If there is one person at the American Kennel Club who is widely perceived as knowing the answer to the most esoteric questions – or being able to point you in the direction of someone who does – it is Mari-Beth O’Neill.
Literally born into the fancy, she is the vice president of sports services, based in Raleigh, North Carolina. While in her current position she coordinates a number of programs – including Breeder of Merit, Junior Handlers, Foundation Stock Services and Veterinary Outreach – her previous roles included judges applications and education. And before joining the kennel club three decades ago, she was active in the fancy on almost every conceivable level – as a junior, exhibitor, breeder, delegate and judge.
So here, we, too, have asked Mari-Beth. But this time about herself – in particular, her experiences and memories in the sport to which she has devoted a lifetime.
What’s your first memory of a dog?
My parents had Dobermans before me – I literally grew up going to shows and couldn’t wait to show a dog myself. I thought I could handle the Dobermans, but my parents were wiser.
So what did you settle on?
I am the oldest of four, and as we each became old enough to participate in Juniors, we had to choose a breed. The criteria was short hair, able to be picked up and carried, and female. That’s is how I obtained my first Toy Manchester Terrier.
My sister, Susan, selected Whippets. We were fortunate that Peggy Hodge of Highlight Whippets was also a member of the Bryn Mawr Kennel Club. Susan obtained a beautiful daughter of Ch. Greenbrae Barn Dance, a very influential sire in the breed that Mrs. Hodge had imported. Unfortunately, she hated to show.
By the time my brother was old enough to get his own dog, all former criteria were gone, and he obtained an Irish Wolfhound from Sam Ewing – not exactly something you could pick up and carry.
Showing at the Westbury Kennel Association on Long Island in 1968 under judge Ernie Loebe.
Did you get involved in those breeds, too?
Yes. As a teenager, I began to work for Mrs. Hodge, and she graciously added my name to Whippets that I then showed and co-bred litters. It was a wonderful learning experience. Four of the dogs I co-bred I handled to championship, and several others I showed as puppies. A memorable win was winning the Eastern Regional with one of the bitches I co-bred, Ch. Highlight’s Café au Lait. under an English judge, and then going on to win the Hound Group.
Sam was also a member of Bryn Mawr, and when I was at shows as a teenager and later, I would help Sam with his class Wolfhounds. Sam would frequently arrive at a show with minimal time before judging with four or five dogs, and I would meet him ringside, assist in untangling the herd as well as getting to show many of the class dogs over several years. Another wonderful hands-on experience with the breed.
Back to your Manchester – where did you find her?
My father researched breeders. Rod Herner of Renreh Manchester Terriers, now a multi-group judge, bred my first Manchester. For my ninth birthday, we went to Rod’s and he had two bitch puppies for us to choose from. He felt one would go oversize, but she was the better puppy at that time, and ultimately the one we took home. Well, “Lori” – Ch. Renreh Lorelei of Charmaron – stopped growing and remained well in standard, becoming the top-winning Toy Manchester Terrier of that time.
Who showed her?
She was shown in conformation by J. Monroe Stebbins, who had shown my parents’ Dobermans. People hadn’t seen a Toy Manchester of this quality, especially in the Northeast, and she won a lot. Her first show at six months in November 1966 qualified her for Westminster the following year, where she won the Variety from the classes under Alva Rosenburg and placed fourth in the Toy Group under William Kendrick – an amazing start.
In 1968, we returned to Westminster, and I showed both Lori and Melissa (registered name and relationship to Lori?) as a brace. We won the Toy Brace Group under Virginia Sivori and competed in the next-to-last class to be held at the old Garden, right before Best in Show.
There were several other people competing in that Best Brace in Show who became integral in my life. James Edward Clark handled his Whippets to Best Brace in Show, and Richard Bauer and Jimmy Mitchell handled a brace of German Wirehaired Pointers.
Thinking back to that last night in the old Garden, I’ve learned that we have to change to exist. This world of conformation needs to be more open minded, more accepting and supportive of others, to bring people in to our sport. We scare people away very readily.
Were the good old days really that good?
Every age will tell you that with the prior generation, you’ve seen the best. But I am afraid today that might be true. I see this through the Breeder of Merit program. People don’t sell puppies to be shown – they put everything on limited registration. So who is being introduced into our world? Or being given the opportunity to breed a litter? We don't breed enough dogs for the pet population, and as a result shelters are importing dogs to meet the demand.
Do you remember the first time you exhibited as a Junior?
Yes, Lackawanna Kennel Club, July 1967. Steve Shaw was the judge. I won the Novice Junior Class and showed in Open Junior that day, which was allowed, and placed second.
What about at Westminster?
Westminster 1969, the year of the blizzard, was my first year that I qualified for Juniors there. Lori had a busy two days: Steb showed her and she won the Variety. I was in Juniors, did not make the cut, and then Lori won the Toy Group under Anna Katherine Nicholas. A once-in-a-lifetime win! Walter Goodman was Best in Show Tuesday night with his Skye Terrier under Borzoi legend Luis Murr.
What’s the biggest difference between juniors then and now?
When I first started in Juniors, the time was published as first available ring at such and such a time. The club found a handler the day of the show to judge, and there was no entry fee. Later, of course, that changed.
Having professional handlers judge Juniors was a great experience. I am glad that today there are many professional handlers who have applied to judge Junior Showmanship Only. They can judge the same day they are exhibiting; they just can’t partake of judges hospitality.
There is a great complexity in judging juniors: Do you know how 193 different breeds need be exhibited, when you’ve only ever shown your Chihuahua? The juniors expect judges to be knowledgeable about how their breeds should be examined.
In 1995, I became the staff liaison for the AKC National Junior Organization. The first proposal made was to establish criteria for those applying to judge Junior Showmanship. No longer would it be as simple as checking a box when applying for your first breed. Following the approval of the criteria to be eligible to apply for Juniors was the implementation of the Limited Junior Showmanship judge, which allows individuals to judge Juniors for the breeds they are eligible to judge only, which will accommodate a specialty show.
In doing the original Judging Junior seminars, I always said that these may be the most challenging classes you will ever judge. The juniors are very skilled, and unfortunately you will rarely have the depth of quality that you have in a Junior class in a conformation breed ring.
Sometimes your decision will be who is the smoothest, the most flawless, or who handles the situation the best. Sometimes there’s that moment where they get their dog to recover better than anyone, which is impressive.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a junior today?
Enjoy the moment, appreciate your fellow competitors and learn from them, and remember that tomorrow is another day. I made lifetime friendships while in Juniors, and throughout my lifetime competing in purebred dogs that are more important than a win or loss on any given day.
Let’s pick up with your dog progression after Juniors. What happened next?
One thing my parents were insistent about was that I had to have a career to support my habit of purebred dogs. I really thought I wanted to be a professional handler, so I pursued a career as a teacher, which allowed me to spend summer months and weekends at shows. I went to college close to home, allowing me to attend local shows during the school year and to assist then-professional handler Terry Hundt during the summer.
My first year of teaching was at a school in southern New Jersey. I was last hired and first to be let go the following spring, when cuts were made throughout the district. My principal was very supportive and provided me information about openings at other schools.
I was hired to teach at the Lawrence Country Day School in Hewlett Bay Park on the south shore of Long Island. The week before I went for the interview, I had been to Long Island for the Ladies and Long Island Kennel Club shows and had sworn I would never go back to Long Island again after sitting in the horrible traffic on the Belt Parkway. Lesson learned – never say never.
During my tenure there I assisted Terry Hundt at as many shows I was able to attend, leaving school Friday afternoon and returning Sunday evening.
As dog fanciers we have built-in access to people, acquaintances all over the country with our common interest. I was invited by Leonard Brumby to join the Westbury Kennel Association, providing an immediate resource to other dog fanciers on Long Island.
In the mid- to late-’80s, I decided to pursue a masters degree in reading to support my teaching career, and I applied to judge as well as becoming the delegate for the American Manchester Terrier Club. During that time, my parents were also delegates: My father was the long-time delegate for the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, serving while he was executive vice president of the AKC and retiring after the Centennial, which he chaired in 1984. My mother was the delegate for Bryn Mawr Kennel Club for a few years and later served as president after my father became ill.
What did you judge?
I was approved for Doberman Pinschers, Irish Wolfhounds, Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets and Manchester Terriers, and Juniors, five breeds in three groups. I was told that I would have to focus and finish one group moving forward. I was about to be published for five more Working breeds when I went to work at the AKC.
I greatly enjoyed judging and was fortunate to have some wonderful experiences. I learned a very good lesson judging a Doberman Sweepstakes prior to being approved. Judging in my backyard, I knew almost every puppy in the ring by its call name and of course all the exhibitors. Why put yourself in such an uncomfortable position? So when I was approved to judge, I decided to not accept local assignments.
The first assignment I accepted was from Anne Stevenson to judge at Santa Barbara Kennel Club – what a thrill. The first assignment I actually judged was Manchester Terriers at Montgomery County. Matthew Stander was my steward, and the entry actually was double digits, 11 as I recall.
I had to give up judging when I went to work at the kennel club. We are allowed to judge sweepstakes, and I have been fortunate to judge a very wonderful assignment at the American Whippet National of the stud dog and brood bitch classes and the generation class, as well as several English Cocker sweeps.
Where did the English Cockers come in?
I was very close friends with Richard Bauer and Scott Proctor. Scott and I would sometimes travel to shows or between shows together. I loved his dog “Pac Man” (BIS BISS Ch. Amawalk Perrocay Qeqetaq WD, ECM), and said one day that I would love to have one of his sons. Well, a couple of months later, I had my first English Cocker, a Pac Man stud puppy. “Tucker” quickly became a favorite of my fourth- and fifth-grade students, and the best behavior modification, as he would come to school on Fridays if they had been good all week. I took my class to local dog shows, and they interviewed different people and wrote up their interviews as an assignment.
Once I started judging, Tucker would stay with one of my students when I traveled. One Saturday morning, I dropped off Tucker, and as I was leaving a car pulled up with four more boys from my class who went running in to play with Tucker.
How did you start working for AKC?
Early in 1990, the school where I worked merged with another, and I was offered a job, but it was going to be very different. On my way to Somerset Hills after the first week of school, I wondered how I was going to do justice to the students with the new administration. At Somerset Hills, Michael Sauve, another close friend, was waiting for me. He enthusiastically told me there was a job opening at AKC in the Judges Education Department, and to speak to Terry Stacy at Westchester. I spoke to Terry on Sunday, and he asked if I could come to the office that week. I did and was offered the position of associate director of judges education. I started in October of 1990.
I was like a kid in a candy shop. I was a judge, and a teacher, being given the opportunity to create educational programs for judges and to work with parent clubs as they developed programs. This was the beginning of AKC’s Judges Institutes, the first general ones being done in collaboration with Dr. Gerry Penta. In 1998, AKC offered the first Advanced Institute for the Sporting Breeds in San Jose, California. The idea was to have a day of demonstrations, with representatives from each breed, preferably dogs that were either champions or had been shown in conformation, demonstrate how they hunted and retrieved. It was a glorious day, and the remainder of the week were breed presentations and hands-on for each of the breeds. It was a dream come true to actually have the opportunity for attendees to see the differences in how the breeds worked and hopefully to understand why. This led to Advanced Institutes in all the other Groups, with repeats of the Sporting and Herding Groups before I moved to the Sport Services Department.
In addition to the institutes, I worked on the judges-education materials developed by AKC as new breeds were recognized, and developed the introductory seminar for those who are thinking about applying to judge.
What’s your job now?
In 2005, I took over the Sport Services Department, which was created to provide high-level customer service for people in the fancy. Initially, it routed calls to the correct department, assisted with awards corrections, and handled questions about registration, dogs records and general show questions. Additional responsibilities of the department include the application and renewal of registered kennel names, which was revised to being breed specific as opposed to all breed, as well as processing and approval of the PAL (Purebred Alternative Listing) applications, and questions about colors.
The Sport Services department developed the Breeder of Merit Program as well as its advanced levels and criteria. It encompasses the AKC Foundation Stock Service Program, which is the process by which new breeds become recognized.
I have been the staff liaison for the AKC National Junior Organization, and I have kept that position throughout my different roles at the AKC. We are proud of the criteria established for Juniors at the AKC National Championship, which is five wins in Open with competition, as well as a 3.0 grade point average or equivalent. Scholarships are offered to the winners.
AKC has had a Junior Scholarship Program since 1997; and we continue to revise the criteria; currently the applicant must be a Junior member of a club, or, if age permits, a regular member, and must provide a letter from the club describing the work done for the club.
Currently, you oversee the Breeder of Merit program, too. What is the biggest misconception breeders have about it?
Breeders do not realize they have committed to registering 100 percent of the puppies in their litters. They believe that just handing a puppy buyer the dog registration application means that they will actually send it in. AKC has developed the EZ Reg program to provide breeders a discount to register all the puppies in the litter or the full litter offspring plus form.
What’s the process for bringing new breeds into the AKC fold?
The first step is the Foundation Stock Service, which can take any breed as long as there is a registry.
To enter Miscellaneous, a breed has to have a minimum of 150 dogs in its registry with three-generation pedigrees, a standard (though not necessarily approved – it’s usually the FCI standard) and a designated parent club. The AKC board has wisely said if there are multiple parent clubs, they have to come to a resolution themselves. Until the kids can play in sandbox nicely together, we are not dealing with them.
The expectation is that the club and breed will evolve while in Miscellaneous. And some breeds stay there for a while. Peruvian Inca Orchids, for example, have been in Miscellaneous for 10 years.
We have worked to create different criteria for Miscellaneous, requiring the clubs to hold Open shows and have multiple representatives of the breed earn CM titles. We created the CM, or Certificate of Merit, so there could be something more tangible to competing in Miscellaneous than just going in and getting a pink ribbon. It gave people an incentive, and we saw an increase in entries.
What’s the biggest mistake clubs make when they are first recognized?
Some stop competing and come to a screeching halt. Unfortunately, there are often personalities within any club who create power struggles. This is typical of any club organization – routinely, there’s some faction that’s unwillingly to come to the table. They forget that it isn’t all about me or you – it’s about the breed, or the event, or whatever.
As a former teacher, what would you say us the biggest obstacle purebred-dog fanciers have to being good students of dogs?
I feel that new or newer people today do not seek to learn the history of the breed and who the significant kennels and or dogs in the breed were.
Why did you get involved in Take the Lead, which helps fanciers who are in economic crisis due to illness or natural disasters?
Several of my friends are the founders of Take The Lead, and I have always been available to assist where I could. I was asked to serve on the Board multiple times before I felt I was in a position that I could actually be able to contribute. Serving on the board of Take the Lead has been one of the most positive experiences of my life. I currently serve on the executive committee as chair of the Booths and Events.
I’ll probably cry now. I had a woman walk up to me, and throw her arms around me, and I had no idea who she was. She said, “You’re with Take the Lead. Thank you – you saved my life.”
Everything is from this fancy — it’s all grass roots, and people are very generous. And I’m not even talking about big checks. When someone donates $20, that could be a lot for them.
What’s the best change you’ve seen in dogs over all these years?
The best things are the people.
And the worst?
Years ago, we’d all go to dinner together after the show. We knew who had good dogs, and you knew you were lucky if you beat one of them one day.
Now, we’ve forgotten to respect one another. We haven’t solved world peace or cancer yet. We forget that it’s only a dog show.