Tails of Seattle: A pets blog
Inside Westminster: A Q&A with Billy Wheeler, part 1
Texas handler Scott Sommers congratulates Stump, the 10-year-old Sussex spaniel, CH Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, who came out of retirement to win best in show at the 2009 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Photo by The Associated Press
Billy Wheeler is fast becoming a dog-show phenomenon. The Memphis, Tenn., blogger crafts his respected blog Dog Show Poop and writes a column for the new dog-show website Best in Show Daily. He talks with The Seattle Times in the first of a two-part Q&A before heading off to Madison Square Garden in New York for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Monday and Tuesday. The evening competition will be televised each night beginning at 8 p.m. (PST). Wheeler will host an online chat room during the broadcasts.
Question: What is the significance and charm of Westminster?
Answer: The show is the second longest-running sporting event in the United States -- only the Kentucky Derby is older. But I think it has always been seen as the most glamorous dog show in the world. Its association with the rich and famous of New York society has a lot to do with it. It is also one of the oldest televised shows, going on the air three years before "I Love Lucy" debuted.
A Best in Show (BIS) at the Garden is the pinnacle of any dog person's career -- breeder, owner or handler. Even a breed win there trumps many BIS in lesser-known venues.
Question: Logistically, it is a terrible show to do: It is hard to get the dogs in and out of the city in the dead of winter. It is cramped and hotter than Hades in the back where the dogs are groomed and benched. The rings are small and tight. How do dogs and handlers overcome all of these issues?
Answer: When I lived in New York, I arrived at the Garden via subway with my lightweight grooming table in one hand, my small crate with the dog in the other and my grooming bag slung over my shoulder.
It may be more difficult with larger breeds, but the same philosophy applies. Pack light, dress comfortably and keep a positive attitude. It's a chance to see dogs you haven't seen, visit friends you haven't seen since the year before and a chance to become immortal.
I hate crowds and lines and won't suffer them to see a football game, but this is the greatest dog show on the planet.
Question: What should viewers be looking for when they watch the group competitions and best-in-show contest from the comfort of their living rooms? What subtle things may sway the outcome?
Answer: I think there are two things that set a dog apart. How the dog moves and how the dog reacts to the judge. I have two dogs indelibly printed in my memory.
I have never seen a dog move across the big ring as impressively as the miniature pinscher, CH Jay Mac's Impossible Dream, in 1975. Impy was the toy-group winner and when he came into the BIS ring under the spotlight, he covered the floor as ably as the six bigger dogs who had preceded him.
Much more famous was the "Stack heard around the world" -- executed by the German shorthaired pointer, CH Kan-Point's VJK Autumn Roses, in the 2005 sporting group. The "stack" is the formal pose that a handler sets his/her dog in when the judge is viewing the dog. It is the moment the dog has to impress the judge.
I have never seen a dog demand the judge give her an award like Caylee did that night. With her stack, she took the BIS.
Question: How do you prepare for Westminster?
Answer: I am a very methodical, numbers nerd. I have a spreadsheet with the top 100 dogs of the previous year. I take the judging schedule and map out my day. I try to see any dog I have not already seen previously.
I have a second spread sheet that has my top picks for each group. I also go over the BIS and group judges and select breed judges' records from the past year to see if they have seen any of the dogs competing this year.
Question: You'll be attending this year, blogging ringside. What might you see that those of us watching at home will miss?
Answer: Three things:
1. The dogs while they are not being judged (you can tell which dogs are having fun and which are tired of the whole thing).
2. The dog's right side. The left side is the show side, very few judges get to see both sides of the dog while moving.
3. Whether the judge is watching the dogs in the line. Some judges make mental notes to themselves about the dogs while they are in the line before and after the judging.
Question: What kind of role can the audience play in a dog's performance at the Garden or in a judge's decision, especially in the groups and BIS competition?
Answer: While everyone loves it when the crowd gets behind a dog, I think it doesn't influence the judge much. That being said, I think the crowd played some role in the 2005 Sporting Group, when Caylee won.
Question: Favorite moments of past Westminsters?
Answer: In addition to the two dogs mentioned above, I loved the final lineup in 2009.
While we were all surprised by the 10-year-old Sussex spaniel, CH Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, coming out of retirement and winning (pictured at top), the BIS lineup was amazing. Every dog performed beautifully and was presented flawlessly.
I also loved the reaction of the Doberman pinscher, CH Allure Blazing Star Alisaton, to the PETA protesters that stormed the BIS ring in 2010. She did not flinch, move or break her concentration. She just had the most intense expression on her face. Perfect Doberman presence.
Question: Tell us about the top Pacific Northwest dogs competing in the top tier this year. Which have done well and which do you want to see more of?
Answer: The most successful dog from the Pacific Northwest last year was the standard poodle, GCH CH Brighton Lakeridge Encore. Ally was the No. 1 nonsporting dog and the No. 4 dog all breeds.
There is also the American Staffordshire terrier, GCH CH Alpine's Highwayman, who won the Staffordshire Terrier Club of America's National Specialty this year. Jelly was bred and is co-owned by Ed and Karen Thomason, of Rochester, Thurston County, and handled by Ed Thomason.
The Pekingese, GCH CH Windemere's Dusting Of White At Pevyne, resides in Reno, Nev., but spends most of his time up in Oregon and Washington, most recently grabbing a big, big BIS at the Rose City Classic in Portland.
Question: Which of these dogs should we be especially keen to watch?
Answer: The standard poodle, Ally, is a genuine contender for BIS, provided she can win the breed.
Question: There has been a lot of drama surrounding Ally, handled by Tim Brazier, of Mill Creek, and co-bred by Debra Ferguson Jones, of Renton. Tells us about Ally, please. (She is pictured below in 2010; photo courtesy of Westminster Kennel Club.)
Answer: Not only is Ally a terrific example of the breed, there is an amazing human story behind her. Ally was introduced to the show world when she came from the classes to win the Poodle Club of America's (PCA) 2010 National Specialty. She has continued her winning ways under the eye of Brazier, a poodle specialist.
Unfortunately, Tim had to undergo bypass surgery in early November. Stepping in to take Ally into the ring was his childhood friend from their days in British Columbia, Taffee McFadden.
Taffee, who piloted the giant Schnauzer, CH Galilee's Pure Of Spirit, to the top of the rankings in 2008, had only recently returned to the show ring after a yearlong battle with cancer. Since taking over, she and Ally have collected 12 BIS, three in January.
Question: We spoke with Brazier this past weekend, and he says he doesn't yet know whether he or McFadden will be taking Ally in the ring? Will it matter?
Answer: I saw Taffee and Ally in Palm Springs, Calif., last month. They have an incredible connection and are beautiful together. Nonetheless, Tim and Ally have a two-year history together, and I am sure that Ally will sparkle with either handler.
Question: Ally will be facing London, GCH CH Jaset's Satisfaction, who won the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Orlando last December, a show Ally skipped. London also won the Poodle National Specialty last year, a show Ally also had won the year before but skipped in 2011. (He is shown right in 2010; photo courtesy of Westminster Kennel Club.) How dramatic will this best-of-breed face off in the Garden be?
Answer: Both dogs were in the top 10 dogs all breeds in 2011. Ally was No. 4, and London was No. 6. Both dogs finished the year in dramatic style, Ally winning BIS in Long Beach, Calif., former site of the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship (AENC) and London winning the 2011 AENC in Orlando.
Both dogs have had a terrific start to the year, Ally with a flurry of important group wins in Palm Springs and Portland, in addition to the three aforementioned BIS, and London with two BIS on the Florida Classic circuit and a dramatic, recent hat trick in Illinois.
Ally, a striking white bitch, is elegant and feminine. London, a black dog, is masculine and very "poodlely". It will be anything but black and white for breed judge Doris Cozart.
Question: Has she judged either dog before?
Answer: I think the closest she has come was when she judged miniature poodles at the PCA specialty in April, when London won the inter-variety.
Question: There is always a chance for the unexpected -- either a dog that is entered is pulled from competition, for a variety of reasons, or a dark horse seemingly comes out of nowhere and takes the big prize. When we spoke with Brazier, he said he didn't think Ally would take the breed. "I don't think the changes for us are splendid at all," he said.
Are there any dark horses lurking?
Answer: No breed is as competitive in the show ring as the standard poodle. Every year there are beautiful dogs competing. The one dark horse, literally, who could play spoiler is the Brazilian import, CH Fantastico da Mayo. Fantastico was Brazil's No. 1 dog in 2010 and is handled in the United States by another poodle specialist, Chris Manelopoulos.
Read Friday's post: Inside Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Sunday: Races to watch and Wheeler's fantasy BIS lineup.