Westminster bound

A close encounter of the dog kind

The idea of going to the 1998 Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York City surfaced in my mind when several Canaan Dogs became champions shortly after the breed was accepted into the American Kennel Club herding group last August. The dream became reality when Ch. Catalina's Felix To The Max (Max) was accepted as the first Canaan Dog to appear in the prestigious Westminster show.

Max is owned by my friends Leal and Cindy Grupp of Napa, California. Elizabeth Hebert, my friend and Canaan Dog breeder, decided to abandon her husband and children to the tender mercies of her mother (and vice-versa) and join me and my own Canaan Dog, U-CD Ze'ev Midbar, CD, NA, PT, CGC, AHBA-HTDIs, HRDIs (Wolf) on the drive from Cincinnati to the Big Apple as the combined human/canine cheering section for Max.

The show was set for February 16-17; in order to be there in time, Liz and I agreed to leave the Saturday before; Wolf had no say in the matter as he was just along for the ride. Since neither Liz or I had been to New York City or Westminster, it promised to be a grand adventure for all of us.

The long drive to New York City took two uneventful days. My packing skills came into play when we picked up Sally Armstrong-Barnhardt at the Newark airport (since Sally had our hotel room in her name, it was somewhat to our benefit that we retrieve her); we rearranged seven pieces of luggage, a cooler, a folded crate, a sleeping bag and foam pad and several assorted hand bags to fit in the back of my compact station wagon while Sally, Liz and Wolf settled themselves in their respective seats.

The real test came when I discovered New York City traffic for the first time, but I managed to get us unscathed to the Hotel Pennsylvania. It was tough, though: taxi cab drivers have a well-earned reputation of kamikaze driving, and their no-holds-barred method of darting in between you and the car in front of you is rather daunting.

The Hotel Penn is across from Madison Square Gardens, the Westminster show site. Consequently, nearly all of the 2500 dogs entered in the show (and their respective owners or handlers) were registered at the Hotel Penn. When we arrived at the front door of the hotel, it seemed like everyone else was also there. Cars and vans were parked three-deep from the curb unloading baggage, dogs and equipment, so we followed suit. Bellboys with luggage carts were vainly trying to keep up with the influx while the valets maneuvered cars through oncoming traffic to the hotel's parking garage.

Dogs had to ride the service elevators. Only three of the eight elevators were working, so Wolf and I waited nearly a half-hour before we were able to join Liz and Sally in our room on the 12th floor.

We had a short time to rest from our trip before getting ready for the Senior Conformation Judges charity reception that evening. Sally and Liz took the twin beds in the room while I opted for my sleeping bag and foam pad (it later turned out that I had the softest of the three). Cindy Grupp, her mother Emma, and Martha Fielder, Cindy's friend and Max's handler for the show, joined us and we went up to the hotel's penthouse party rooms for the reception. After a wonderful time of drinks, food, dancing, mingling and conversation, Sally, Liz and I returned back to our hotel room at 2 a.m. Of course, Wolf needed to go out, so it was a quick change of clothes and the four of us rode the elevator downstairs and trooped outside.

Getting Wolf in and out of the hotel for exercise would later prove to be a challenge, but I soon learned the best times for the least amount of waiting for the elevator. Nearly 2500 dogs were using the same restroom facility — the exterior walls of the hotel — which kept the NYC street maintenance crews busy with sawdust and mop buckets. Luckily, I found a lone tree not too far from the hotel that was relatively unused by other dogs and suited my picky pooch (by the way, it is a $100 fine for any “deposits” not cleaned up and this rule is strictly enforced).

Herding breeds were due to be judged on Tuesday. Since we wanted to see something of the city, we chose not to attend the Monday breed judging. This turned out to be a wise decision; a record number of 17,518 people attended the show that President's Day and the fire marshal ordered the benching area doors closed at noon, the first time ever at Westminster.

We chose instead to take Wolf to Central Park via taxi. Because some taxi drivers are not dog-lovers, I kept Wolf hidden behind a parked car until Sally and Liz hailed a cab. When they had the rear door open, Wolf and I jumped in. The ride to Central Park was an adventure; it is one thing to witness taxis in traffic and quite another to ride in one. Mental reminders of one's health and life insurance plans flashed by as we traveled through the concrete canyons. Deposited outside Tavern on The Green, a restaurant near the park, we refrained from kissing the ground in gratitude for our safe arrival and wandered the pathways of the western side of Central Park. Wolf was in dog heaven with the number of relatively unmarked trees and the chance to roam to his heart's content as far as his Flexi-Lead allowed.

Buoyed by our renewed zest for living, the wish to see New York City from ground-level, and the reluctance to take another expensive taxi ride, we decided to walk back to the hotel, 35 blocks away. After much window shopping, photo opportunities in front of Radio City Music Hall, Macy's Department Store, Broadway theaters and the Empire State Building, and the usual tourist gawking at the skyscrapers and other oddities, we arrived back at the hotel, footsore and hungry. Wolf was the only one in apparent good shape — as the top performance Canaan Dog in the nation, he's used to constant movement in his herding and agility training. A trip to a local deli and several hours of sleep revived us in time to attend the evening's group judging.

We had reserved box seats for both days long in advance and, though not at floor level, we were able to watch the judging without the aid of telescopes. Binoculars did help, however, and we used them to not only watch the dogs, but scout out the celebrities in the crowd (Rod Stewart was seated not too far from us). Announcer Roger Caras received the most enthusiastic applause and whistles from the crowd when he pointed out that none of the dogs being judged both days were from a pet store or puppy mill.

Following the Monday night group judging, our Canaan Dog cheering section joined Cindy, Emma and Martha for the reception for AKC's Take The Lead charity in one of the Garden's party rooms. As Cindy pointed out, we were rubbing elbows with the great, the near-great and those who thought they were great. Replete with good food, drinks and conversation (no dancing this time as we were literally rubbing elbows in the huge crowd), we returned to our hotel room at 2 a.m.

Tuesday dawned too early for us, but Max was due to be judged at 11:15 a.m. and we needed time to get ready. In the benching area, we found Max's assigned bench and stayed briefly to wish Martha, Cindy and Max good luck, even though he was the only entry in the breed. We were amazed at the size of the audience; 13, 717 attended that day and it seemed like the benching area was jammed with most of them viewing the dogs and patronizing the vendors located along the perimeter. The main arena floor was divided into seven rings and spectators surrounded them nearly six-deep; getting to the arena turned out to be a nightmare for several exhibitors. None of the rings looked large enough to properly gait the dogs if there were more than five entries in them.

Max passed his breed examination, which paved the way for his historic entrance into that night's herding group judging. It's often a long, boring wait between breed judging and group judging and Westminster is no exception. Sally and Liz went back to the hotel for much needed sleep and I volunteered to stay and help Cindy and Martha. Many people stopped by and asked about the breed or Max in general. Some even had heard about Wolf ,and I was more than happy to talk about him and his latest accomplishments.

Tuesday night came sooner than we expected. Leal and the rest of Cindy's family watched from their box seats, but Cindy remained with Martha and Max. The folks seated around us soon learned for whom we were rooting — to say we were loud is an understatement.

Even though he was not chosen for a group placement, Max gave a grand performance. We stayed to watch the Norwich Terrier, Ch. Fairewood Frolic, win Best In Show, then helped Cindy and Martha break down Max's crate and pack it and the rest of the show equipment on the crate dolly for the trip back to the hotel. Naturally, it was raining and we were soaked by the time we managed to get inside the hotel. Liz and I had planned to leave New York City before rush hour Wednesday morning, so we said good-bye to Cindy, Martha, Emma and Max, then spent some time packing our bags. Again, it was nearly 2 a.m. when we finished; again ever-patient Wolf needed to go out.

The wake-up call came at 4 a.m. At 5:30 a.m. Liz, Wolf and I said good-bye to Sally (who was staying an extra day), climbed into the car, and headed for home. Thirteen and a half hours later, we arrived back in Cincinnati. Overall, it had been a wonderful but expensive first-time experience. Aside from the glamour of the group judging, it was very much like any other dog show; I had seen some of the vendors at other shows and none had Westminster souvenirs, not even the Westminster Kennel Club's booth. Would I go again? Only if I had a dog to show.

Denise may have a dog to show at Westminster in 1999. Wolf earned eight of the 15 points he needs for his championship in mid-March and could easily qualify for Westminster before entries are due this fall.

Denise Gordon

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