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Marco makes his mark

Little dog hits the big time as a Westminster competitor

Marco practices a trick with his owner Diana Gerba in their Menlo Park home before leaving for New York City. Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.

By Maggie Mah/Special to The Almanac

Marco, a 4-year-old Tibetan Spaniel, is a little dog of big accomplishment. His latest achievement: showing at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City – a widely watched international pageant that took place this year from Feb. 9 through 11.

Accompanied by Menlo Park resident Diana Gerba, his human companion, this charming, little-breed ambassador jetted to the East Coast last Friday to compete in the Westminster show, now in its 144th year and considered the pinnacle of all canine show ring competitions.

Although Best of Show honors went to Siba, a female standard poodle with amazing hair, Marco was presented with the Award of Merit in the Tibetan Spaniel Breed Class.

Westminster is the oldest continuously held show of its kind in the U.S. It is second only to the Kentucky Derby as America's oldest sporting event, and as such, it predates the light bulb, the automobile and the basketball.

This year, more than 2,600 dogs from 49 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and 19 foreign countries attended the show. Representing the creme de la creme of 208 different breeds and varieties, they strutted their stuff over three days of intense competition in hopes of being chosen "Best in Show."

A real champ, with a sweet tooth

The competition at Westminster is tough, which is not surprising: Every dog who puts a paw in the ring this year has already achieved American Kennel Club Champion of Record status. Marco, or "Brill Padme Dark Passion" as he is known in the show ring, has blown past the champion and grand champion thresholds, and now holds the title of Bronze Grand Champion, a level that requires four times the number of points required for a regular "Grand" title.

In the world of dog shows, making it to Westminster is the chance of a lifetime, but for a seasoned competitor like Gerba, winning is just one aspect of competition. She sees it this way: "Ribbons are nice but they're not everything. It's about the fun you have with your dog. Marco would be happy with cookies."

Marco competes in conformation classes in which dogs are judged according to how closely each individual measures up to the prescribed standards of its breed. A judge must consider physical traits, movement and temperament in picking the winner.

The attribute that frequently determines the winner, however, is something less quantifiable and what in human terms might be called "star power."

"Judges notice when a dog has that special 'look at me' quality," Gerba notes. "Marco can really turn it on." Big crowds, bright lights, loud music and the general hub-bub of a big show can be distracting to some dogs – but not Marco. "Nothing fazes him," says Gerba.

Despite his good looks and obvious charisma, Marco is not high-maintenance. "I usually brush him once a week, and when we're showing, he gets a weekly bath."

He is also a sucker for whipped cream, pushing the limits of his normally impeccable manners to lick little dollops from Gerba's fingers.

The process by which a dog becomes a champion involves competing at AKC sanctioned shows around the country in order to accumulate the requisite number of points. Tibetan Spaniels, or "Tibbies," are relatively rare in the U.S. and consequently have fewer competitions than well-known breeds, a fact that translates to more time, travel and money in the effort to qualify.

For Gerba, this meant traveling to 47 shows in 2019. "It's hard to get points for Tibbies. I don't want to know how many miles or how much it cost, but this last year has been mind-blowing," she says.

Evidently it was worth the effort because Marco built on his impressive record, winning “Best of Breed” at major shows in Orlando and Philadelphia and “Best of Show Owner Handled” in Canby, Oregon in 2019.

If Marco is named "Best of Breed" in the Tibetan Spaniel class at Westminster, he will move on to compete against dogs of other breeds in the "Non Sporting" group, a diverse assortment that includes poodles, Dalmatians, several types of bulldogs and xoloitzcuintlis, an ancient and often hairless breed developed by the Aztecs.

The top dog from the "Non Sporting" group will move on to the next rounds of judging, which culminate with the ultimate winner being named "Best in Show."

Precious gifts

Tibbies are small, sturdy dogs with luxuriant coats and tails that drape gracefully over their backs. The breed is distinct from spaniels bred for hunting, and was developed more than 2,000 years ago by Buddhist monks who lived in Himalayan monasteries.

The little dogs' intelligence, keen eyesight and hearing made them ideal for work as lookouts on monastery walls, alerting the monks and their large Tibetan mastiff guard dogs to approaching strangers.

However, their loyal nature and thick, silky coat made them treasured companions – and also good bed warmers.

Tibbies were never sold, and left the monasteries only when presented as precious gifts to worthy recipients. The earliest appearance of the breed outside Tibet was first recorded in England in1898, but it was not until 1966 that the first Tibbies arrived in the U.S.

Although the breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1984, Tibbies have been slow to catch on despite their many desirable characteristics.

Popularity of a particular breed, it seems, does not correlate exactly to "Best in Show" titles. Labrador retrievers, for example, have held the No. 1 spot on the canine pop chart every year since 1991, and golden retrievers are currently No. 3. Despite wild cheers from the crowd when they enter the ring, no dog from either breed has ever won the title of "Best in Show."

The path to Marco

Until she met Marco, Diana Gerba had always had big dogs with Italian names. A native of the Philadelphia area, Gerba attended Stanford, where she studied documentary filmmaking. During what Gerba calls her "hippie years," she hitchhiked across the country three times with her dog, Diablo, a Newfoundland/Saint Bernard mix.

After getting her master's degree, Gerba discovered Bernese mountain dogs. She went on to own and train several "Berners," competing successfully in obedience, conformation and working competitions with Fidelio and Tesoro.

In 2010, the loss of Donato, her 6-month-old Berner puppy, led Gerba down two new paths. Donato had died after ingesting poisonous "death cap" mushrooms. The deadly funghi thrive in the Bay Area and can be found throughout the year, particularly in the vicinity of oak trees.

Gerba immediately went to work educating others about the dangers of poisonous mushrooms. She created a blog and a "mushroom alert" card. To date, over 70,000 cards have been distributed.

(For more on mushroom hazards, click here and here.)

Gerba says she is gratified that her efforts have helped, noting, "Ten years ago there was very little awareness of the dangers of poisonous mushrooms."

She is currently working with researchers to develop a product that would shorten the time required for diagnostic tests on dogs suspected of having ingested deadly amatoxin. The product, a test strip, works similarly to an in-home pregnancy test and would shorten the time required for diagnosis from the 12 hours needed now to a couple of minutes. (For more on the test strips click go to

A few years later, a call from a friend in Texas opened up the second path. The caller was Denise Dean, the breeder of Gerba’s “Berners,” Donato and Tesoro. Dean told Gerba about the “Tibbie” she had met and urged her to think about taking on a very different type of dog.

Making the switch from the big sturdy "Berners" to a small ball of fluff like a Tibbie required a leap of faith. "She was very persistent," Gerba recalls.

“She kept telling me how special he was and I kept saying I wasn’t ready.” Dean persisted and introduced Gerba to Gail Krall, who had brought Marco over from Hungary as a puppy two years prior. “When I saw the look in his eye and found out he had an Italian name, I figured it was meant to be. Marco is really a big dog in a small dog’s body,” said Gerba. Krall and Gerba subsequently agreed to be co-owners. Marco seems to approve of the arrangement, which continues to be a great success.

Gerba's day job is as an "e-learning" contractor, working with companies to make videos for online education. With Marco as her muse, she started creating stories and pictures to send to friends, calling them "Travels with Marco."

They became so popular that people started asking her to write a book. She's thinking about it, but will wait to decide about this and other things until after Westminster.

For now, she is looking forward to seeing friends she has made in the dog show community. "Marco loves seeing his dog friends, too," says Gerba. "Especially Bacall, a Boston terrier, and Dilly, a bulldog."

A friend from Philadelphia will meet them at the show and has orders to bring a "Hoagie" and a bottle of Sancerre wine for Gerba ,and a container of whipped cream for Marco.

This writer was compelled to ask if Gerba had seen the movie, "Best in Show," Christopher Guest's "mockumentary" about competition in the world of high-level dog shows.

"Oh – it's real," Gerba stated. She then directed me to an episode about the Westminster show on the Netflix series, "Seven Days Out." I took a look,and it's real, too.

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