Keeping the Dogs in Line: Westminster 2019

A scene from the Westminster dog show. (Photo by Kathi Wood)

The crowd around the bulldog ring was five rows deep, with people craning their necks to see which of the lumbering beauties would win best of breed at the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The dogs’ handlers juggled their charges around the ring. 

But John and Barbara Ioia were busy juggling tasks of their own. As the stewards for the bulldog ring, they were making sure each dog’s handler received the correct armband identification number; that the dogs — a whopping entry of 32 — were arranged in the correct order; and that the official catalogue notebook, recording who was present and who won which prize, was properly marked. Think of them as the traffic cops for the dogs and the people who led them around the ring.


“While judges are given the task of seeking out and awarding the best dogs in the ring, it is the stewards’ job to help maintain order, get the dogs in and out of the ring, and make certain that things run smoothly for the judge and exhibitors,” said John, an orthopedic surgeon in Kingston. He and Barbara, a former secondary school teacher active in community affairs such as Girl Scouts, took their tasks in stride: they’ve been working in dogs together for a long time. They got their first dog, a Shih Tzu, in 1971, just before they got married. “Then we went to a show and decided we wanted to show something,” John said. That desire led to the acquisition of their first show dog, Sassy, whom they showed themselves to her championship (rather than placing her with a professional handler), as well as titling her in obedience.

The Ioias also have owned Lhasa Apsos and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. The Ioia family obtained their first Cavalier in 2005 and have been very successful in conformation (the formal name for around-the-ring contests), including breeding a best-in-show winner; rally (performing obedience and agility skills with one’s dog around a course); and therapy. John first showed his Shih Tzus at Westminster in 1976, exhibiting them at the prestigious Madison Square Garden contest four times, but the Ioias are no longer breeding or showing.

John began American Kennel Club (AKC) judging in 1982; over the years at various events, he has judged the toy group, nonsporting group, most terriers, and best in show. He has judged at the Eukanuba National Championship and the American Shih Tzu Club national show, as well as many toy- and nonsporting-breed specialty shows. He said that he “loves nothing better” than to spend time training, grooming, or showing his dogs, and he has enjoyed the rally and therapy work he has done with them.

Stewarding can be a daunting task under normal dog show circumstances; even more so at the pressure cooker that is Westminster, arguably the most prominent and most scrutinized show in the world. At this year’s 143rd annual event, February 11–12 in New York City, more than 2,800 dogs strutted their stuff at Piers 92 and 94 along the Hudson River; breed winners went on to exhibit at the Garden in the evenings in their respective groups. Best in show went to King (GCHB Kingarthur Van Foliny Home), a 7-year-old wire fox terrier from Brazil, whom John pronounced “world-class.” 

Dog showing may look easy — just walking, trotting, or running a dog around the ring — but it’s not. The steward’s job is to keep the ring organized so that the judge may focus on the main business of evaluating the dogs. As the AKC publication Dog Show Stewards puts it, “Stewarding is hard work with little or no compensation save the satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that the work has been done well.”

“A good steward is like a stage manager,” said Kathi Wood, breeder and exhibitor of Airedale terriers and miniature wirehaired dachshunds. “They not only make the judge’s job easier and more efficient, they enable the exhibitors to show their dogs to their best advantage by creating a well-organized ring and communicating the information we need. Then I can focus on my dog rather than where I’m supposed to be. A well-organized ring, assisted by a well-organized steward, makes the work of showing dogs look easy.”

At Westminster, such a task comes under particular scrutiny. “At this show there tends to be a select group of very qualified judges and stewards with long histories,” John said. “Generally, the stewards here are themselves high-level judges. It’s an honor to have this job.” Every ring steward at Westminster this year, with the exception of Barbara and one other steward, is a qualified multibreed judge, he noted, though his wife “has maybe a better eye for a dog than I do.” Added Barbara, as she cleaned up the stewards’ table, “I like organizing and keeping people on track. And I like the dogs.”

The Ioias worked together in the Westminster ring with the ease and confidence of a couple that has been doing the task for years. Barbara said husband-and-wife stewarding teams are not unusual, especially at large events where two stewards per show ring, rather than one, are standard practice. “At a show like this, both are needed to manage the ring,” she said. “It’s very important.” Added John, “Having a partner who knows what they are doing and what the other will do is a blessing.”

Stewarding is an essential part of the sport of dog showing, John said: “I don’t think you can judge unless you’ve been a steward. It’s extremely important in terms of ring management and learning the rules.” In fact, he said, Cody Sickle, the bulldog judge under whom the Ioias served as stewards, mentored him in bulldogs. “He has a fabulous knowledge of the breed. I was excited to be in the ring with someone I so respected.”

Indeed, after the bulldog judging was over, he went up to Sickle and said, “This was fun. There were some beautiful dogs in there.” And as winners lined up to have their pictures taken with the judge, John was right beside the official photographer, taking pictures with his phone as if he himself were the proud papa of the pups. “You can just enjoy watching these gorgeous dogs that have been training for this since the day they were born,” he said.