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A Breed Apart, They Handle Champs: Elk Grove Husband, Wife Each Had a Dog in Finals of the Top U.S. Contest.

February 17, 2007

By Chris Bowman, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Feb. 17–Larry and Laurie Fenner of Elk Grove are at their best when they go unnoticed.

Dog shows, after all, are about the dogs, not the men and women who lead them about the ring. The less judges see of the Fenners, the better.

The couple must have been downright cellophane earlier this week on the green carpet in Madison Square Garden. The dogs they showed each won best in their breed and in their group at the Westminster Kennel Club’s 131st annual dog show.

That pitted the husband and wife against each other Tuesday night as two of seven finalists for best in show at America’s top dog event.

Larry Fenner handled a Bouvier des Flandres called Indy, and Laurie Jordan-Fenner guided an Akita named Macey.

“To be competing against your spouse …” club spokesman David Frei mused, “well, they were probably rooting for each other.”

As it turned out, an English springer spaniel fetched the top honors, beating the Bouvier, the Akita, a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, a pair of poodles and a Dandie Dinmont terrier co-owned by actor-comedian Bill Cosby.

The Fenners are by no means unhappy.

“Just to win best of breed, I had to compete against nine other Bouviers,” Larry Fenner said Friday in a telephone interview from New York City.

Just to enter the Westminster competition, the dog must have run a gantlet of regional dog shows around the country and earned enough judging points to attain the American Kennel Club title of champion.

Indy and Macey were among the select few top champions that didn’t have to compete in a lottery to gain entry to the New York show, which is limited to 2,500 dogs that are grouped in seven classes, such as working, herding and sporting.

“This is the only show all year where you have all the great dogs all here,” said Frei, who co-hosts a telecast of the show on the USA network. “It is so competitive from the people standpoint, so to win in a group is a huge deal.”

No sooner did the Westminster show end than Fenner rushed to an airport to make a Santa Clara County competition this weekend. Flight delays, however, have kept him and Indy holed up in a Manhattan hotel room since Tuesday. His wife managed to make a flight to Denver for another dog show, after a Wednesday morning appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

Fenner already had his day in the sun. Last March, he guided a Rhodesian ridgeback that became world champion at Crufts, the Olympics of dog shows, held annually in England.

Fenner said he was the first American to win best in show at the event, the world’s largest dog show with 25,000 contenders.

“I was on four or five TV shows,” Fenner recalled.

Meanwhile, back in Elk Grove, neighbors don’t see much of the Fenners. They reside off rural Bradshaw Road on 5 acres with miniature goats and horses and golden retrievers. But they travel every weekend to dog shows, mainly in California.

A sign at the front of the house hints at their passion:

“All dogs welcome. Children must be kept on a leash.”

Not surprisingly, Fenner and his wife met on the dog show circuit. They married eight years ago and quickly became the talk of dog shows.

“We’ve been a very successful team,” said Fenner, 43, a former manager of a wireless network service. “We make a very good living showing dogs.”

As full-time professional show dog handlers, Fenner said he owns at least 20 business suits, and his wife has at least twice as many dress outfits for the shows.

Their clients hail from around the United States, as well as Japan, England, China and Ireland. The quality of dogs they handle grows with their fame, Fenner said.

Dog showing is not as easy as it may appear.

“We always say the best handlers are invisible,” Frei said. “They present the dogs in a way where the judge doesn’t see them.

“They have to understand the dog, know how to show its strengths and know the exact speed to show their dog. To do that, they have to be athletic.”

That’s especially true for dogs the size of a Bouvier, a powerfully built herding dog with a harsh and tousled coat. The Akita is a no-less-powerful, all-round working dog, with a bearlike head and erect, forward-pointing ears.

Although the Fenners make an art of disappearing behind their dogs, they get special attention from at least one couple in Elk Grove.

That would be Eunice and T.K. Oh, owners of New Generation dry cleaners at Elk Grove Florin and Calvine Roads.

“I want to see them. They’re our biggest customer,” Eunice Oh said.

“We always check the pockets. Sometimes we find dog food in there.”

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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