You don’t have to come in first to win at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show. I felt as if a lucky cloud hovered over us during our entire adventure at this world-wide televised sporting event. It could have been the excitement of being in New York City for a week, but I don’t think so. You decide.
On the road to the city during what was billed as the ‘snowstorm of the century,’ but for a few unimpressive snow squalls, we drove on clear roads. That was our first lucky break in the memorable week.
We stopped for the night in Pennsylvania where Herbie was welcomed at a Quality Inn by a desk clerk who asked to have his picture taken with the champ. He promised to root for Herbie on TV…and no, the room was not comped.
We made it into NYC the next day after the streets had been scraped clean and after ten inches of fresh snow had been hauled away, another break on the scale of luck.
Through a friend in Jackson we found a two bedroom apartment that was spacious and perfectly located in lower Manhattan across from a take-out deli/grocery. Best of all, it was affordable. This makes three lucky breaks.
“Parking garages are expensive in NYC and parking on the street is impossible,” another friend from Jackson told me. He was half right. We found an empty spot in front of our apartment building where we were lucky enough to park free for two days. The last two days in a parking garage cost fifty dollars per. Let’s call this a half.
Attending the show was made easy by the American Kennel Club organizers. Herbie was among 2721 dogs competing for Best in Show. Entering the dog, buying show tickets and absorbing information was all done online. Although traffic was busy in the city, AKC on-street guides directed our vehicle to the show site where we unloaded in a downpour under umbrellas, and parked nearby without incident. We entered an immense shipping warehouse set on a pier on the Hudson River that had been purpled and was fit for a royal visit. The carpet, signage and rows of booths were a rich purple, the traditional color of nobility, and that’s how we were treated. That’s four and a half.
We were assigned a two-by-four foot cubicle…large enough for Herbie’s crate, with barely enough space for a grooming table in front and a groomer brushing the dog on one side. It was tight. Chairs or stools were not allowed. All dogs were to be at their assigned bench cubicle from 8 to 6 P.M., except for the time set for them to compete in the ring, or a short rest period in their crates. Potty pens were staged in an attached garage, equipped with small potted bushes and fake fire plugs and a plentiful supply of plastic poop bags.
Canines from four groups were judged on Monday with three more groups judged Tuesday. Best of Breed winners from every group each day showed during the evening performances which were televised on CNBC and USA Network. The Best in Show competition took place on Tuesday evening.
Herbie was a hit before, during, and after the show. He stood on his grooming table extending his paw in welcome to the crowds of pedestrians moving between the aisles. He leaned his head on shoulders while pictures were snapped, lick-kissed the children, and shook hands with men. Thousands of people of all stripes petted and hugged him. Cathy Drummonds, Herbie’s co-owner and handler, Kay Ross, a friend from Detroit, and my husband Bob LaZebnik and I answered questions about the breed and listened to nostalgic stories of Old English sheepdogs adored by folks at one time in their lives. We handed out purple bookmarks with Herbie’s picture, and an invitation to be ring side during adjudication. Officials do listen for the crowd’s favorites. The backside of the bookmark held a plug for Strongheart, a book I wrote about Herbie and the dogs at Clark Lake.
By the time it was our turn to compete, all chairs were filled and people were standing ten deep around the judging ring. A friend from Clark Lake now living in the city and yet another NYC friend found Bob and me in the crowd. They hooted and hollered for Herbie along with us until we were all as hoarse as bullfrogs.
The first Old English sheepdog to enter the ring was Swagger, a twenty-month-old male ‘class dog’ from Colorado. The pup had competed in just a few shows before Westminster compared to the other entrants heavy show schedules. He was not a champion, but came from a boarding and breeding kennel full of champs. The dog had won a major, a multi-point award earned when a dog competes and wins against a least five other dogs in his class. This is a new requirement for registration at the Westminster show. His professional handler, Colton Johnson, drew a flawless performance from the dog. The crowd clapped and cheered.
I had read about changes in the show rules but had no idea how they would play out at the show. Old timers said Westminster had historically been a competition between outstanding dogs, the best of the very best, the dog show every show dog breeder sought to enter. I heard breeders exclaim “Westminster has lost its prestige with the new rules and has become just another expensive dog show.”
As the only male competing in his class, Swagger was given a blue ribbon for first place, and a purple ribbon for Winners Dog, but no points toward becoming a champion. The next single dog to enter the ring was a ‘class’ female, or bitch as they call them in the dog world. She won a blue ribbon for first place and a purple ribbon for Winners Bitch, under the same rules as Swagger.
Next inside the ring were the ‘Specials,’ or champions still competing in dog shows. The chanting grew louder for Grand Champion Herbie the Love Bug from all corners of the ring.”Herbie! Herbie!” But by now my voice was a mere squeak. The dogs were led into the ring with Swagger and the Winners Bitch at the end of the line, all to compete for Best of Breed.
The ring was full of the fluffy, gray and white Old English sheepdogs brushed to their Sunday best. The crowd hushed so handlers could hear the judge’s instructions. He separated the long line of dogs, males into an inner circle, bitches along the outside edge of the ring. Swagger and the Winner’s Bitch stayed with the females. At first the judge watched as the females paraded around the ring. Then he reversed the circles and watched the males. He had all them all form a single line and proceeded to go over the body of each dog.
He measured their skulls with his hands for squareness, checked inside their mouths for alignment of healthy teeth, their front legs for bone strength, and ran his hand along the dog’s spine from withers to where their tails had been bobbed to determine the proper slant to the haunches. Dogs are judged to a published standard. He reached under the males to make certain their reproductive organs were intact. He watched each dog move down the ring and back again to see their movement and check for bowed or cow-hocked legs.
While the judge went over the dogs, handlers stacked their charges, and brushed their coats. They held muzzles to prevent their dogs from accidentally biting the judge if he squeezed their private places too hard. Some handlers pulled up on their dog’s choke collars so tightly the dog couldn’t possibly move their heads. Herbie stacked himself, and held his head still during all the groping and patting down, totally independent of Cathy. He didn’t look at the judge, just at his handler holding a piece of liver bait. He looked regal, and acted like the Grand Champion that he was. The crowd cheered. I was so proud. I wondered then if this was the same dog who stole roast beef off my kitchen counter? That’s half a point.
Out of twenty-one dogs in the ring the judge selected five male Specials, and three female Specials along with Swagger, and then excused the rest of the dogs from the ring. By this time the crowd was clapping, cheering and hooting.
From this group of nine dogs which included Herbie, the judge chose a female for Best of Opposite Sex, and a male and a female Special to be awarded the two Select ribbons he was allowed to give out. And then to everyone’s surprise he chose the class male, Swagger, for Best of Breed.
Making the cut was good for Herbie, considering the quality of dogs in competition. Cathy told me before the show she didn’t think Herbie was mature enough this year to make Best of Breed, but was hoping to win a Select ribbon. When the class dog won a roar came up from the crowd. People were flabbergasted. A puppy had beaten all those champions. But the judge’s decision was final.
All the competitors congratulated Colton Johnson, Swagger’s professional handler, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, but left the ring mumbling in dismay. This winning class dog had just won the right to compete in the Herding Group on Monday night against nineteen other dogs bred for herding who had won best of their breed.
When the CNBC cameras came between the rows interviewing for the evening’s broadcast, we asked the team if they knew our friend who lived in Jackson but now works at Macy’s, John Piper, and his associate Kate Hagen. “We work in the same office as Kate,” the woman said. “She’s working Madison Square Garden today. We’ll tell her we saw you.”
Back at our apartment Monday night we watched the show. Swagger won a Group One, first place, over the other herding dogs which advanced him on to compete for Best in Show on Tuesday night. We stared at the TV while sipping wine and reclining comfortably on a couch with our sore feet propped on a coffee table. We were surprised to see a shot of Herbie being groomed and delighted at another full screen snap of his face all brushed out on CNBC. That makes six.
On Tuesday night as we watched the show we were surprised when the Affenpincher won. He was so small any one of his competitors could have eaten him for a snack. But we were staggered when Swagger, the Old English sheepdog came in as Reserve Best in Show. That made two firsts for Swagger. This was the first year the American Kennel Club allowed class dogs to compete at Westminster and the first year an award was given for Reserve Best in Show. Swagger made history by winning both. I learned later that this same twenty-month-old dog became a champion the weekend following Westminster, the weekend after he had earned the title of second best dog in a world-class show. Any owner of an Old English sheepdog, breeder, or handler anywhere in the world would have to be proud for the breed that an OES had taken such an honor.I know I was, and that’s seven.
Herbie was a trooper standing for hours on his grooming table and greeting each new person with enthusiasm. Each of us heard heart-felt stories from people who had an OES at one time in their lives. Benched next to us was a couple from Ireland who had come from Dublin to participate in the show. The man had judged dog shows all over Great Britain. When asked what he thought of Swagger, he told me that during the time he led his dog around the ring he picked out five dogs he thought were outstanding. Swagger didn’t make his cut. He said personal taste sometimes plays in a judge’s decision. He smiled, and in the tradition of good sportsmanship said, “The best dog in the show is the dog the judge chooses.”
Breeders, handlers and owners were friendly and happy to see acquaintances they knew from the hundreds of dog shows we had all attended across the country. We all would agree that we had brought the best dog with us and were taking the best dog back home. At six o’clock sharp we loaded our van and headed back to the apartment.
We left Herbie alone in the apartment the first night while we walked to an Italian Restaurant around the corner. As Herbie’s handler and co-owner told me, “Herbie is conceited. He thinks it’s all about him.” We learned this lesson the hard way when we came back to a very unhappy doorman. “We have a problem in 2C,” he said. Herbie had barked from the time we left until just before we returned. Apartment residents had complained. We were lucky the building supervisor didn’t order us to find other accommodations. That was luck number eight.
We did manage to see two exciting Broadway musicals during our stay and ate some unforgettable food. That’s a definite nine.
It seems like thousands of people petted, hugged and had their pictures taken with Herbie during his Westminster adventure. But the Love Bug’s ruggedly handsome good looks and outgoing personality touched thousands from around the world at the dog show and on the streets of New York City last week. Herbie is a winner, and he’s lucky. The way I figure it, Herbie is a perfect ten.