By Ranny Green.
For Tammie Wilcox, of Tacoma, a 40-year professional dog handler, it’s the memory of a lifetime. For Terry Warnock and Donna McDermott, of Vashon Island, it’s a dream come true.
And since Champion Eyjahunda Thorarinn (call name Thorri), an Icelandic Sheepdog, became the first member of its breed to win a best-in-show at an American Kennel Club in Portland Jan. 21, the dog-show world has been abuzz.
The breed, which numbers about 800 nationwide, was first recognized by the AKC last June and is among six new breeds to be exhibited at the famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City Feb. 14-15.
That’s why Thorri’s win at the Dog Fanciers Association of Oregon show over an entry of approximately 2,500 and a star-studded Select Seven field that included several multi best-in-show champions, was to put it mildly, a major shocker.
Thorri is one of four Icelandics owned by Warnock and McDermott, the latter who owned one as a 7-year-old when living in Iceland in 1972. Their other pair is among four Icelandic Sheepdogs entered at Westminster this year.
The Portland weekend took on an even more meaningful twist because Guðrún Ragnars Guðjohnsen, of Iceland, one of the matriarchs of the breed was on hand to witness Thorrii’s landmark win. “It was thrilling and unexpected,” she says. “He is a very good representative of his breed with sound type and temperament.”
The hardy and agile herding dog is not a breed for all, cautions Guðjohnsen. It’s a barker when herding or driving livestock in pastures or searching out lost sheep on hillsides and should be with an active family. “It bonds very strongly to its ‘human flock,’ and flourishes when allowed to associate closely with humans. The dogs are true members of the group, participating in everything it does,” she continues. “. . . it is destructive for an Icelandic Sheepdog to live its life as a kennel dog. A living piece of art ought to live together freely with its human flock.”
The Portland show attracted a record field of 17 Icelandic Sheepdogs. “We didn’t go down there expecting anything special,” says Warnock. “Thorri is only 14 months old, so it was a chance to gain him some experience in the ring. He is little Mr. Personality and sells himself nicely to judges.”
Because the bonding process between handler and dog is critical and because Warnock and McDermott prefer to keep their three dogs at home on their five-acre property, they bring them to Wilcox’s Tacoma kennel for visits a couple of times weekly simply to build that rapport.
“Establishing trust with a young dog is critical,” adds Wilcox. “I don’t think we could have won that show had Donna and Terry not been so committed to bringing Thorri over to my kennel regularly and allowing us to interact.”
Wilcox is familiar with all three of Warnock and McDermott’s dogs, but recognized “tremendous potential” and a “great attitude” in Thorri early last year in their initial meetings. “A dog that is not accustomed to a show environment must learn to adapt. This means it must learn to understand what is required of it, particularly handling by judges.” In this breed’s case, plenty of inspection is part of that protocol, since the standard calls for dewclaws on all four limbs.
Taking a young herding dog from the field and home environment into a ring surrounded by hundreds of onlookers and other dogs can be a daunting task.
After winning breed, Wilcox went into the herding-group ring simply wanting her young companion to behave well and look good. Thorri answered both challenges “beautifully.” And then when the judge began pulling potential group placements, Wilcox made a “stupid move,” something she has never done in an almost four-decade handling career.
“I thought the judge was sending us off,” she recalls, “so I left the ring with Thorri. “After I walked out, several people near the ringside began yelling my name that the judge wanted us back in the ring. We headed back immediately, and as a seasoned handler, I was embarrassed. But I had to put that quickly behind us and focus on getting the best out of Thorri.”
Mission accomplished and Thorri moved on to become the second member of his breed to take a Group 1 at an AKC all-breed show.
Wilcox is familiar with the ring procedure called for by best-in-show judge Robert Hutton, yet harbored no expectations against a strong field of seasoned campaigners with many bests-in-show between them. “Thorri did a wonderful free stack and moved with confidence and happiness,” she adds.
After doing their job, Thorri and Wilcox waited for the others to show their stuff. When, it came time for Hutton to present the best-in-show award, he looked over all of the Select Seven, and announced, ‘Mam, you win best in show.’ Wilcox looked around for a split second and realized she was the only woman handler in the ring. “I was ecstatic,” she adds.
For Wilcox, this ranks as one of her most memorable wins ever and puts her in the history book as the first handler to win an AKC best-in-show with an Icelandic Sheepdog. “I don’t know how I can top this. I just happened to be the person at the end of the leash with one terrific dog,” she says.
What does Torri’s triumph mean for the breed?
“It’s too early to tell,” says McDermott. “It certainly will raise more awareness, and I know Westminster will produce a lot more, too.”
But Torri is a family pet, cherished friend and farm dog first of all, McDermott concludes. The amount of his campaigning nationally is yet to be determined. For now, everyone is simply savoring this special win.
Wilcox gives full credit, however, to Warnock and McDermott’s commitment to educating judges and the public about this breed that came to Iceland with the Vikings in AD 874-930 and nearly met its extinction there in the 1950s.
Concerned supporters of the breed eventually formed the Icelandic Sheepdog International Cooperation, a consortium of members from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States.
The organization, which conducts annual seminars, focuses on maintaining a consistent breed standard and communication internationally among members.
Put this on your calendar
The Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America, the breed’s parent club and only United States partner club for the Icelandic Sheepdog International Cooperation, will conduct its national specialty June 30-July 3 at the Skagit County Fairgrounds in Mount Vernon. Educational seminars and herding demonstrations are planned in addition to ring competition.