Bergen County dogs head to prestigious Westminster
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.
HOW MUCH: Daytime tickets to the Piers, $25, westmin sterkennelclub.org; evening tickets for Madison Square Garden, $40 to $150, ticketmaster.com, 800-745-3000 or thegarden.com.
VIEWING INFO: Breed judging: live streaming (with videos of each breed competition available later), westminsterkennelclub.org; group and best in show: 8 p.m. Monday, CNBC; 8 p.m. Tuesday, USA Network.
FOR MORE INFO: westminsterkennelclub.org.
Kiwi bolts out from behind the just-opened door, overwhelming visitors to his Allendalehome with his strength, speed and jumping ability. The beautiful, athletic Vizsla is not exactly what one would expect from a show dog — those incredibly, well, un-doglike animals who pose pristinely and rarely bark, drool, jump, roll, chase tails or get easily distracted by anyone nearby. He is not aloof and doesn't seem particularly well-trained.
But Kiwi is a show dog and not just any show dog. He's a champion of his breed and one of at least three Bergen County dogs that will compete at the 137th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show next week. Kiwi will be joined byUpper Saddle River's Jam, a Weimaraner owned by Linda Hartheimer, and Carlstadt's CC, a Cardigan Welsh corgi whose owner and handler is Heather Masch.
Kiwi's obvious zest for life at home is fine with owner Steve Pasch, who never wanted a show dog anyway. Pasch just wanted a pet when he was looking for a puppy in the spring of 2010. Specifically, he wanted a Vizsla, the same kind of dog he had since 1984. So Pasch found himself in Connecticut looking at eight or nine puppies. He immediately locked his gaze on one.
Any one but that one, Pasch was told. But he couldn't choose another, so the breeder presented Pasch with an option — take any other puppy or take Kiwi (who was then known as Wellington) and sign a contract agreeing to train, show and breed this pick of the litter.
"I was not looking forward to the training and the nonsense, but I fell in love with that dog and I agreed," said Pasch.
Next week, the Allendale resident will be at the preeminent dog show in the country and he promises Kiwi behaves better with his handler. There are nearly 2,700 dogs that will compete at Westminster.
Despite their seemingly impressive credentials, Kiwi, Jam and CC are not considered favorites to win it all. Their owners don't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on competitions, crisscrossing the country to follow judges, amass points and collect wins at large shows. This is a hobby for the local entries, but there is always hope. Long-shots have taken the coveted Best in Show in the past.
"It happens," said show chairman Thomas Bradley, who admits it's doesn't happen often.
Pasch, Hartheimer and Masch, though, aren't clearing their schedules for the winning dog's morning talk show circuit on Wednesday. They are there for the experience, the love of their dogs. These very different people share that love of dogs, loyalty to their breeds and time commitment to canine competition.
"Some people play golf, I do dog stuff," said Hartheimer, a special education teacher inLeonia who has three Weimaraners and also trains them as therapy dogs and for agility competitions. Jam — Champion Grayhart's Purple Haze — is even a model. Perhaps, you recognize her expressive eyes from a Ralph Lauren, Macy's or Longchamps ad or her pre-Westminster spot on "Fox and Friends" this week.
Masch spends three to four hours a night walking, training and grooming her five playful corgis, after coming home from her full-time office job at a local pet company.
Pasch, who is retired, mostly passes the training responsibilities to handler Michelle Porfido of Long Island, but his weekends and much of his life have become wrapped up in the show dog world. It was not his plan, to say the least, but he does not regret signing that contract.
"Kiwi is really something special, besides the showing part," said Pasch, who has owned dogs for almost 50 years. "This is the best one I've ever had. This dog is like a Velcro dog. It's always by my side. … He senses if I'm down or blue, he comes over and picks me up."
When it comes to "the showing part," Kiwi — officially known as Champion Szizlin Kiwi Pasch — is something special too, as a dining room table full of ribbons and certificates illustrates. Pasch is excited to see what Kiwi will do at Westminster.
Splitting up the show
In past years, the entire show was held at Madison Square Garden. This year, the competition is being held in two locations. The breed competitions and benching during the day will be held at Piers 92/94. Dogs who win their breed move onto the group competition in the evenings at the Garden and group winners are up for Best in Show on Tuesday night. Jam and Kiwi's breeds are both in the Sporting Group. Corgis, like CC, are part of the Herding Group.
Also new this year, the inclusion of the Treeing Walker coonhound and the Russell terrier, as well as the naming of a "Reserve Best in Show" (presumably in case the Best in Show winner can't fulfill his duties as champion or is found to have a scandalous past).
This move to the Piers certainly takes a little of the special feel away from the prestigious competition. Part of the allure is the famous venue, but the Piers location is supposed to give competitors, spectators and vendors more room, particularly in the benching area, which lost space during recent arena renovations.
Teaching about dogs
At Westminster, the public is allowed — and encouraged — to visit the benching area, where dogs stay before and after competition, to meet the dogs and ask questions about the breeds. Spectators should expect honest answers — even if it means learning that a desired breed is not really for their family.
"That's kind of the idea," said Bradley. "Not all dogs are for kids. Not all kids are for dogs."
Hartheimer and Masch enjoy educating people about their dogs. It will be Hartheimer's biggest responsibility of the day, as she's handing over the leash to a friend who has also shown Jam in the past.
"He's an excellent handler and I'm a little nervous," said Hartheimer, who has also handled Jam at shows. "I think he does a better job with her than I do. It's about the dog, not me, and I want her to shine."
Either way, it will be a nerve-wracking day for owner and dog.
"Westminster has this energy that's not like other shows," said Masch, whose CC came from Poland and is officially known as Cool Sensation z Domu Polanki. "The dog really has to be a really stable, well-rounded, even-temperament dog to handle that, because it's very stressful. Even the best dogs will still get nervous."
Owners and handlers who are Westminster rookies have little chance at staying calm.
"You never think you're going to get there and when you're there with your dog, it's almost overwhelming," said Masch. "Then that wave of panic eases when you show the dog and it's over and you sit at the benches the rest of the day."