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What It's Like to Judge the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Paula Nykiel knows her pooches. The resident of Washington, Mo., travels all over the globe judging show dogs, from Rhodesian ridgebacks to giant schnauzers. This month, she journeys to the Big Apple to offer her expertise at the alpha of all shows, the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held February 11 and 12.

• At Westminster, I’ll do some breed judging, which won’t be on TV. I’ll be doing the Rhodesian ridgebacks, the giant schnauzers, the standard schnauzers, and the Samoyeds. My choices for best of breed in those four breeds will compete in the appropriate group. I judged the sporting group in ’05 and the working group in ’09.

• I can judge all the sporting dogs, the working breeds, and eight of the hounds, and I’m approved to judge Best in Show. There are more than 160 breeds, but you don’t actually have to be approved for all of them to judge Best in Show. You can also study breeds you don’t know, but judges have to have a lot of experience before they walk in the ring. If you’re judging Best in Show, you can usually rely on your group judges to send you seven great dogs.

• Each individual breed has a breed standard, a blueprint for the breed. It tells the judge what the ideal specimen of that breed would possess. It tells you proportions of height to length, the expression, how the ears should be set, the eyes shaped, how much bone, the type of coat, the movement. The temperament is very important, too. Also, we visualize its former function, like bold and confident for what has historically been a guard dog.

• It’s a challenge to bring a dog that’s not used to the confines of a city to New York for Westminster. It can be stressful. They have to continue to eat well and get exercise. They’re watched very, very closely. There are hotels right around Madison Square Garden that take dogs at that time of year. The year that my husband and I took a pointer there to compete, it was difficult. Cabdrivers don’t want dogs in their cabs; sometimes, you have to bribe them.

• Oh yes, they’re dogs—they have accidents in the ring. No big deal. The judge isn’t going to hold it against the dog.

• You start training them for being handled when they’re puppies. You handle their feet and mouths, and let strangers touch them. A shy dog doesn’t make a good show dog. Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are famously friendly. They try to kiss you as you’re going over them. That’s why they’re so popular.

• The short leashes the handlers use at dog shows are to have control of the dog so it can move in a straight line. It probably looks tighter than it really is. You can’t have them out there all over the place, like a fish on a string.

• I used to try to dress to complement my dog. Like, if you show a light-colored dog, you don’t want to wear a light-colored suit. You want the dog to stand out.

• Most dogs enjoy competition. And the ones that don’t never make it to the ring—they stay home on the couch. I had some pointers that were beautiful animals but had no interest in showing, so they stayed home. The show dogs get really excited when you start packing. They like to travel, and they like the attention.

• That Pekingese that won Westminster last year is a really good Pekingese. He’s a really good one for that breed.

• There are shows every weekend except Christmas and New Year’s Day, all over the country. This Thursday I’m going to Oregon. A few weeks ago I was in Virginia. It’s a fun weekend job. You meet a lot of really good people and see a lot of good dogs.

• I love the movie Best in Show. Dog show people either love it or hate it. I think it’s hilarious. I know all those people! [Laughs.] But I certainly wouldn’t name names.

• Personally, now I have a Jack Russell terrier. Her name is Molly.

• Dogs are all about unconditional love. That’s what they’ll always give you. They’re wonderful company. It’s lonely whenever we’re away from my little dog, when we go on a trip.

• I’m not a cat person.

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