Westminster is a magnet. As much as one might deplore the antic behavior or second-guess the judges, be obliged to sidestep the droppings or shove through the crowd, Westminster is as indispensable to dog people as oil to an Arab. Last week more than 3,000 dogs representing 132 breeds and varieties from 45 states were in New York's Madison Square Garden for Westminster's 98th annual show, one of the oldest sporting events in the U.S. And despite all the grousing, it was perfectly clear that nothing in dogdom can match a win in the Garden, especially best-in-show. As Len Carey of Fallbrook, Calif., the best-in-show judge, said of Ch. Gretchenhof Columbia River, the German shorthaired pointer he put up, the dog should now be retired because "he's reached the top."
It was certainly the top for Ch. Gretchenhof etc., who is called Traveler at home. His best-in-show was the first ever at Westminster for a German shorthaired pointer. A vivacious animal with a good deal of drive and spirit, Traveler comes out of dual-purpose show and field stock. He was handled by Jo Shellenbarger of Costa Mesa, Calif., who bred him and was his original owner. But two years ago, when Traveler was two, she sold him to Dr. Richard P. Smith, a show fancier and anesthesiologist from Hayward, Calif. Actually, she had very little selling to do; Dr. Smith craved the dog. Interestingly, the doctor also shows Irish setters, but despite his fondness for gundogs, he has never fired a round in his life.
"He was the first one who caught my eye," Carey said later. "You can't fault the dog. He's as fine an example of a sporting dog as I've ever laid my hands on. I'd say he's a great dog. I was looking for type first, and he has a beautiful German shorthaired pointer head. Then I moved the dogs up and down to see how they landed on their feet. That pointer came down four square, absolutely square. When I went over him his second thighs were as hard as a rock. You just couldn't get your thumbs into them. That dog was in absolute full bloom. I'd love to get my 12-gauge out of the closet and go out in the field with him tomorrow."
Besides the choice of best-in-show—that happens every year—what was of particular concern last week was the Garden debut of four breeds recently moved up from the miscellaneous class and accorded full recognition by the American Kennel Club. The miscellaneous class might be termed the canine Ellis Island. The AKC reserves this class for breeds new to the U.S., just off the boat, so to speak. Instead of getting instant citizenship, a breed, though considered pure, is placed in limbo until enthusiasts prove that it has created a certain amount of interest and support.
The evidence is produced, first, by the organization of a breed club, following the AKC bylaws. A stud book must be kept for at least three generations. On occasion, to ensure that there is no hanky-panky, the AKC has required that a photograph must be submitted of every dog entered in the stud book. The club is also required to run a certain number of AKC-sanctioned matches. Finally, the dogs must be placed with enough breeders throughout the country so that the breed is considered to have the necessary support. The rules are somewhat arbitrary since there is no magic number of dogs that assures full recognition. By some divine alchemy, the AKC decides when a breed can leave Ellis Island for the mainland and Westminster. At present, those in the miscellaneous class include the Tibetan spaniel, the Ibizan hound, the Pharaon hound and the Staffordshire Bull terrier. Curiously, this last one is accorded full recognition in England, New Zealand and Australia, but not here. And to compound the confusion, full AKC status is granted to a breed known as the American Staffordshire terrier, which was originally registered with an obscure outfit known as the United Kennel Club.
To many members of the fancy the four new breeds introduced this year—the akita, the soft-coated wheaten terrier, the Tibetan terrier and the bichon frise—are not only interesting in their own right but also for the light they throw on the diversity of the domesticated dog, Canis familiaris, and its amazingly plastic gene pool. It has been altered and shaped by man in astonishing ways in his quest for an animal that will hunt in Japan, or guard the family larder in Ireland or serve as an amusing, spirited and loyal companion in Tibet or the Canary Islands.
The biggest of the four is the akita, and it is a formidable-looking beast, weighing up to 120 pounds. For all of this the akita is not likely to achieve vast popularity. It lingered in the miscellaneous class for 17 years, which indicates that not many people were tempted to push the breed. In fact, akita owners believe that popularity would diminish quality. "Akitas are aggressive toward other dogs," warns Sharon Hansen of Ann Arbor, Mich., who handled her dog, Ch. Akita Tani's Yorokobi no Moto CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) to best-of-breed in the Garden. "They were first bred for hunting bears." Barbara Miller of Upper Marlboro, Md. adds, "They're not the dog for everyone."
The akitas, which are said to have Tibetan mastiff and chow blood, originated in Japan, and like the Japanese, they have a reputation for being inscrutable. Anyone interested in owning an akita should make certain that the puppy has a stable temperament. Without stability, the akita is a furred bomb ready to explode at any moment. One aggressive dog in the benching area even threatened passersby, much to the dismay of akita fanciers.
Sharon Hansen's best-of-breed, which answers to the name of Kobi, was the only akita present to have earned a CDX in obedience trials, and although Kobi is the soul of stability, he inspires great respect, as his owner discovered one night on a trip to the post office in downtown Detroit. "I was apprehensive about going there after dark," she says, "but people just moved right out of the way when they saw Kobi." It is often said that dog people resemble their animals. In this regard it may be worth noting that akita owners include Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, TV commentator Howard K. Smith and the daughter of columnist Jack Anderson.
The soft-coated wheaten terrier is an attractive Irish breed that has been around for several hundred years and is supposed to have figured in the development of the Kerry blue and the Irish terrier. The dog was late in winning recognition because it served without fanfare as a farm dog. During the famine of the 1840s it helped to guard stocks of potatoes, and since it was obedient to silent signals it was used by poachers to supplement the larder with game. On occasion it is called the poor man's Irish wolfhound.