” Confer says. “He still hates those places. He was not socialized.”
The dog park, on the other hand, became a favorite.
“That’s his favorite place to go now,” Confer says. “He pees on everything. He doesn’t play with the dogs; he just runs around and pees.”
In this family, champions eat at Pizza Hut.
It’s a running joke among Liane, Shane and Confer, stemming from a show in a “Podunk” Alaska town that lacked restaurants worthy of celebrating wins, Liane says.
So they went to Pizza Hut.
“We’ve always been the team, the three of us working together,” she says. The Pizza Hut tradition, with other general silliness, lives on.
On road trips, they play car games, and Liane can always count on the boys to get in a good bounce on hotel beds and “act like they are 3.”
They occasionally train together, taking the dogs to stores with floors similar to the ground in some show rings.
“It kind of makes it easier,” Confer says of working with Shane. “We can bounce things off of each other. If I learn something different, I can help him out.”
Besides showing his own dog, Confer shows dogs for clients at a fee. After graduating from Buena High School in Sierra Vista in May 2014, he decided this is what he wants to do professionally.
While Shane sees this as more of a hobby, competition occasionally crops up between the boys. It helps that they show their own breeds, Liane says.
“I remember my mom first sent a picture of (Stuart) over the phone, and she said, ‘This could be your dog if you want him,’ ” Shane says. “My very first thought was, ‘That is a lot of hair.’ ”
Stuart moved in with the Paulsons several months ago. They call him a “tornado,” a “big goober” and a “walking mop.” The first time he met Shane, he made quite the impression.
“My mom brought him home in the middle of the night,” Shane says. “They brought Stuart into my room, and he jumped into my bed and woke me up.”
And that was that.
“He’s just fun and hairy, and you don’t have this strict show dog that doesn’t want to play,” Liane says. “They can be goofy and then serious.”
Both Confer and the Paulsons have more than one dog, but the one-on-one relationship between dog and handler outside of the show ring is what brings in the wins. Confer says Lenny is “the best dog I ever had.”
“I think the reason they win so much is the bond between the two of them,” Winton says of Confer and Lenny. “It gives you goose bumps when you watch them show.”