Can showing Conformation dogs prep someone for a top-level career as a television executive?
For Carley Simpson, the answer is “yes.”
In February 2000, the former Snohomish, Washington resident earned a prestigious third place in Junior Showmanship with her Golden Retriever at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Dazzled by the media spotlight at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Simpson experienced an “ah-ha” moment. With bright lights as a backdrop, the teen knew she wanted to pursue a television production career.
She’s now the Co-Executive Producer of Pooch Perfect, a canine grooming competition series on primetime with Rebel Wilson, a fourth-generation Conformation exhibitor in Australia.
Simpson’s transition didn’t happen overnight.
Passion to Production
How did Simpson achieve success in the highly intensive, cutthroat entertainment industry?
“Showing dogs for my mother, Jo, taught me everything I rely on now–work hard, establish relationships, and seek out good mentors,” says Simpson. “She also taught me to set goals and not settle for mediocrity. In TV, I follow the same plan.”
Over eight years working for professional handlers–Andy Linton, Pam Lambie, Valerie Nunes-Atkinson, Don and Pat Rodgers, and Pam Sage–prepared her in another significant way.
“Grooming, exercising, and conditioning top dogs take weeks of preparation,” she says. “Getting dogs to the show ring on time requires a calm, orderly presence so they can perform at the highest level.”
Simpson credits each of the pros for recognizing her passion for dogs and cultivating a positive environment to help her learn. Getting by with only doing a decent job wasn’t acceptable.
“Today at my job, I work under pressure, and those skills gave me the focus I need.”
Of the many lessons Simpson learned in the dog world, the biggest one came at Westminster when she entered the ring with Houston, Ch. Birnam Wood’s Have a Cigar, under esteemed Judge Frank Sabella.
Spectators cheered, and cameras clicked. Simpson felt thrilled but sad at the same time.
It was the Golden’s retirement show, and the last time the 18-year-old handler was eligible to compete in the teenage competition with Houston.
“My dog got me through that day,” says Simpson. “He was my heart dog—my soul mate who knew everything about me, better than I did.”
Simpson remembers that Houston had never been an easy dog to show.
“He wasn’t your typical, push-button Golden, and during the first few months of training him, I would come home in tears,” she says. “I didn’t give up on Houston, and eventually, we became a team.”
During Westminster’s final Juniors round, Simpson’s perseverance and bond with her Golden paid off.
“He was never an affectionate dog, but in the ring, he jumped on my chest and gave me a kiss,” says Simpson. “It was his way of telling me to calm down and ‘let’s do the thing I know you’re good at.”
The moment has stuck with Simpson, who now owns two German Shorthaired Pointers, Jade and Jasper, grandkids of Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show winner Carly.
“Houston reminded me that if I want to function at the top of the game, I need to stay calm under pressure.”
Taking the First Step
After graduation from the University of Washington with a Communications and Journalism degree, Simpson began an internship with Westminster and David Frei. He introduced her to the USA Network team filming the dog show. This led her to cover the US Open Tennis in Flushing Meadows, New York.
The position led to meeting her future boss at the Tennis Open, who offered her a job as an Executive Assistant at IMG, an extensive entertainment, sports, and fashion agency that later merged with WME (William Morris).
In 2009, Simpson received an offer to move to Los Angeles to work as a segment producer on Big Brother, a reality competition show.
“This upped the ante for my TV experience and moved me into unscripted television instead of sports,” says Simpson.
The position propelled her up the entertainment industry ladder. Her next string of TV leadership gigs included Netflix Dream Home Makeover, the Bachelor and Bachelorette, and Hell’s Kitchen.
When a meeting with Tiffany Faigus for Dancing with the Stars didn’t land Simpson the Executive Producer spot, Faigus recommended Simpson to Elan Gale, Pooch Perfect’s Producer.
“Faigus remembered how dogs played such an important part in my life, and I had worked with Gale on the Bachelor,” says Simpson.
As Co-Executive Producer of Pooch Perfect, Simpson’s responsibilities included creating the groomers’ challenges, providing the groomers’ temporary, nontoxic pet care and styling supplies, choosing 100 dogs, and forming a team responsible for the dogs’ welfare.
“Going from working on home renovation shows to shouldering the sole responsibility for the dogs’ direction and welfare pushed me into the safety zone of my true love—dogs,” says Simpson. “It was everything I anticipated, but more than I imagined.”
Calling on Canine Connections
The production’s goal was to create a family show and to showcase the talent of 10 professional Master Groomers from around the U.S.
Ten groomers and their assistants compete each week to give their dogs a themed makeover. Actress and animal activist Lisa Vanderpump, veterinarian Dr. Callie Harris, and dog groomer Jorge Bendersky judge the teams. The winner takes home $100,000 cash.
From a casting call of 300 to 400 dogs considered for the grooming competitions, Simpson chose the final 100. The purebred and mixed-breed dogs of all shapes and sizes are peoples’ pets. If the dogs weren’t used to grooming, noise, and strangers, they weren’t selected. For each challenge, the groomers worked with different dogs.
When assembling her team, Simpson relied on her longstanding connections to the Conformation community.
Professional Conformation handlers Gabriel and Ivonne Rangel prepared and maintained the dogs’ coats in good condition before the competition.
Other pro handlers, Michael Hill, Loran Morgan, Kathleen, and Arthur Sepulveda, and Carley’s sister, Cameron Simpson, brought the dogs on the set and kept them happy behind the scenes.
When creating the professional groomers’ first challenge, Simpson drew from her own experience with Houston—her heart dog.
“I asked the contestants to groom their dogs to represent their own heart dog—the dog that meant so much to them,” she says. “We wanted the audience to learn about the groomers’ own special dogs.”
“For me, being around dogs at work was a full-circle moment,” says Simpson.