The Beagle looks around at the dozens of people and five dogs clustered close by in a huge hall, and instead of holding still for a photo lets loose with a thundering, baying howl. Three dogs away the colored Bull Terrier takes exception, and suddenly handlers are tugging their leads.
“Let’s keep them apart,” someone cautions. After all, they are dogs, never mind that this is a unique group: each is a Westminster Kennel Club champion.
In August at the opening of the Purina Events Center outside St. Louis I got the rare opportunity to meet and visit with not one, not two, but six Westminster best of show winners. It is easy sometimes to forget they are dogs, because they are so beautiful and also now a part of history.
Westminster, which is held every February, holds a special place as the second longest continuously held sporting event in the U.S., behind only the Kentucky Derby. Just consider that in the first show, way back in 1877, there were two Staghounds listed as being from Gen. George Custer’s pack, their owner having been killed the previous year with his troops in the legendary last stand at Little Big Horn.
What’s it like to hang out for one evening with six top dogs? Here are some glimpses:
- These dogs have a depth of beauty you can’t appreciate just watching on TV. I realized the moment I picked up J.R., the Bichon Frise who won in 2001, that his coat, even at age 12, was the most luxuriant I have ever felt. Simply amazingly thick and lush.
- Equally stunning was the luster of the coats of Stump, the oldest winner ever at age 10, and of James, the English Springer Spaniel who prevailed in 2007. When you feel the texture and see the definition of color up close, it is something that not even high-definition television can convey.
- It was fun to learn that J.R. and Stump are best buddies who share not just a home in Houston but also sleep together on the same bed every night with their owner/trainer.
- More than just beautiful, four of the dogs – J.R., Stump, Uno the Beagle and Rufus – are now certified therapy dogs. In fact Rufus, the colored Bull Terrier, was honored in 2010 by the American Kennel Club as the therapy dog making the most significant contributions to a community. Since winning Westminster in 2006, Rufus has visited wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and paid visits to extended care, schools and health care facilities around New York and New Jersey.
Yes they are show dogs and they are beautiful, but they are also out serving their communities long after the lights have dimmed.
Their involvement in this work is in part a credit to David Frei, the “voice of Westminster’’ and founder of a truly wonderful organization, Angel on a Leash. The February issue of DOG FANCY magazine will feature a special report on therapy dogs. You can also learn more about their great work by visiting www.angelonaleash.com.
At the evening’s closing banquet current Westminster champ Sadie was relegated to her crate off by a side wall. That didn’t last long. The Scottish Terrier made an effective protest and before long there she was at trainer Gabriel Rangel’s table, getting a rare treat, a bite of beef tenderloin.
They are just dogs, after all.