CONWAY — The Super Bowl of dog shows — the 143rd annual Westminster Dog Show — takes center stage at Madison Square Garden in New York City next week, bringing together the top conformation dogs and handlers in the world vying for Best in Show, the ultimate crown.
Among the 2,800 dogs entered this year is one from Mount Washington Valley — Kit, a flat-coated retriever owned by Robin Crocker of Conway. For both, it will be their debut at MSG.
“For people like myself, a relative newbie in the breed world, going to Westminster represents a bucket-list item,” Crocker, the owner of Telling Tails Training Center In Fryeburg, and Yellow Snow Dog Gear. “Going with my dog is beyond anything I ever believed possible. I am honored and proud to see my little girl standing among so many amazing dogs. I’ve always wanted to go as a spectator. I never imagined I would ever have a dog that would qualify to go.”
There are two days of breed competition at Westminster on Monday and Tuesday (the show airs on Fox Sports 1 — cable Channel 400 from 7-11 p.m. each day). Kit is one of 32 flat-coated retrievers in this year’s show.
A conformation show, also referred to as a breed show, according to American Kennel Club, is a dog show that may look like a beauty pageant, but it’s not. Dogs are not being compared to each other; they’re being measured by how closely they conform to the standard of their particular breed. Why? The AKC explains: “Because the closer a dog’s appearance is to the breed’s standard, the better that dog’s ability will be to produce puppies that meet the standard.”
Kit, age 3, has a registered name of GCH (grand champion) Blacfriar Miss Kittys Pioneer Spirit TKI (intermediate trick dog) CGC (canine good citizen). She is scheduled to compete in the 8 a.m. time slot on Tuesday after the Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.
“Blacfriar is her kennel name,” said Crocker. “She came from Buffalo, N.Y., from (breeder) Rachel Hill. I picked her breeding because she has dogs that have done well in both breed an in performance sports. I had no experience in breed handling or showing, but I really wanted to give it a try. With my background in dog training, I love trying new dog sports and breed handling is a very big sport so I wanted to learn more. What better way than to learn by doing!”
Crocker said she got her first flat-coated retriever “quite a few years ago” after having had two golden retrievers as her first dogs and finding they both had health issues.
“My first flat-coat was a lovely girl with a great little personality. She was fun-loving but easy to live with and work with. She was quieter than most flat-coats, which are known for being kind of goofy and fun-loving and also known for being dogs that need some space to run and be active,” Crocker said. “I loved her and so came my second, and third flat-coat (Kit).”
One of the things Crocker likes about Kit is that she is more mellow than most flat-coats.
“Kit fits me really well. She is fun to work with and has a little playful side to her,” she said. She loves to run and is great with other dogs. I have service dogs in training in and out all the time, and she is wonderful around other dogs and works well with puppies, which is important to me. She is a good role model and teacher and keeps the puppies in line. She is very trainable and excited to work, which for a dog trainer is a lot of fun. She is also versatile and does well in many sports. Most importantly for me, she is easy to live with.”
In order to qualify for Westminster, dogs must have their championships. To earn this distinction, dogs need to have won two majors (three 5-point titles) and must accrue 15 points.
“I showed Kit in breed for 10 of the 15 points she needed to complete her championship,” Crocker said. “She is now working with a handler (Meagan Ulfers) who has been able to complete her grand championship. Kit does well for a number of reasons. She adapts well to new settings so she is comfortable at dog shows. She is very nicely put together, which is important in the breed ring. And she moves beautifully with a lovely topline.”
Crocker, who serves on the board of directors for A.C.T.S. (Assistance Canine Training Services), said it was in September that Westminster first appeared on her radar as a possibility.
She had sent Kit and Ulfers off alone to a Finger Lakes Kennel Club show.
The four-day show was the first that Kit attended without her, and Crocker hoped the dog would pick up one major win toward her championship.
“She picked up two major wins in her first two days at that show and was suddenly a champion. She finished that show, and the next two weekends, she did shows in Pennsylvania and in New Jersey. When she came home she had competed in 10 shows and had gotten six 5-point wins and one 3-point win and was racking up points left and right,” she said.
In November, Kit was able to complete her grand championship in what some would say was record time. “When her handler offered to take her to Westminster my first question was, ‘Would she be competitive there?’ and her handler just laughed. And so I said, ‘sign her up,’” Crocker said.
Crocker’s expectations for Westminster are more about the experience than about winning.
“A win of some kind would be nice, but seeing Kit stand up with what promises to be an amazing field of 32 of some of the nicest flat-coated retrievers in the country will be a win in and of itself,” she said.
After Westminster, Crocker is looking forward to time at home with Kit.
“The most important job Kit has is being my companion so I am looking forward to her coming home to be with me,” Crocker said. “She has been out showing to prepare for Westminster and is now getting close to completing her Grand Championship Bronze, but I am ready to have her home.”
“We still have lots of work to do. A good well-rounded dog is not just pretty and so I want to get her into the rally ring and also into the competition obedience ring,” she said.
To obtain the Bronze level, a dog must achieve 100 Grand Champion points — four times the 25 needed for a ‘regular grand’ title. Kit is also close to completing her novice interiors scent work title and novice containers title, and Crocker said “She is trick maniac so getting her performer trick title is also on the agenda.”
In addition, Crocker hopes to breed Kit in the spring.
“My service dog work has taught me a great deal about the importance of the first eight weeks of a puppy’s life. And I am looking forward to working with her litter,” she said.
“I know that ‘purpose breeding’ is a bit controversial and I support shelter adoptions 100 percent. I also believe that if you need or want a dog for a specific job, be it a service dog or a competition dog, you do have a statistically better chance at success with a ‘purpose breeding,’”she said.
“If I am lucky enough to have a litter of puppies with Kit, I will be working with the puppies to give them the foundation they need to go on to do great things,” Crocker said. “I believe that it is the responsibility of a breeder to not only select breeding pairs that promote good health and longevity, but to also select breeding pairs for good temperament and to learn how to raise their litters to promote confidence and a foundation for the dogs to move on to be the best they can be at whatever they do.”