Small Dog, Big Show
This pup from Harpswell may weigh less than a bag of flour, but he sure knows how to steal the show at Westminster.
Napoleon’s house is a ranch in Harpswell with a fenced-in yard and custom-designed doggy doors. Evergreens grow in back, and there’s a frog pond on the side. Napoleon lives here with thirty other dogs, including his father, Merle Haggard, and his son, Patrick, plus two humans and a pet rooster who sleeps in the bed.
At home Napoleon — a.k.a. American Canadian Champion Sunset’s Deanna’s Rockn’ the Boat — is known as easygoing in the extreme, except when it comes to sharing, which he doesn’t do well, especially if his stuffed rat is involved. Otherwise he’s a happy extrovert, an uncommon trait among Chihuahuas, who have a reputation as sensitive sorts. If Nappy were here now, he might be dozing under the woodstove with Patrick, or outside messing around in the snow with Merle Haggard, or up on the grooming table having his black-splashed silver flanks brushed by his owner, Georgette Curran.
Instead it’s another dog on the table as Curran tattoos her with identification in preparation for a trip to New York. In a couple of days, five dogs plus Curran and her partner are driving down to watch Napoleon compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Nappy has a shot at winning his breed this year at Westminster. Currently he is one of the highest ranked long-coated Chihuahuas in the country; Curran says he’s number ten or twelve, depending on the measure, while the secretary of the Chihuahua Club of America, Patricia Larrissey, puts him in the top twenty.
But being the best requires sacrifice. While Patrick and Merle Haggard fool around at home, the twenty-two-month-old Napoleon is mostly on the road these days. Between trips he stays with his handler, Polly Lamarine, in Connecticut. There he shares a three-by-three-foot kennel with a Japanese Chin named Joe, and the house as a whole with pugs, papillons, and Chinese cresteds. At the moment, he’s off to a show in Pennsylvania with several of the pugs. After that they’ll head to New York, where Napoleon is entered in three Chihuahua-only specialties that precede Westminster. In recent months he’s managed to beat the number one Chi, a bitch named Paloma Blanca, and Curran is hopeful that he’ll do it again.
“He’s a nice little dog,” says Larrissey, whose comments are more reserved than they otherwise might be because Napoleon is not only a nice dog but a controversial one. His merle coat pattern — seen commonly among Australian shepherds — may soon be disqualified from the Chihuahua standard. Critics claim merle, which has shown up increasingly in the breed in recent years, results from crossbreeding and is associated with health issues including blindness, deafness, and infertility.
Merle supporters contend the pattern has long existed in hidden form in the breed and is part of Chi heritage. They say the move to ban merles is about politics and nothing else. To Curran, it’s inarguable: “Merles are flashy, and they do well in the ring,” she says. “People are jealous. It’s as simple as that.”
For his part, Napoleon’s ears and eyes are clear. The DNA of his merle father was tested and found to be Chihuahua. And, having already sired two litters, he is not infertile. Even so, his show name of Rockn’ the Boat seems portentous. He’s a laidback guy in an uptight world, and it’s possible that Westminster will be one of the last shows in which he’ll be allowed to enter, let alone stand a chance to win.
On the grooming table, the tattoo is finished. Napoleon’s son Patrick wakes up and begins to gnaw on a rawhide chew. The snow keeps falling. As Curran prepares to go outside and plow, she makes a mental note to bring Nappy’s stuffed rat to Westminster. She hopes the squeaker works.
On a satin-covered bed in Room 411 at the Hotel Pennsylvania — just across the street from where the show will be held at Madison Square Garden — Napoleon lies with his front paws guarding his toys. The rat is here, squeaker intact, as is a plastic dog customized by Curran with merle markings. Nappy likes them both a lot. He eyes Patrick, who is playing close by. Good manners dictate one thing, but instinct another — even if Patrick is blood. Casually, Napoleon places his chin over his paws, as if to conceal his booty.
“Why don’t you put Patrick on the floor,” Curran’s partner, Ann Lake, tells her. “He looks like he might need to pee anyway.”
Nappy is wearing a belly band to prevent any such incident. He seems pleased to have the bed to himself, stretching across it in a regal fashion. If he knows he’s tiny — five and three-quarters pounds, about the same size as a bag of flour — he doesn’t show it. He’s big like Tom Cruise — in attitude, influence, and accomplishment, if not in stature. And handsome, with a symmetrical four-color face and a full chest. Not that he’s perfect. He still needs to grow some coat, which should come with age, and the feathering on his hindquarters isn’t the best. Curran suspects the other dogs at Lamarine’s are giving him haircuts on the sly.
Even so, Napoleon draws attention wherever he goes. Today when Curran and Lake took him shopping in his jeweled sweater, strangers approached at every turn. “It was pictures, pictures, pictures,” says Curran. When Nappy decided to tell off a Great Dane who was lying in his way, the crowd was especially pleased.
“He’s a great dog,” says Gail Godbout, who raises pugs and knows Napoleon from the show circuit. “He’s beautiful, and he has a wonderful personality. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was special. He’s made me really want a Chihuahua.”
Napoleon has had this effect on people from the start of his career, when at fifteen weeks he won first prize out of 129 entrants in a Best Puppy match. Later, at the Chihuahua Club of America’s (CCA) specialty show in Chicago, he created such a stir that an announcer made a request for people to stop taking photographs.
At that same show, while Napoleon was in the ring doing his up-and-back, Curran says someone keyed the mike, trying unsuccessfully to spook him. There have been, she says, ominous signs leading up to Westminster. She got a call from someone who said a judge had been told in no uncertain terms not to put Napoleon up as a winner. Tomorrow in the benching area, where the dogs await their turns in the ring, she’ll make sure he is never left alone.
Even in the notably cutthroat show dog world, where feelings run high and rifts are common, the controversy over merle-patterned Chis is unusually vitriolic. The stakes are high: keeping a dog on the circuit is expensive — as much as two thousand dollars a month — and the investment only pays off if the dog retains value over time as a breeder or a stud. A previous CCA vote favored disqualification — a move that would render merles essentially valueless. But the American Kennel Club, which is idiosyncratic in its own right, refused to accept the result, arguing that it had to reflect a breed standard change rather than simply a merle exclusion.
At 9 p.m. Curran decides it’s time for Nappy’s bath. She navigates around the crowded room, careful not to disturb the dogs that play and sleep everywhere. Luggage is stacked against the walls, as are coolers and kennels. Five women and fourteen dogs are staying here, and if the room is overly warm from all the bodies it’s also surprisingly quiet, with only a hint of doggy odor. Most of the dogs are Chis, and several are competing at Westminster. Their owners are across the street watching Best of Group for the breeds that showed today.
Curran gathers supplies: whitening shampoo for Nappy’s coat, along with Anti Monkey Butt powder and Ducky White to help lighten the bottoms of his legs. On her way to the bathroom she steps around Patrick, who is on the floor wrestling with a toy lobster as big as he is. Napoleon nestles in her arms, content even though baths are definitely not his thing. Ordinarily his handler Lamarine doesn’t like for him to see Curran before a show out of concern that it will distract him in the ring. But there was plenty of time in this case, and Curran didn’t want him anyplace else. He slept in bed with her and Lake last night.
It seems something of a mystery that Curran has embraced the smallest breed of dog on earth. A lifelong Mainer who was born in Lewiston, she drives a Dodge Ram Dualie, chops her own wood, and operates a boarding kennel in Harpswell. For years she raised Doberman pinschers for police forces around the country. Yet Curran loves Napoleon with an intensity that is palpable. Tomorrow she will trade her T-shirt and jeans for a gold sweater and velour jacket and become a spokesperson on his behalf.
Checking the water — too cold, too hot, finally perfect — she lowers him into the partially filled sink. Napoleon shrinks into himself, looks left and right for a way out. “Stay, Nappy,” Curran says as he braces his forelegs against the edge as if to escape. She lathers the fur around his head into punk-like spikes and rinses as he sits back in resignation.
Exuberance returns when she places him on a makeshift grooming surface on top of a crate. He burrows into the towel, hides as Curran locates the blow-dryer, then pokes his face out impishly.
While she dries against the fur to thicken his coat, Curran considers Napoleon’s prospects. She’s feeling encouraged. He won an Award of Merit at yesterday’s specialty, and the mood towards him seems favorable. Plus, there’s Nappy himself. “He loves to show,” Curran says. “He loves people. He just loves life.”
Napoleon blinks and yawns. The bath and blow-dry have made him sleepy. Tomorrow morning, the entourage from Room 411 will leave for the Garden before the sun comes up. Even a lover of life needs his beauty rest.
Section B in the benching area off the Westminster show rings is about as crowded as a place can be. Dogs and their handlers line the narrow aisles, while spectators jam shoulder to shoulder, barely able to move from one crate to the next. The noise level — mostly of human origin, very little barking — is astounding.
None of this seems to bother Lamarine, nor does it faze Napoleon, who sits above the fray in the crook of his handler’s arm, ready for the ring and whatever may come his way. If Curran is Napoleon’s mom, then Lamarine is like a favorite aunt. Although handler-dog relationships often are characterized by a certain formality, Lamarine is clearly fond of Nappy. She admires his spunk. And he’s bulletproof in the ring. “The wind was blowing [at a recent outdoor show] and the dirt was flying, and everyone else was hiding,” she says. “But Napoleon just stood there and showed.”
Sometimes Lamarine indulges Nappy, especially when he talks back to other dogs. She has her reasons. “If you yell at him when he’s mouthing off, then later he’ll just pout in the ring,” she says.
At 10:15 Lamarine straps on the Number 33 armband and begins to make her way toward Ring Five inside the show venue. Cameras go off as she passes. Lamarine seems oblivious to the buzz, but Napoleon does not. He cocks his head this way and that, clearly posing for the lens. When they reach the huge arena, his ears prick forward. At Ring Five, he watches intently as the judge finishes with Yorkshire terriers. The other Chis line up near Nappy, and if there are a few sidelong glances from their handlers, there’s no overt hostility. Paloma Blanca arrives in the arms of a tall man with a mustache.
After the Yorkies exit, the judge calls for Chis. Lamarine sets Napoleon down on the famous green-carpeted floor and lifts his lead. Head held high, he trots into the ring and begins a counter-clockwise loop. The other side, where Curran and Lake and their numerous supporters sit, erupts in applause. The dogs and their handlers circle twice, then stop so the judge can evaluate the conformation of each entrant individually.
According to the clock, the competition lasts eight minutes, but it seems both longer and shorter than that. While they await their moment on the purple-draped table, Lamarine runs a brush over Nappy and feeds him treats. When the dog in front of him goes up on the table, Napoleon comes to attention in anticipation. Finally it’s his turn. The judge inspects Nappy’s head as Lamarine positions his tail over his back. He doesn’t budge, even when the judge opens his mouth to check his bite. Then it’s onto the floor for the up-and-back, which Napoleon accomplishes with signature confidence, as if he’d know what to do even if Lamarine weren’t there by his side.
In the end, the judge calls out four fawn-colored Chis as finalists. Paloma Blanca takes Best of Breed. Nappy is out.
Fifteen minutes later, he and Curran are interviewed in the benching area by Bill Green for Bill Green’s Maine on WCSH6. Curran holds Napoleon, who stares unblinking at the camera. “He showed great,” she says. “That’s all you can ask of any of them.” She explains the merle controversy. “This is serious,” she tells Green. If the CCA votes to disqualify merles, Napoleon will go from being number ten in the country to pet status, overnight. He will return to Harpswell for good.
As Green packs up his microphone, a boy leans toward Curran and Nappy. “Cool dog!” he says, pushing his face in close. Napoleon turns away — there will be no kisses for anyone right now.
Back in his crate, he lies on his satin pillow, seemingly despondent, aware perhaps that for now, at least, it’s over. He won’t touch the can of food Curran opens for him, and for the first time all day he fails to pose for people who point cameras in his direction.
About an hour later, an owner who is sitting nearby with her own Chihuahua squirts some Easy Cheese on her finger and holds it out to him. Nappy sniffs, licks, then eats it and asks for more.
A man in a plaid suit elbows through the crowd that still jams the narrow aisle. He studies Napoleon. “I love that color,” he says. He aims his camera. Napoleon lifts his chin, angles his head — once again the showman. The shutter snaps. Tomorrow is another day.
Postscript: The CCA vote did not disqualify the merle pattern in Chihuahuas, although restrictions were placed on eye color. Napoleon is still on the circuit and will compete again at Westminster this year.
- By: Cynthia Anderson