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The Road to Westminster a Tale of Two Dog Handlers

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the Super Bowl of dog competitions. We follow two handlers, a newbie and a returning favourite, on their journey to Madison Square Garden

By: Darcy Matheson

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For first-time Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show handler Barbara Fleischmann, there are a million unknowns about stepping into the ring at Madison Square Garden. But there’s one thing she knows for certain: What she will be wearing. 

“I saw it in Macy’s and was like, ‘I need to have this for Westminster,’” Barbara laughs. “When the light hits it, it’ll just be like… ahhhh.” 

Like many in the show circuit, complimenting your dog is a major consideration when it comes to what you wear in competition. And the owner-handler’s shiny black blazer and skirt set, with grey embossed flowers, will perfectly visually  complement her black and gray Kerry Blue terrier. 

The key, Barbara says, is standing out and looking elegant, while not clashing with or distracting from the real star of the day—the dog.

“It’s a package. We’re a team. You want your dog to look good and you want to look good too,” says Barbara.

That’s not newbie sentimentality. Breeder-owner-handler Shawny Cirincione, who has made an astounding 25 appearances at Westminster, chooses outfits that will make her dog stand out in the ring. 

And with her crisply-coated Scottish Deerhound, Violet (competition name: GCHG. Hobarra's I Dreamed A Dream), she opts for blues and greens. Sometimes even cream. 

“No reds, it doesn’t look good behind her,” Shawny says, adding that she’s very superstitious. So this time around she’ll be in the big ring in a royal blue St. John suit that she was wearing during her last competition win. 

“If I win big in a suit at a dog show I have to wear it for the next show. Period,” she says.

The Super Bowl of Dog Shows

Celebrating its 143rd anniversary, the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the gold standard when it comes to dog exhibitions worldwide. With 203 dog breeds competing, it draws the creme de la creme of top talent when it comes to canines and handlers. 

Thousands of handlers and trainers and owners make their way to Manhattan for the better part of a week of events, with the dog show the jewel in the crown. 

For handlers, the road to Westminster starts months—even years—in advance, on the show circuit, striving for qualifying rankings, wins and championship titles in order to capture the top rankings necessary to enter.

That’s on top of the countless hours of obedience training, showing, and, depending on the breed, a whole lot of meticulous grooming. 

More than 3000 dogs and handlers are enrolled each year in Westminster’s week of events, with the showpiece being its famed all-breed benched dog show at Madison Square Garden—the Super Bowl of showmanship. 

Gail Miller Bisher, the director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club, says the beauty of the sport is the fact people from all walks of life come to show their dogs, and a newbie with a great dog has just as much chance of winning as a veteran handler with decades of experience. 

“I think that’s why the show has survived so long,” she says. “The show is a community. Everyone is accepted. We all have one major thing in common: It’s that we love our dogs. I’m very proud of that.”

The Newbie vs. the Veteran

The dog show circuit is very new for Barbara Fleischmann. An eight-year devotee of dog agility to burn off energy for her terriers, Barbara decided to take up showing her three-year-old Kerry Blue terrier, Dugan (competition name: Adare Don’t Worry Be Happy), just last fall, in October 2018. 

“I run around the agility ring so I thought ‘how hard can it be?’” she says. 

Her first time showing was at the Philadelphia Dog Show, where she took a major win. Since then she’s done about 10 shows, many with impressive results, taking ‘Best of Breed’ or ‘Best of Winners.’ 

The owner-handler spends four nights a week at classes with Dugan: Monday and Thursday are agility; Tuesday is obedience; and Wednesday is confirmation class to learn how to show in the ring. This is where those show skills are honed—how to run with your dog, how to walk your dog to show off their gait, learning how to have the dog on their toes and not get excited, not to jump, not to bark. Then everything learned in classes gets reinforced and practiced at home. There’s an agility course in the backyard, and lots of confirmation training. 

“It’s a lot easier to show a well-behaved dog so they’re not jumping on people, they’re not aggressive. It’s all about building your connection with the dog,” she says. 

Although the first-timer doesn’t think she’s going to win Westminster with her relatively young pooch, she’s very excited: “He has a lot to learn still and I have a lot to learn too. But I’m 59 years old and it’s on my bucket list to go to Westminster.” 

The stakes are much higher for Shawny Cirincione, whose dog Violet is currently the number one Deerhound in the United States and was ranked #1 Scottish Deerhound All Breed at Westminster in 2017 and 2018. Violet’s list of accomplishments is impressive: She’s the all-time winningest hound in the history of the AKC National Owner Handler series, and has dozens of titles under her belt/collar. 

And to top it all off, this will be Violet’s last year at Westminster. So a win would be a spectacular end to the six-year-old dog’s very impressive career. 

“It’s a feeling that is indescribable to have a dog like this,” she says. “You’re walking into the breed competition with the best of the best. When your dog wins the best in Westminster you know you have arrived.”

Westminster: A Show Like No Other

Situated in the busiest metropolis in the country, Westminster is like no other American dog show. Whereas most dog competitions are spread across outdoor fairgrounds or convention centres, Westminster is a spectacle smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. 

Between bringing the dog, the suitcases and crates and all the grooming gear, it’s hard work. You need to embrace the chaos, says Gail Miller Bisher.

“It can be a little alarming for these dogs with the traffic, the noise. We tell people you need to enjoy it. It’s the kind of thing once you’ve done it you’re so thrilled and wish you could go back and experience it all over again,” she says. 

“It’s just magical.” 

For Shawny, showing at Westminster is a dream come true, and something she literally dreamed about from when she was a little girl. 

But even after decades of appearances, stepping out onto the green carpet is still nerve-wracking. Even as a junior handler, Shawny arrived early so she could step out onto the green carpet to calm her nerves and mentally prepare herself. 

“It’s excitement, nerves, and a little fear,” she says. “But once you step in the ring it’s just you and your dog and you just take a deep breath and go to work.”

Battling nerves isn’t just limited to the handlers. Barbara takes active steps, including chewing gum or eating Life Savers, so her dog Dugan can’t smell her nerves. 

The handler believes nerves and anxiety go right down the leash to the dog, so it’s important not to be nervous or visibly rattled. She’ll also play ball with Dugan backstage to keep him relaxed.  

Barbara said she would be “ecstatic” if she won but is really looking forward to going into the ring with the top dogs and handlers in the world. “Even if we don’t win we’ll do our best and try again next year,” she says. “People don’t realize the work that goes into this.” 

Shawny agrees. At Westminster, Violet is “all business” and a “total diva.” But after every competition she is rewarded with a McDonald’s ice cream cone before returning home to two of her puppies, her brother, Buck, and seven Wirehaired Dachshunds. At home, “she’s a wild woman outside and a couch potato inside. She’s like a big gray pillow,” Shawny laughs. 

Win or lose, Shawny says her dog is always a winner and she loves her no matter what.

“At the end of the day you know in your heart that you are going home with the best dog and the dog you want to spend your life with and give your heart to.”

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By: Darcy Matheson
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