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Pet Tales

Husky and handler lead pack in competitions

Thursday, April 01, 1999

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They are superstars on the dog show circuit, where insiders refer to them as "Tommy O" and "Bingo."

  When Bingo, a top-rated Siberian husky, wins a dog show, he leaps into the arms of his handler, Thomas Oelschlager, and kisses his face. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Heads turn and hands clap when the beautiful dog strides around the ring, for this is the current top-winning Siberian husky in the country.

When Thomas L. Oelschlager and Champion Kontoki's 'N Bingo Was His Name O enter the ring tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, they'll be competing on home turf.

The three shows at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center are just an hour's drive from the Finleyville home the duo shares with 27 Siberian huskies.

The hometown crowd can see the move that has become a Tommy O trademark:

When Bingo wins, as he usually does, he leaps into Oelschlager's arms and licks his face. This demonstration of canine joy never fails to bring the crowd to its feet.

"It's something I've encouraged all my show dogs to do," Oelschlager said. "I do it more or less to let them feel good about themselves. Show dogs can burn out. I need to keep the excitement going for them."

Oelschlager, 45, grew up in Upper St. Clair with "all-American dogs." He got his first Siberian when he was 19 and has been breeding and showing Siberians ever since.

Bingo, who is 5 years old, "is probably the best show dog I've ever bred," Oelschlager said. "He loves to show, and he keeps getting better and better."

  Related article:

Dancing pooches lead national media to local show


Bingo recently won Best of Breed at the country's most prestigious show - the Westminster Kennel Club in New York - and placed second in the working dog group.

Bingo's owners are Mrs. L. Stewart Cochrane of Ohio and Marlene DePalma of Finleyville. It's not unusual for top show dogs to have multiple owners. But unlike horse breeding, where owners have at least the opportunity of winning large sums of money from a champion race horse, the rewards of dog ownership are not financial, as dog shows rarely award monetary prizes to champion dogs. Multiple ownership helps defray the considerable costs of "campaigning" - which can be as high as $60,000 a year, including training and handling fees, air fare and hotel expenses.

Bingo has won 12 Best In Show trophies and is the No. 3 show dog among the 19 breeds in the working group.

But he doesn't have star status back home in Finleyville, where he is called "Pee-Bo" or "Peebs" by Oelschlager and his partner DePalma.

"We started calling him that at 5-weeks-old after we started calling his sister Bo Peep," Oelschlager explained.

Peebs is just one of the pack at home, where all of the dogs are loved and petted and groomed daily to the point where they all look ready to be judged at any moment.

Receiving the same care and affection as Peebs/Bingo is Ch. Kontoki's Kareem of Wheat. Kareem, 12, retired years ago from the show ring and from breeding. Oelschlager and DePalma give all of their dogs a loving home long after their useful years are over.

"They're show dogs, but they're pets as well, and we love them," Oelschlager explained.

  10-year-old Michalene leads some of Oelschlager's other Siberian huskies on a run. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

All 28 dogs sleep in the house - not kennels - overnight.

"I wish he'd stop telling people that," DePalma said, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation. "People probably think this house is a disaster."

The house is clean and odor-free - a tribute to good housekeeping and the Siberian's natural tendency to have no "doggy odor."

Four hours of "kennel work" every day keep the yard and exercise areas clean and odor-free. The property is fully fenced to protect Siberians from their natural tendency to run for miles and be gone for days.

That 28 dogs co-exist peacefully is no small feat. Dogs are pack animals, like their wolf ancestors, and unneutered males often fight to gain the position of pack leader or Alpha-Dog.

"Marlene and I are actually the pack leaders," Oelschlager said. "There is no top dog here."

On a recent day Louise, Olympia, Rose, Kareem, Glen and Bingo answered a knock at the front door. Twelve bright eyes - some blue and some brown - peered up into the visitor's face. They didn't jump up, and they didn't bark. They wagged their plumed tails and politely waited to be petted.

"That's the way Siberians are supposed to act," Oelschlager said.

The Kontoki Siberians are living up to the official American Kennel Club standard by which they are judged in dog shows.

Siberians are "naturally friendly and gentle," according to the dog world's bible. A Siberian "does not display the possessive qualities of the guard dog, nor is he overly suspicious of strangers or aggressive with other dogs."

As Bingo's photo session begins, he is joined by one of his puppies - 3 1/2-month-old Emily Ann.

"The next generation," says Oelschlager, who thinks she already shows signs of her father's greatness. This is important, he explains, for serious dog breeders work for decades to make lasting improvements in the breed they love.

Oelschlager also had the top Siberian show dog for 14 of the last 19 years. Bingo's father, Ch. Kontoki's E-I-E-I-O, is the winning-est Siberian husky of all time.

Emily Ann briefly sneaks away from the photo shoot, puts her paws on an outdoor end table and slurps homemade wedding soup that DePalma had given the photographer.

Emily Ann is gently chastised for this transgression. DePalma takes the soup inside and distributes it to the house dogs.

Glen, who is old and blind, gets the first portion. Four dogs wait patiently for their share.

Bingo and Oelschlager compete in 90 to 100 shows per year all over the country.

"Christmas and New Year's are the only weekends when there are no dog shows," Oelschlager said. While they're on the road, DePalma stays home to care for the other dogs.

Although there are waiting lists for their puppies, even at $800 per pup, Oelschlager and DePalma generally have only two litters per year. They're quick to point out that they do not make a living from breeding and selling puppies.

With proper veterinary care, including tests to screen for genetic defects, good breeders are lucky to break even on a litter.

Oelschlager and DePalma also screen buyers to make sure their pups receive the care - including fenced yards - that Siberians need. This breed needs a lot of attention and exercise and does not fare well in a home where everyone's at work or school during the day.

Oelschlager is a professional handler and one of the best in the business.

"It's not easy being a breeder and a handler," he says with a chuckle. "I've got beautiful dogs of my own that should be champions but they aren't because they came along at a time when I was busy with clients' dogs."

True to the dictates of his chosen profession, Oelschlager will be busily showing 11 dogs this weekend - but Bingo is the only one that lives with him.

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