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    Amesbury zoo trainer heads to biggest dog show on earth

    Jeremy Kezer
    Kim Kezer with Reef as he smiles for the judge during a show in Florida.

    Kim Kezer trains hippos, seals, and tigers for a living. But next week, the Amesbury woman and her Irish water spaniel, Reef, will compete on the biggest domestic animal stage in the world: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York.

    Kezer is an animal training adviser at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. She also teaches dog obedience and breeds Irish water spaniels, a tall, dark, and curly-haired type of pooch.

    Kim Kezer with a red panda at the Franklin Park Zoo.

    Westminster is the Super Bowl of dog shows. Dogs need to qualify for the two-day event, and are judged on how they present themselves — through gait, stance, and personality — and also how closely their genetics align with breed standards.

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    Kezer, 50, has competed in the show four times. This will be Reef’s first Westminster. In 2008, one of Kezer’s other spaniels, Fiona, was the top-placing female in her breed class.

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    “I always laugh because I get more dressed up for dog shows than anything else,” Kezer said.

    Growing up in coastal Rhode Island, Kezer always wanted to work with aquatic animals. After college, she trained at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut until she and her husband, Jeremy, moved to Massachusetts. Since 1998, she’s worked at Franklin Park.

    When not at the zoo, Kezer teaches obedience and manners classes at Fit-N-Trim Dog Sport Training in Rowley and breeds dogs with Mindy Garbarino, 60, of Port Chester, N.Y. Garbarino does the pedigree research, and Kezer trains the newborn pups for their breeding operation, called Chantico.

    “It makes for a good balance,” Garbarino said.

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    First bred in Ireland, the largest of the spaniels was developed to retrieve game — especially water fowl — and is known for its fun-loving personality. Kezer and Reef train together whenever they can in brief, 10-minute sessions full of play. The rest of the time, Reef and Kezer’s other dogs are just affectionate members of the family.

    “There’s a bench next to my kitchen table,” Kezer said. “He’ll come up and sit on the bench and a paw comes on my arm. Before I know it, he’s in my lap.”

    Reef and Kezer will meet Garbarino in New York this weekend. If named best of breed in his showing, Reef — known in shows as Chantico’s Shelter From The Storm — would advance to the Sporting Dog round, with the winner in the running for overall Best of Show at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

    Jeremy Kezer
    Reef enjoys a romp through an agility course.

    Laura Elyse King can be reached at laura.king@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauraelyseking.