It’s dog-eat-dog as canine contest kicks off in New York

NEW YORK (AFP) – Fur fluffed, coats sleeked and tails a-quiver, thousands of four-legged hopefuls squared off Monday for perhaps the canine world’s most prestigious honour, as the Westminster Dog Show kicked off in New York.

The 142nd instalment of the storied contest, the oldest continuously run US sporting event after the Kentucky Derby, culminated yesterday night at Madison Square Garden with the selection of ‘Best in Show’ among the 2,800 dogs in competition.

The first stage began early Monday at a showing area near the Hudson River, with judges picking champs among such prominent breeds as the German Shepherd and French Bulldog, as well as lesser known ones like the Portuguese Podengo Pequenos.

Michigan handler Doug Belter’s candidates this year included a Wire Fox Terrier and a Beagle, with whom he drove for 11 hours to get to New York.

Show dogs were judged on the basis of how well they comport with breed standards.

Show dogs were judged on the basis of how well they comport with breed standards. – AFP

The beagle, Belter explained, must be presented in a much “softer” way than its pricklier terrier colleague.

Professional handlers are a fixture of the dog show circuit, which runs year-round. To show at Westminster, they charge up to $500 per dog, plus expenses, compared with $150 or $250 at smaller shows.

Many professionals are second and third-generation show dog people, while others grew up around dogs in other roles, such as hunting or protecting cattle.

Hiring a professional handler is a way to ensure a dog is adequately groomed and learns the basics of the ring, such as walking in a straight line, said Gail Miller Bisher, communications director for the Westminster show.

“The advantage of a professional handler is they go to shows every weekend,” Bisher said. “If you work in another profession, you may not be able to do that.”

Stephen Cabral, a Los Angeles-area professional handler, used to work full time in health care and show dogs on weekends.

Nine years ago, he retired from his job of managing radiology tests and building MRI imaging machines to spend more time with his family – and devote himself to shows, driving across the country over four days this year with two dogs.

“You do it for the love,” he said.