2011-02-23 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

For the last 135 years Westminster Kennel Club has been “America’s Dog Show”. It also happens to be the only dog show where the Group and Best In Show judging is broadcast live on national television.

Every Best of Breed winner gets on the air. The audience at home hears about each one. I have a new appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes because last week I helped compile the information announced about each breed or variety champion who graced your TV screen. Call this wonderful opportunity a combination of privilege and pressure.

All dogs invited to Westminster are already champions. On Monday and Tuesday, breed judging whittled down an entry of 2,600 dogs to 179 Best of Breed winners by the time the television coverage began at 8 pm. Our task was to obtain a data sheet on each of the 179 winners. We were supposed to be done by 5 p.m. but there were forces working against us.

David Frei is the veteran canine commentator on USA Network. He is quite familiar with the top show dogs, and can ad lib about many, but there still should be a fact sheet on each televised dog. The catalogue number and dog’s hometown are printed under the dog on TV and on the monitors hanging from the ceiling of the Garden. The home town of the owner “Hickory” or breeder is preferred, even though Deerhound some handlers will argue that the dog Best In Show at has been living with them. Later on the media may pick up on stories about hometown dogs, so the town noted better be accurate and spelled correctly.

TV is spontaneous, and co-host Mary Carillo, may deflect attention to a different topic. This year six new AKC recognized breeds were squeezed into the same time frame. Whenever possible, David may say more about a particular dog so he must be ready with interesting tidbits.

For example, he was disappointed that he didn’t have time to explain that “Bets” the Belgian Sheepdog also acts as an assistance dog pulling her owner’s wheelchair, but he did say that the pet psychic at the Hotel Pennsylvania predicted “Finnegan” the Glen of Imaal Terrier would win (which happened to be a breed upset). When pushed, the psychic said “win a ribbon” rather than going out on a limb about Best In Show.

Author and dog show judge, Sharon Sakson is in charge of gathering the Best of Breed sheets. She sits next to Frei during the broadcast to point out highlighted material. She asked me to be a volunteer assistant. Along with the rosette, the stewards give each Best of Breed handler a blue info sheet to be turned in at the USA Network table in the benching area.

We had 91 sheets to collect on Monday and 88 on Tuesday- a difficult chore because some professional handlers are busy showing other dogs; and others are caught up in the moment. This is a happy occasion, since winning Best of Breed at Westminster is the canine equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar. Owners and breeders tend to be more receptive to the writing assignment. We made sure the sheets were legible and complete, and often urged people to tell us more about the dog, especially an anecdote that would appeal to TV viewers. The dog’s significant others have a split second chance to introduce their prize pup to the world.

Actually this was a perfect project for a former teacher. I felt as if I were critiquing essays, shuffling sheets into Group folders, alphabetizing in judging order, while handing back papers that needed to be embellished with prompting: “What is your dog’s favorite treat? Does she participate in performance events? Is there significance to his call name?” The stacks had to be scanned in the press room and also delivered to the USA network truck outside so the graphics would be ready for the show. I added a scanned symbol and the telltale teacher red ink to signify later arrivals. (If invited back next year, I will grade them.)

As our deadline approached, show superintendents announced delinquent dogs while runners ventured into the crowd to find the missing breeds. Because of construction at the Garden, the benching area was not labeled by breed in the usual way. In addition the NY Times requested each winner for a photo shoot which delayed more paperwork.

These are all great dogs. However, noteworthy remarks fit six themes. Here are some excerpts: Theme #1- overcoming hardship on the road to glory: The Newfie and Elkhound almost died as puppies; “Maddox” the Chow was away when a kennel fire killed 13 Chows including Martha Stewart’s pet. An owner/handler planned to show her dog Tuesday evening even though she had chemo in the morning for re-occurring cancer. Theme #2- doing what they were bred for: the Anatolian Sheep Dog protects calves from coyotes and mountain lions; as a youngster Best In Show “Hickory” the Scottish Deerhound took down a deer with her brothers. Theme #3- silly preferences: the Chinese Crested watches Sponge Bob while the Silky Terrier prefers Hollywood classics; marshmallows are the ring bait for the Bouvier but the Finnish Spitz would rather nibble Cheetos.

Theme #4- notable names: “Tina Fey” was the Brussels Griffon; “Teddy” the 15 inch Beagle has an actor/owner who portrays Teddy Roosevelt; the Bernese’s nickname is “Dogzilla” since he’s a gorilla in a dog suit; “Poker” the Norwich was purchased with winnings from a card game. Theme #5- mischief makers: the Weimeraner hit the dead bolt and locked his handler out of their hotel room twice; the Swissie stole a whole cooked salmon; one Bull Terrier shares cubes from the ice maker with her doggy pals. Theme #6- service dogs: the Gordon Setter is a demo dog at an Ohio vet school; the American Eskimo visits a hospice. There were so many heartwarming stories.

During the frenzied last minute gathering, the TV table became a trouble-shooting center- an unclaimed Keeshond was loose in the Hotel Pennsylvania, safe in the room of another handler; the camera crew was trying to locate Lance Armstrong in the stands; the wrong Leonberger Award of Merit was posted online; and the owner of the Bearded Collie featured on the Monday grooming segment wanted to buy footage. Meanwhile it was 6:30 pm...Do you know where your Lakeland Terrier sheet is? Welcome to Westminster!

Babylon Shelter Adoptables (631-643-9270): The overlooked dogs and cats at the Lamar St. W. Babylon Shelter wish they had some Westminster-style attention. This gorgeous female German Shepherd Dog #93864 was found at the Babylon Train Station; and “Ali” a brindle Dobie mix pup # 93828 was wandering around N. Amityville.

Male: “Claudius” tabby in the cat colony; “Bello” #93830 Akita mix pup; “Max” #93853-Retriever mix. Female: 2 Beagles; “Xena” #93832 Rottie; “Lydia” #93376 Pit mix.

Below -

- female Shepherd

Above - “Ali” -

Dobie mix

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