They were all good boys, to be sure. The seven best in group winners were lined up for their lap around the floor of Madison Square Garden, to be carefully scrutinized before judge Michael Dougherty would ordain one as the finest dog in America. Each competitor had bested thousands of other dogs on the way to this moment, and for many, this would be their last chance. All their lives the seven had been working towards Westminster, their past prelude to this imminent decision. They were all good boys, to be sure, but who was the best?
To win Best in Show is at Westminster is the ultimate prestige in the world of American show dogs, with the show itself one of the nation’s oldest and most venerated traditions. Dating back to 1877, it is second only to the Kentucky Derby in terms of continuously held sporting events and almost as exclusive to enter. In order to qualify a dog must, amongst other things, amass enough points by doing well in lesser shows in order to achieve the coveted rank of Champion. By the time they get to New York, a dog may have won nearly a hundred smaller shows over several years, and it might be their final shot before retirement.
As a near-capacity crowd cheered on, the first of the pack began his run. A German Wire Haired pointer named Oakley, with a lovely gait and earthen fur, paced happily past the judge. While he had won the competitive Sporting Group just hours earlier, no one predicted Oakley to take home the big prize. Next came the American Fox Hound, a beautiful tan beast of the southern wilds with a melodious howl and rigid figure. A true hound, and the only bitch of the bunch, somehow she too seemed to lack the certain quality necessary for victory.
The judging of Westminster can feel subjective, and while an adherent of the sport will tell you that officials look for very specific desired characteristics in each breed, there are times when it can feel like a popularity contest. Often to get a good idea of a dog’s chances one just has to listen to the crowd, who latch on to favorites and follow them through the two day show.
Out around the ring was Slyfox, the Smooth Fox Terrier. A dark horse of the show, Slyfox had defeated another terrier rumored to have been a favorite to win it all. “Wire Fox Terrier, that’s my pick,” a Puli handler had told me before the second day, but she was to be proven wrong. A little white fellow with the strange distinction of half his head being black – divided in a perfect vertical line down his snout as if the dark mirror image of himself. The crowd’s opinion of him was split.
There was the Portuguese Waterdog, whose traditional haircut left its hind legs shorn and markedly less adorable than the Bo, the Obama’s dog that had become synonymous with the breed. A Bichon Frise, whom it seemed literally no one wanted to win. Then there was Swagger.
For the first time in decades Westminster had changed a rule for entry, allowing not only champions but also any dog that won a major. Like a high school ball player who goes straight to the pros, it’s extremely rare that this would happen, and it takes a special talent to be able to make the leap. Swagger was only 20 months old, not even fully mature for an Old English Sheepdog, but owner Doug Johnson’s son had said “I wanna go” and Doug had replied “alright, let’s go play.”Swagger the Sheepdog
Swagger had seemingly come out of nowhere in the preliminaries, easily defeating other of his kind in the breed stage, including Herbie — star of a series of children’s books involving the sheepdog discovering Native American wisdom. A mountain of a dog with a cloud of hair obscuring most of his face, underneath his dense fur Swagger had kind eyes and a soft mouth. “I’d love to see an upset with the sheepdog,” another reporter confessed to me in the pit, and thousands in the crowd shared her sentiment. The underdog had become the audience favorite, and a huge roar emanated whenever he was in the limelight.
But Apollo Creed to Swagger’s Rocky came in the form of the diminutive Banana Joe, an Affenpinscher with the finest record of any in the history of his breed. Named for his monkey-like face, the small black haired dog with a big personality had been cleaning up at shows all over the world. Owned by Tina Truesdale and her husband Bill, two darlings of the American Kennel Club, Banana Joe was raised in Holland and lived with his handler Ernesto. “I’ve never seen a bond between a dog and a man like theirs,” Stuart Band told me in an excitable Scottish brogue, an Affenpinscher enthusiast and eminent showdog judge in his own right, Band had been following Banana Joe’s rise through the ranks. “He’s the winningest Affenpinscher of all time, by far” Band explains, citing his many victories and the predecessors that he eclipsed. Banana Joe received almost the same applause as Swagger as his little legs swiftly carried him back to the blocks, and he stood poised next to Ernesto the handler with a wide grin across his simian face.
The seven winners took one last lap around the floor of Madison Square Garden, each of them was a winner in their own right, but tonight there could only be one. Judge Dougherty strode past each of the magnificent beasts, pausing slightly at Slyfox, Swagger, and finally Banana Joe. Dougherty then returned to center ring for deliberation, and an odd hush came over the formerly riotous stadium.
Tina Truesdale’s legs buckled as soon as she saw the judge motion towards her Affenpinscher. In her sparkling black dress she slumped over the first row railing of Madison Square Garden and wept uncontrollably. Barely able to stand, she composed herself just long enough to scream into the din of the crowd “thank you so much!” before becoming overcome with emotion. A woman from the press pit in a dyed-red bob screamed “yes! yes! yes!” nearly falling out of her seat. Stuart Band and his overjoyed Norwegian friend Aage Gjetnes began to celebrate exuberantly, calling out to Ernesto who looked on in disbelief. “It’s because he’s so beautiful! Soo beautiful” Gjetnes joked. Banana Joe had just won Westminster.Banana Joe. Image from blogs.discovery.com
It would be Banana Joe’s last show, and while several others from the final group were also hanging up their leash, including Slyfox, only the Affenpinscher could say he went out on top. What was a fitting end to Banana Joe’s illustrious career may just be the start for Swagger, who was named reserve winner and would take the crown should the unthinkable happen to Banana Joe. “He’s still got some maturing to do, but we’re gonna be back” said Doug Johnson backstage after the show, as Swagger, his hair now in buns and neon boots on his feet, licked his hand. “I think,” said Johnson, “he’s gonna be one of the best sheepdogs of all time.”
Nick Robins-Early is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington, D.C. Follow him @nickrobinsearly.