Getting To Know You: An Interview With Peggy Beisel-McIlwaine

Above: Peggy & her husband Sandy at the Montgomery County Kennel Club show in 2010, the year she judged Best in Show.

Coming from Terriers, Peggy Beisel-McIlwaine of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has risen to the status of one of our most popular AKC multi-group judges. During her years as a professional handler, she worked and exhibited for icons of the sport in the competitive world of Terriers; men and women we continue to revere today. In honor of our Montgomery County Issue, we are pleased to present this interview.

ALLAN : Where did you grow up and do you come from a dog show family? If not, how were you introduced to the sport?

PEGGY: I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My family always had a purebred dog but never any show dogs. I like to say I was raised by a Collie. After she passed we got a Golden Retriever from field stock. I didn’t discover dog shows until I was in high school. I attended a dog show with one of my sisters and her husband after they had purchased a show-quality Old English Sheepdog. I got to be very good friends with the breeders, Frank and Louise Olszewski (Walnut Hill OES), and when I graduated from high school I purchased my first show dog—an OES, of course! My sister and brother-in-law didn’t last long in the sport. I think their purpose was to introduce me to it!

Tell us about your early showing and breeding days.

I was attending university in Green Bay, working part-time at a clothing boutique and starting to show my OES. I’d stick to the shows in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and, of course, Wisconsin. Grooming and showing became more interesting to me than my studies and after three years of university I dropped out and got a job with [renowned terrier handler—AR] George Ward. I had worked for Connie Gerstner (now Miller) on weekends and that is where I met George.

Who were your early mentors, in terriers and in the sport?

Frank and Louise, of course, were probably my first mentors, along with folks from the Packerland Kennel Club and, in particular, Carol Millar. I met Bob and Mary Eldredge at local shows and they were kind and took me under their wing. At the point I was starting to exhibit, Frank and Louise got busy with their young children and weren’t able to attend shows so I was pretty much on my own.

Connie and, of course, George were extremely important mentors. I learned a great deal about breeding from Virginia Cadwallader of Woodmist Cairns. When I went out on my own the legendary Bill Trainor was of great help and very encouraging. Of course my husband, Sandy, has been a huge influence, mentor and partner in our Foxairn Cairns and Wire Fox and, now, our love of the Bull Terrier. It’s been fabulous sharing this journey with him.

How did exhibiting your own dogs evolve into handling professionally for others?

After finishing my OES I wanted to learn more about the care and breeding of purebred dogs. I fully intended to become an OES breeder. I met George at a show in Wisconsin while working for Connie. He was looking for help and I was looking for a job where I would learn proper care of dogs. I knew nothing about Terriers which George always said was a good thing. He didn’t have to undo any bad habits I may have had. Learning terriers from him was great. It was learning the old-fashioned way, with no short cuts. I worked for him for three years and when I quit in May of 1980, I started my own career as a handler.

What was it like to apprentice for the legendary George Ward?

Well, he was a great dog man and learning the “right” way, the old-fashioned way, was extremely valuable. I loved listening to his stories and listening to the likes of Ed Bracy, Bob Braithwaite and so many others was invaluable.

Who else was working for George at the time?

(Right – Peggy with her first show dog, an Old English Sheepdog, winning under Canadian judge Bob Waters at the Thunder Bay show in Ontario.)

When I started in 1977, Tim Spurlock was working for him. It was great. We’d alternate weekends on the road with George. After Tim left, Bill McFadden started but only was there for about six months. In 1979, Roz Kramer started to work for him. There were high school kids who worked there as well, but none that continued in the sport.

You showed Cairns for Betty Hyslop of the world-famous Cairndania Kennels in Canada. Tell us about that experience.

Betty was great. I think by the time I started to show for her she had mellowed somewhat, but she was still a fierce competitor. She’d try and beat me, even when I was showing her dog. I loved the Monday morning calls. She always started out with a long, drawn out, “Well, dear,” and then, “How did we do?” I always called if we had a nice win, calling collect in those days. She wanted to know who we beat and who beat us. I couldn’t have asked for a better client. She knew how shows worked; that you win some and lose some. I loved going up to her place to trim and swap out dogs. She never threw anything away and going through the old magazines and photos was a special treat. She had third-place ribbon tucked under the glass on a dresser that was older than I was.

Who were some of the other clients you showed for and some of the great dogs you exhibited?

I hate to start mentioning some because I know I’ll forget somebody. I showed most of the Soft Coated Wheatens from the Michigan area. Lynne Penniman (Carruthers) and Karen Mueller were two major clients in that breed. I showed Sealys and a Frenchie for Sally Sweatt and Affens for Connie Clapp. I showed a few English Springers, as  well as most of the Terrier breeds. I had many Cairn clients, too many to mention.

How many shows would you typically attend in a year? Did you fly with top specials or strictly drive?

I probably attended 100 to 140 shows a year and mostly drove. I’d fly to Westminster and Great Western and an occasional specialty on the West Coast, but drove to the majority of shows.

Below – A line-up of Wire Fox Terriers shown by some great Terrier handlers of the past. First in line is Cliff Hallmark; second is Peggy; third is George Ward; and fourth is Wayne Bousek.

What was your most cherished win?

Any win was great. My first Best with Kalypso was special. Any National Specialty I won and winning Breeds at Westminster were all very special. Winning the Cairn National with Tinman from the Veteran class was special because my son, Pat, who was around 11 at the time, was there and told me that morning he thought Rusty (as we called Tinman) was going to win. He was right and so excited.

What prompted your decision to retire from handling and begin judging?

My kids. I wanted to be home to attend their school and sporting events. I volunteered a lot at their schools and felt that is where I needed to be. Being a mother came first. This was in the spring of 1996.

How has the presentation of the terrier breeds changed from the days when you were an exhibitor and professional handler?

Oh man, this is a subject that needs serious addressing and probably should be highlighted all on its own. Too many short cuts these days. Scissoring where the coat should be stripped is seen way too often. There’s only one way to properly trim the harsh-coated Terriers and it doesn’t involve any short cuts or scissors. There are still plenty who do it correctly and that’s not limited to the pros. I don’t think there’s a better presented Terrier than the owner-handled Sealyham of Leslie Jaseph. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when I see a properly well-presented Terrier. I think trimming has become somewhat exaggerated in some areas, such as creating too much rear angulation. Cairn jackets are too tight these days and while I understand it’s easier to keep that going with the multitude of shows we have these days, it isn’t correct.

(Left Peggy holding Ch. Sharolaine’s Kalypso, bred by Elaine Eschbach, and backed by Betty Hyslop of the famous Cairndania Kennels. Kalypso was the sire of Tinman and the first dog Peggy showed for Betty.)

What advice would you give new terrier exhibitors and new terrier judges?

Seek out the folks who were taught by the old-time Terrier folks and learn the old- fashioned way. Don’t be in a hurry. Take your time and really soak up all you can. Enjoy the dogs; the shows are secondary. Never stop learning. Get your hands on old magazines and read the articles. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most folks are more than willing to help but too many are never asked for help.

As for the judges, please don’t apply for Terriers just so you can get another group. It’s a very specialized group and you won’t be doing the breeds any good if you’re not serious about learning all the aspects that go into a Terrier. The breeds are on the decline because they are a lot of work. Nineteen of them are on the low-entry list and poor judging of them is so discouraging.

Do you have a favorite dog show memory, as a judge?

Judging Best at Montgomery County in 2010 and, of course, judging the Terrier group at Westminster in 2006 and having my group winner go Best in Show [the Colored Bull Terrier, Ch. Rocky Top’s Sundance Kid—AR].

What are your hobbies and interests outside of dogs?

Learning about gardening. I love doing yard work but have so much to learn. My husband and I love going to the movies and everyone knows of my love for sports and, in particular, the Green Bay Packers. I’m a third-generation season ticket holder and two of my sons and I attend as many games as we can. Family is the most important hobby I have and we are expecting our first grandchild, a girl, at the end of September. I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time in New York City where my son and his wife live, helping whenever I can. I can’t wait to be a grandmother!

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