Showing on the Big Stage: The Westminster Dog Show

Kathi and Riley. (Photo by Cynthia Werthamer)

“Right around together, and first one on the table.” Those were the first words that Judge Ralph Lemcke spoke after 21 wirehaired dachshunds trotted into the show ring at the 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden.

One of those dogs was mine.

Ch. (Champion) Wildwood Small but Mighty Riley — just “Riley” when it’s time for dinner — walked briskly in beside my partner Kathi Wood. She walked him around the ring with the rest of the dachshunds being shown, then set him up on the bright green carpet in the line of dogs waiting to be examined.

Riley is a miniature wirehaired dachshund, muscled and magnificent, a true hound in a compact package. He watched the other dogs with interest. Once atop the small grooming table, where the judge scrutinized each dog, he readily allowed Lemcke to examine his whole body and look in his mouth to inspect his bite.

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I sat at ringside with a few friends, holding my breath. Would Riley hold his “stack,” the perfectly placed stance that we’d practiced with him since he was a puppy? Would he stand quietly when the judge opened his mouth? Our boy did all of those things, staying steady and calm like the show dog he is.

The judge asked Kathi to walk Riley away from him, then back: this gave him a good look at the dog’s movement. Kathi then paraded Riley in a circle, showing off his gait, until she came to a halt at the back of the line. That was it: two minutes in the brightest spotlight in the dog-show world that culminated 20 years of showing dogs, 10 years of breeding dachshunds, four years of showing Riley and his relatives to their championships. We applauded wildly. The judge turned to the next animal, already stacked on the table.

The procedure was the same as it is at every dog show, but every movement and glance here was weighted with special significance. This was Westminster, the dog show that everyone watches, the show that everyone has heard of, when New York City “goes to the dogs” and even the Empire State Building is lit in the Westminster colors of purple and gold. What it took to get there is a story in itself.

 

Kathi and I bred Riley — caught him when he was born, as well as his four brothers and a sister. We also bred and own his parents. Riley is two-and-a-half years old and lives much of the time with our friends and co-owners in Texas, Cheri Owen and Jenni Sorkin. As a puppy, we decided Riley was not a show dog, but Cheri kept bringing him back to us for another look. She insisted, “He’s beautiful. We need to show him.”

Of course, that’s the first hurdle with all show dogs: how can you tell, among all those cute puppies, which will be the champion? As Kathi says, “It’s like looking at Brad Pitt when he’s six years old and saying, ‘You’re going to be a movie star.’” Choosing the potential show dog is one of the hardest aspects of the sport. Sometimes it still comes down to a lucky pick. It takes years of breeding and showing dogs to develop the ability to spot the best.

And that’s the judge’s job too. As in ice skating competitions, judging in dog shows is both objective and subjective. How does the judge determine what makes one dog more special, more worthy of best of breed, than another?

The judge in the show ring for every breed is examining each dog or bitch (boy or girl) and determining how well, in his or her opinion, that specimen matches the standard for that breed. Ideally, the dog is judged against the standard, not against the other dogs in the ring. The standard — call it the Platonic archetype — is established by the American Kennel Club, the sanctioned national club for each breed. The standard dictates, often with great specificity, how the dog should move, how she should be built, and how he should behave, based on its function as a hunting dog, working dog, or sporting dog, for example.

But then comes the “in his or her opinion” part. Each breed standard is definitive, but has room for interpretation. A wirehaired dachshund’s tail, for example, should be “robust, thickly haired, gradually tapering to a point.” What does “robust,” um, entail? To each judge, perhaps, something slightly different. Thus, one judge chooses a dog (or bitch) as best of breed; the next day a different dog gets the nod from a different judge.

Riley’s variety — miniature wirehaired — is the rarest of the three types of dachshund: smooth-coated, longhaired, and wirehaired. Though they come in two sizes — standard and miniature — all are judged by the same standard except for their coats. They are shown as three different varieties by coat, not size.

 

Even for an 11-pound dog, space at Westminster this year was at a premium. Renovations at Madison Square Garden meant less room for benching — the backstage area where spectators walk up and down the aisles to look at dogs and talk with their owners. This year, there were no aisles and no designations for various breeds, just dogs packed in, literally cheek by jowl, and people jostling to get by or squish in near their dogs. Conditions are supposed to ease next year, when the daytime judging is to take place at Piers 92/94 on West 55th Street, by the Hudson River.

As they say about Carnegie Hall, how do you get to Westminster? Practice (and win!). All the dogs entered at the Garden are champions registered by the AKC. The five top-winning dogs in each breed are invited to exhibit at Westminster; all other champions who apply are chosen in a lottery.

Riley had been shown very little since Kathi showed him to his championship at the Dachshund Club of America’s national specialty show in Riverside, California, in October 2010. This was partly because early last year, I was diagnosed with cancer; my diagnosis and treatment, while successful, put everything else, including dog showing, on the back burner.

Therefore, making it back to the show ring — and on the biggest stage in dogdom, no less — was for us a huge accomplishment that we did not take for granted. Riley, after his spectacular win at the nationals, might well have been in the top five had we kept showing him. But as it was, he happened to hit the jackpot in the Westminster draw, and we were thrilled.

We were up against some of the top-winning dogs in the world, under the most intense scrutiny. Though he showed like a million bucks, Riley did not win best of breed. That honor went to a bitch, Grand Champion Raydachs Playing with Fire V Gleishorbach (“Cinders”), who went on to win the entire Hound Group before an international audience that night. If you’re going to lose, lose to the one who takes it all. (All except best in show, which went to the Pekingese, Malachy.)

We are fortunate to have bred dogs worthy of showing on the big stage. We are even more fortunate to have dogs who are healthy, happy, and, to top it off, beautiful. As Roger Caras, the longtime announcer at the Westminster dog show, used to say, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”++

 

Cynthia Werthamer and Kathi Wood live in West Saugerties.

 

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