By Ranny Green
Teamwork, trust and temperament all intersected with a Seattle connection in the celebrated Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show best-in-show ring Feb. 11 at Madison Square Garden.
Less than two weeks after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in a romp nearby, an Irish water spaniel named Riley and a standard poodle called Ally with Seattle origins found themselves in the Select Seven final some called the best ever in the iconic event.
The seven group winners, which included four of the five top show dogs in the country last year, piled up an astounding 522 bests-in-show between them. Ally, the No. 1 Non-Sporting dog nationally last year, was 11th in the 2013 final standings.
David Frei, longtime USA Network announcer and Westminster Kennel Club director of communications, says, “Best best-in-show lineup ever? Probably in terms of the number of bests-in-show and certainly in recent times. But I am sure that the case can be made for great best-in-show lineups in the past that may not had that number of bests-in-show because of the times.”
Five of the finalists were the No. 1 dog in their group in 2013 and four had more than 100 career bests-in-show.
Ally, co-bred by Debra Ferguson Jones, of Renton and L’Dyne Brennan, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; handled by Tim Brazier, of Mill Creek; and groomed by Penny Dugan, of Bothell, entered the ring with 115 bests and left with a coveted Reserve Best in Show from judge Betty Regina Leininger.
Riley, bred by Stacy Duncan, of Woodinville, and Colleen McDaniel, of Bothell; co-owned by Tom and Bethany Urban, of Issaquah, and Greg Siner, of Clifton, N.J.; and handled by Rick Krieger, of Charlton, Mass., went into the ring with 41 bests-in-show.
For Ferguson, poodles have been her passion since the 1970s in Alaska, when she found her first miniature poodle alongside of a road on her way home from school in Anchorage. “I picked her up out of the snow and took her home,” she recalls. “My parents had no choice but to pay the $250 in vet bills.”
A few decades later after moving to Seattle and getting her family’s land-development business stable she began breeding standard poodles, which has progressed into quite a hobby. “The year before last I finished eight dogs of my breeding, most of which I handled in the show ring myself,” she says.
Ally epitomizes the quality of Ferguson Jones’ stock but the highly respected local breeder recognizes the dog’s show-ring successes stem from the terrific teamwork of Dugan, 2010 Groomer of the Year, and the talented Brazier’s acumen in coaxing the best out of the charismatic show girl. The other key component in Team Ally are New York financial backers Toni and Martin Sosnoff.
Characterizing Ally, Ferguson Jones says, “Ally is the definition of a poodle. She is very active, intelligent and elegant. She has an air of distinction and a dignity peculiar to herself. When she used to sit under my desk as puppy one of my East Coast competitors and mentors invited me to go on a circuit with them and said in a condescending manner that I could bring a puppy.”
She looked at Ally, smiled and from that point it was game on.
Later at a dog show she brought the young Ally up to Brazier and detailed the East Coast puppy invite. “I held up Ally and said with a grin, ‘Just look at what I will bring!’
Brazier, considered worldwide as a premier poodle handler, looked down at the dog, Ferguson Jones recalls, took hold of the leash and informed her it was time for Ally to go home with him. “My mouth dropped open and closed several times while he walked off with my dog. I never got to go on that East Coast circuit.”
Ferguson Jones is effusive in praise of the Sosnoffs. “They spotted her from her first Poodle Club of America show and wanted to sponsor her. They made it possible for Ally to be the first bitch to win best in show at the club’s national from the classes in 80 years.”
Dugan, a New Jersey native, and Brazier, born in Canada, have teamed up for two decades.
Asked about the key to their long relationship, Dugan replies, “Trust and reputation. This is not a breed you learn to groom on the go. You must know what you’re doing from the start. From the get-go, Tim knew I could do the job, and that was important.”
Through her career, Ally has been Dugan’s Velcro dog. “We’re bonded,” she admits, “She’s lived with me and I accompany her to every show. So we spend a lot of time together.”
Ally’s strong suits, adds Dugan, are her “exquisite face, glamorous white coat and her love to show.”
When you ask any breeder, groomer or handler what ranks as their No. 1 thrill in the show ring, most will put a best-in-show at their national right at the top. But Dugan says Ally’s reserve best in show at Westminster is right up there. “She was in her element there. The bright lights, the crowd, the ultimate showcase. It was her night.”
Westminster was the 5-year-old, 40-pound Ally’s last hurrah in the show ring. She has been retired and will come home to live with Ferguson Jones.
While Brazier made the ultimate call to retire her, the matter was discussed among all involved. “She accomplished about everything she could,” adds Dugan, “and Westminster was the perfect way to bow out. It’s time for her to have puppies.”
Brazier adds, “Ironically, Ally was getting better and better in the ring, but you don’t want to wear out your welcome with the judges, either. There are always good, young dogs coming up that appeal to them. And you have the element that her biological time clock for breeding is ticking, too.”
This year was Brazier’s third trip into the Westminster Select Seven ring. “It’s always a thrill, and getting the reserve will be one of the highlights of my career.” (He began handling dogs in 1958.)
“I will always remember her for her consistency and unflappable nature. When you travel as much as we have, both of those are critical, inside and outside the ring,” he adds.
Team Riley has a similar East Coast-West Coast mosaic of members. Co-breeders McDaniel and Duncan proudly point to Riley coming from a “super litter” of eight. Three went to pet homes and excelled in those environments being just what they were meant to be. “But the other five,” says McDaniel, “blazed their way into all kinds of records.”
Riley’s 41 bests-in-show make her the No. 1 winning Irish water spaniel ever in the U.S. Add to that these glossy statistics: 132 Sporting group wins, No. 1 Sporting group dog nationally in 2013 and No. 5 all-breed performer in 2013. Two of her sisters, Annah and Bella, have also claimed best-in-show titles. Both Annah and Riley have won the coveted national specialty. Just as breed judging began in February at Westminster, Annah whelped a litter of 13 at Duncan’s home.
With Riley’s wins has come national prominence. “She is an amazing ambassador for our breed,” says Bethany Urban. “She wants to be in the show ring and glides around it with perfect timing, giving the impression her feet are floating above the ground.”
While Urban and her husband, Tom, have savored Riley’s successes, letting her head eastward several years ago to Siner’s Poole’s Ide Kennels wasn’t easy. “The decision to let her be campaigned in the Northeast was easy. Letting go was heartbreaking,” Urban concedes. “She had never been away from us and we were worried. How would she handle the flight? How would she handle the new surroundings? Would she miss us? Would she remember us when she saw us again?”
But before Riley was boarded – McDaniel accompanied her – Siner offered the Urbans plenty of reassurance she was in good hands. The couple made several trips to the Northeast the past two years to visit their girl which lives with Krieger, her handler, and his wife, Jenny, who performs all the grooming.
Riley will be officially retired following the Irish Water Spaniel Club of America National Specialty in Farmington, Utah, April 25-29. Following that she will come home to the Urbans, where she will be bred.
When Siner, a 35-year Irish water spaniel fancier, saw Riley for the first time several years ago, it was love at first sight. “She took my breath away with her beauty, temperament and synchronized movement. Water spaniels can be quirky. There was nothing quirky about her. She knows she is beautiful and nothing seems to shake her up.”
Kennel commitments and a busy travel schedule forced Siner to eventually turn over the lead to his friend and veteran handler Krieger two years ago, who labels the 64-pound Riley a “once-in-a-lifetime dog.”
“I felt very honored when Greg picked me to take Riley forward,” adds Krieger. “Getting into the best-in-show ring at Westminster was truly one of the highlights of my career. I was more nervous about winning the breed, however. The rest took care of itself. She showed beautifully in group and best-in-show but that was an incredible field in the final. There was absolutely no room for a slight error in the presentation.”
Asked about the angst of letting go of Riley in late April, Krieger said, “It’s gonna be tough. As an all-breed professional handler, some dogs come along that you really bond with. She’s one of them. I could be a bit teary-eyed. But it’s time for her to return home and produce some future ambassadors for the breed. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to take one of them into the ring at some point.”
The quality of the Select Seven field wasn’t lost on any of the veteran journalists covering this year’s Westminster.
James Perry Taylor, publisher of The Working/Herding Dog Digest:
“In the big world of showing dogs there is a VERY exclusive club – The 100 Club. Its members have each won 100 or more bests in show. The membership list totals less than 40.
“It’s quite an accomplishment, considering many show dogs are retired never winning a single coveted best-in-show ribbon.
“This year’s show had a never before seen four members of the 100 Club in the final seven, the other three flashing their Diamond platinum membership cards at the ring entrance.
“Sky (wire fox terrier and America’s No. 1 show dog in 2013) put on the best show of her career. She came in as the one to beat and exited Madison Square Garden undefeated with the highest award given to an American show dog all year.”
Allan Reznik, editor in chief, Dogs in Review:
“I’ve been attending Westminster for 40 years and it was one of the finest lineups I can remember. It was particularly exciting to have some unusual breeds – the Irish water spaniel, bloodhound and Cardigan Welsh corgi – competing along with glamorous Westminster mainstays like the standard poodle and the wire fox terrier.
“Riley lived up to her name and she truly was ‘on fire.’ She was charming and clownish as the IWS is meant to be, groomed to perfection and turned in a stylish performance. All the details, all the icing on the cake that makes the breed unique – the rat tail, the crisp curls, the unruly topknot – she possesses in abundance.
“. . .Ally, the standard poodle, is graceful and high spirited; square and up on leg; groomed immaculately by the talented Penny Dugan and shown by a poodle master, Tim Brazier, who has taken so many to such great heights in an illustrious career. Everything about her exudes poodle type. Fanciers use the term ‘poodley’ to describe her; it is high compliment never given lightly.
“. . . Mother Nature may have been roaring outside Madison Square Garden but indoors, the temperature sizzled. It was an absolute thrill to watch the red-hot group of dogs put through their paces by a discerning, well-respected judge. An unforgettable night for all who witnessed it.”
Adds Tom Grabe, publisher Canine Chronicle: “Many have speculated that this is the finest best-in-show lineup in recent history. The fact that the seven finalists cumulatively had over 500 best in shows certainly gives credence to this claim.
“However, we need to look back over the last 30 years of Westminster best-in-show lineups to truly evaluate this claim. Furthermore, the changes in the sport of purebred dogs over that span (more dog shows and less depth of competition) must be considered when evaluating these records.”
Grabe has attended every Westminster since 1985 and says two lineups – 1994 and 2003 – rival 2014.
The 1994 final had eventual winner Willum, a Norfolk terrier handled by terrier master Peter Green (the No. 2 dog amongst all breeds in ’93 and the top-winning Norfolk all-time); Marketta, a Norwegian elkhound piloted by Hall of Fame breeder Pat Craige (the No. 2 hound); Damien, a Pekingese (No. 1 toy and winner of more than 100 bests-in-show) shown by top toy handler David Fitzpatrick; and Mystique, a German Shepherd dog and the top winning dog of all time with 275 bests in show and piloted by the legendary Jim Moses.
In 2003, Mick, a Kerry blue terrier shown by Bill McFadden, took the top prize. Mick is the only dog to win best in show at Westminster and Crufts and had a resume’ with more than 100 bests in show. Joining Mick in the final was the Brittany, Jester, 2001’s No. 1 sporting dog; Bunny, the top-winning Ibizan hound of all time who went on to be the No. 1 hound in 2003; Josh, the Newfoundland who won Westminster the following year and set every record for its breed; the Pekingese, Les, the No l. 1 toy in 2002 and winner of more than 100 bests in show; Mikimoto, the standard poodle that was the No. 1 non-sporting dog in 2003 and 2004 and winner of 88 bests-in-show; and Jim Moses with Dallas (German shepherd), the No. 1 all breeds and winner of more than 100 bests in show.
“Comparing these dogs and lineups is like comparing the ’72 Dolphins to the ’85 Bears. This year’s lineup was one of the best ever, however I consider 1994 to be the best I have ever seen. That one included the top winning dogs of their breeds handled by the best of our generation.”
For Billy Wheeler, highly respected Dog Show Poop blogger, “Based on pure numbers 2014’s finalists may be the top winning seven of all time, however the sheer drama 2009’s Rocky story can’t be beat. The beloved veteran, who everyone thought had his best days behind him, bounced back from a life-threatening illness and won the biggest victory of his life.
“The 10-year-old Sussex spaniel, CH Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, had not been in the show ring for five years, yet faced six finalists whose records were impressive.
“. . . I don’t base my favorite Westminster moment on numbers, unless it was the decibel level in the Garden (2005) the night the German shorthaired pointer, CH Kan-Point’s VJK Autumn Roses, hit ‘The Stack Heard Round the World.’ The two things that we all dream of in a show dog are spectacular movement across the ring and a free stack down of the judge. I have never seen the equal of Michelle Scott’s presentation of Carlee, which literally dared (group) judge Paula Nykiel to take her eyes off her.
“She was not one of the favorites going in. I remembered the pundits never even mentioned her. However, when she came back to the judge and Michelle dramatically dropped the lead, Carlee took over. She hit her mark and stared the judge down like she was a pheasant in the cross hairs. The entire Garden was transfixed and, for a moment, all of us, pet owner and die-hard enthusiasts, knew we were witnessing greatness.
“Carlee and Michelle would repeat the moment the following night for best-in-show judge Lynette Saltzman. Forget the numbers, I live for moments like that.”
Best ever? Most memorable? Who knows? But no one can argue that Seattle Teams Riley and Ally were part of a record-breaking Westminster final – and numbers don’t lie.