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She communes with canines

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PHILADELPHIA - You saw her in February, standing pretty in pink, beside that spunky German short-haired pointer that took Best of Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

She escorted the champ to the winner's circle as hordes of photographers and reporters called out: Carlee! Carlee! Carlee!

Instantly, the pointer's name became as recognizable as a Hollywood starlet's, while the woman holding Carlee's leash is still not well known.

Although she should be.

If pedigree is everything in the dog-show world, Michelle Ostermiller's is second to none.

At 31, she has already made history. Last year, she led Josh, a fur ball of a Newfoundland, to Westminster's top prize, and then staged an unprecedented repeat with Carlee this year.

"That's never happened before with a female handler, somebody winning twice with different breeds," said David Frei, spokesman for what is regarded as the most prestigious dog show in America. "If Michelle wins again, she'll be approaching icon status."

Now Ostermiller is one of the most sought-out handlers in the country, and recently, she was invited to lead training seminars in Japan.

People who have watched the petite blonde in and out of the ring say she has a canine connection that borders on the uncanny.

"We've known her since she was a little girl," said David Helming, owner of Josh, still the all-time winning Newfoundland in American history. "There's just some magic that goes down the leash from her to the dogs. A chemistry, a charisma," said Helming, who lives in Flemington, N.J. "She knows how to play with the dogs, and how to get the best out of them when they need to be serious."

Helming speaks from firsthand experience. He used to compete against Ostermiller.

"I was showing Josh myself, about three years ago," he said. "Then one day I had a freak accident. I dislocated my knee while I was walking him, and I was out of commission at a crucial time in his showing career."

Helming said he called Ostermiller and asked if she could pinch-hit for him temporarily, "thinking I'd eventually get back in the ring with him."

Ostermiller, who is 5-foot-4 and about 100 pounds, took charge of the 155-pound Newfie in a working-dog show with 1,100 competitors, and won.

"A couple of weeks later," Helming said, "she took him to an all-breed show in Georgia, and won that. She just took off with this dog. They hit it off and never looked back. By this point, I was happily carrying the water bucket behind her. And when my knee came back, my friends told me, `You do a good job, but not as good as Michelle,' and I had to agree."

Ostermiller, reserved by nature, is a woman of few words, so she simply shrugs at the glowing accolades.

The championships haven't made her sensationally rich - she lives in a cramped rental house on the grounds of Sundance Kennels in Holland, Pa., with her boyfriend, Michael Scott, also a top-ranked dog handler.

Nor has the acclaim changed her daily life. She and Scott still spend 50 weeks of the year on the road, living out of suitcases and carting up to 20 dogs in their custom-built box truck - outfitted with a generator, two air conditioners and a heater, plus sturdy safety rails used to anchor bunk-bed-type dog crates - across the country.

When the purebreds win prestigious titles, it's their owners, not Ostermiller, who get to keep the ribbons, silver cups and gold trophies.

And there is zero prize money. Even at the most famous dog shows such as Westminster.

Ostermiller gets paid a flat dog-handling fee ($85 for most shows, $1,000 for Westminster, plus bonuses for winning), traveling expenses, and $14 to $16 a day in boarding fees.

"I do it because I was raised doing it," she said, adding that her parents, Lilian and Dennis, ran a small kennel and raised Bernese mountain dogs in New Jersey.

Starting at age 10, Ostermiller began guiding the sofa-sized pets around the show ring.

"From the beginning, she had a phenomenal hand with those animals," Ostermiller's mother recalled. "She'd get lost in a world of her own when she was with the dogs, like a musician gets lost in his music.

"I remember when she was as young as 6, she'd open the dog runs and be barefoot and take 12 dogs down to the brook. No leash. No nothing. And they'd just follow her. Then, when she said it was time to go, they all just followed her home, like the Pied Piper."

While other parents became sideline regulars at soccer games, the Ostermillers found themselves driving Michelle to dog shows as far away as Virginia and Massachusetts every weekend so she could compete.

By the time Michelle was 18, she had already made a name for herself, clenching championships for her own dogs as well as other people's.

When she went to college, she intended to become a veterinarian, or a doctor. But Ostermiller said she couldn't tear herself away from the ring, and she came back to professional dog-handling after graduating from Mount Saint Mary College in New York.

To the uninitiated, it looks easy.

A two-minute trot around a circle with a dog on a leash. Plus a few seconds of standing still while a judge scrutinizes the pooch.

But of course, there's more to it. At the elite level in which Ostermiller competes, most of the work happens outside the ring. Every day. Seven days a week.

Would-be champions are sent to stay with Ostermiller from all over the globe - the same way Olympics-bound gymnasts board with their full-time coaches.

The dogs stay for a year. Sometimes two. Chasing perfection.

Right now, 15 dogs - ranging from a 10-pound Cairn terrier named Honey, to a 140-pound Bernese mountain dog named Albert - live with Ostermiller and Scott at what is, essentially, an athletic training camp.

"We have to get them not only looking good, but feeling good about themselves," she explained. "I make sure they're in top shape physically. I care for their coats. I try to get their personality to be outgoing, figure out if they need to gain or lose weight, improve their muscle tone, form a tight bond."

The dogs, who stay in a row of 13 fenced-in pens steps away from the house, follow a rigorous routine.

In the morning they work out.

Some, like Wynter, a snow-white Akita destined for Westminster in February, are taken on a two- or three-mile run. Ostermiller accompanies them on a mountain bike, whirling around the path that encircles Council Rock High School South, with one or two leashes in her hand.

The others are released into a three-acre paddock several times a day, where they run and play and learn to interact with one another.

Then comes training.

Ostermiller drills her charges on the subtleties of showing off for a judge. She teaches them how to walk properly on a lead - chin up, flowing movement, focused intent. She makes them practice striking the dramatic show-dog stance called "stacking" - front legs firm, back legs blocked and angled just so.

They learn, she said, to read her body language and adjust their performance to signals as imperceptible as a tiny tug on the leash.

"Stay stand!" she commanded Wynter on a recent afternoon.

The dog, still frisky from his run, immediately stopped wagging his tail and gave her his full attention. She smiled and gave him a treat.

"Step up," she said, her voice kind but firm. Wynter slid his back paw an inch forward, achieving a stunning stack.

"It's amazing how motivated they can be with treats," Ostermiller said with a chuckle. "I use baked hot dogs or grilled stew meat that I keep loose in my pockets. Oh, the dry cleaner loves me. Meat. Slobber. Dog hair. That's basically my life."

When the dogs aren't exercising or practicing, they are being groomed.

One dog, a svelte, long-nosed borzoi named Gabriel, who's been with Ostermiller for only a short while, is undergoing special conditioning.

"He's not a good eater," Ostermiller sighed, as she patted him on his slender snout. "And his coat needs to have much more length. He gets regular oil conditioning. He won't be shown until next year."

Ostermiller and Scott plan to take at least two dogs (Wynter and a Dalmatian named Boomer) to Westminster in February.

Boomer, already the No. 1 Dalmatian in the country, is owned by Linda and Richard Stark, who also own Carlee.

The Starks said they believe wholeheartedly in their dog, and in Ostermiller and the mysterious magic that happens between them.

"I've been showing dogs for 30 years," said Linda Stark from her home in Castle Rock, Colo. "And I've always told myself that when I had the right dog, I was going to send it to Michelle. She's got great hands, a radiant presence in the ring, great footwork, and the communication skills to bring all that out in the dog, too."

It worked with Carlee, and Stark is hoping it will work with Boomer.

"If anyone can do it, Michelle can," Stark said. "She's the dog whisperer."


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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