GCH CH Quiet Creek’s Double or Nothing for Heather

The nation’s most prestigious dog show is a combination of an invitation-only affair and a scrimmage by mail. Invitations go out to the top five dogs in each breed, as determined by the number of points they earn at shows throughout the year, plus all the national specialty winners (assuming they aren’t already in the top five). The rest of the available slots (2,845 total this year, including 91 junior showmanship competitors) go to the lucky dogs whose entries are opened first on the day they are all delivered to the Westminster Kennel Club for processing.

Who Can Go?

Can any dog have his day at Westminster? The show was for a time limited to champions, but this year it is open to any dog who has earned points toward a championship. Even so, getting a dog to Westminster takes a lot more than just the luck of the draw. The canine competitors are the equivalent of professional athletes, says Bloodhound breeder Susan LaCroix Hamil of Laguna Beach, Calif., who over the years has had one dog make it as far as the Best in Show group and several Hound Group placements and breed wins at the prestigious show. This year she’s showing GCH CH Quiet Creek’s Kiss and Tell (just plain Kiss to her friends), a bitch who has twice won the breed at Westminster and is bowing out after this show. Hamil is also introducing a new bitch, GCH CH Quiet Creek’s Double or Nothing for Heather (known as Roulette).

Canine Athletes

Hamil says dogs must be in top physical condition not only to get a look from the judge but also to withstand the rigors of being on the road and the stress of competition. Like any great athlete, the dogs eat right and spend a lot of time working out, whether that means jogging with a handler, running alongside a bicycle, swimming, spending time on a treadmill or doing dog sports such as agility.

“The Poodles might look frou-frou,” Hamil says, “but if you put your hands on them, those top Poodles are going to feel really strong and fit.”

Labrador Retriever breeder Gayle Abrams of Bellingham, Mass., is showing CH Candy Acres Private Major CGC RN (Hawkeye). At shows she bicycles him around the fairgrounds, and at home he goes on daily walks in the woods or plays with her other Labs. When the weather is bad, Hawkeye works out on a treadmill. To see what makes a top Labrador stand out, Abrams says to look at the “Ts” of the breed: topline, tail, temperament and texture of the coat.

“If you look at pictures of top conformation Labradors,” she says, “there is a straight line from the shoulder down to the tip of the tail with no dips, no waves, no bulges. The tail must be an otter tail, wider at the base and no longer than to the point of the hock [the ankle]. They have a loving personality, not aggressive or timid; and a double coat — a fine inner coat that keeps them warm in the water and the coarse outer coat that repels water and keeps them dry.”

CH Candy Acres Private Major CGC, RN

Mental Fitness

A top show dog must also be adaptable. Boykin Spaniel breeder Paisley Knudsen of Roswell, Ga., uses early stimulation techniques and extensive socialization to prepare her puppies for anything they might encounter. She says the result is that traveling from their quiet Southern environs to the hustle and bustle of New York City is not a big transition for her dogs, CH Larley’s Chasing Pirates (Wendy) and CH Larley’s Nothing But the Truth (Bones).

“Last year one of my dogs ran out of the ring and kissed the cameraman,” Knudsen says. “Usually cameras and lights are scary to dogs.”

The best show dogs love the limelight. They are the stand-up comedians or movie stars of the dog world, responding avidly to people cheering and clapping for them. Some breeds have a reserved personality that can make this lifestyle less pleasing to them than it is to their more outgoing counterparts, but they wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t have some level of showmanship. It’s not always an easy task to find such a dog.

“You have to find that right combination of a dog who enjoys it, who meets the breed standard and who’s physically up to the challenge,” Hamil says. “If you look at the dogs who get to that level and watch them at a show like Westminster, which is so high-profile, there’s not one dog there who’s really not having a good time.”

Wag Your Money Maker

The making of a top show dog is an expensive proposition. You might say that it’s a numbers game — in more ways than one.

The dogs who receive invitations have competed in enough shows by the qualifying period to have beaten more dogs in their breed than any other dogs competing. How many dogs that is depends on the breed. In a rare breed such as the Dandie Dinmont Terrier or the American Foxhound, there aren’t that many other dogs to beat. But a top Golden Retriever might have to win against over 3,000 other Golden Retrievers to achieve top status. Sometimes, the number-five dog may have defeated only one more dog than the number-six dog.

No matter how many dogs they’re competing against, the majority of the top-five dogs spend 30 to 40 weekends a year going to shows, known as campaigning a dog. The cost of all that travel, plus entry fees and advertising in dog magazines, adds up fast. Owners who show the dog themselves and spend little to no money on advertising might get away with spending as little as $30,000, but handlers have been known to spend as much as $250,000 in a year to campaign a dog.

“It’s hard to do it for less than a good five figures,” Hamil says.

The level of the sport is such that Las Vegas puts odds on certain dogs winning. This year, the oddsmakers might be looking at Swagger (GCH Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect), the charismatic Old English Sheepdog who was awarded Reserve Best in Show last year; number-one Irish Water Spaniel MBIS GCH CH Whistlestop’s Riley on Fire (Riley), who won the Sporting Group at the 2013 National Dog Show; pretty-as-a-picture GCH CH Claircreek Impression de Matisse (Matisse), a Portuguese Water Dog who took Best in Show at the 2013 AKC/Eukanuba National Championship; and MBIS/MBISS GCH CH Afterall Painting The Sky (Sky), a Wire Fox Terrier who swept the breed and Terrier Group and placed third at the 2011 World Dog Show in Paris and took Best in Show at both the 2012 AKC/Eukanuba National Championship and the 2012 National Dog Show.

But as mutual fund statements say, past performance does not guarantee future results.

“High-profile, top-winning dogs have not even gotten out of the breed sometimes,” Hamil says, “or they don’t make it to the Group level. And if they make it to the Group, they don’t make it to the Best in Show ring. It’s really quite exciting. There’s never a time when the fix is in, so to speak.”

Read more Vetstreet Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show coverage.