Dogs‘ Day

Dogs‘ Day

Most of us who have welcomed a dog into our families, ideally via adoption, aren’t much concerned about the purity of their genetics. And yet, every non-pandemic February around America’s break rooms and water coolers, attention turns to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a showcase of the country’s champion purebreds.

Watching these meticulously groomed dogs—and handlers—strut their highly trained stuff across the green carpeted floor of Madison Square Garden, a viewer gets the impression that this is a typical setting in the world of dog shows. But an Elm City Kennel Club Match Show last Saturday afternoon in Madison’s Bauer Park revealed a more relaxed and relatable breed of competition.

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I arrived to find rows of vans and minivans parked along each side of the sloping road that leads into the park, many with one or more crated dogs people-watching through open rear doors—a more literal form of tailgating. Farther along I came upon clusters of dog owners and their four-legged charges sitting on blankets and beach chairs, taking advantage of a small grove of shade trees. A miniature collie seemed to be enjoying a snooze atop a portable grooming table while their long coat was being brushed.

In the sun-dappled field beyond, the business of the day was occurring. There, in each of three small show rings delineated by lengths of wooden lattice fencing, a judge was putting one or more human/canine pairs through their paces. In the far ring, Joe Vernuccio, a Cairn Terrier breeder based in Stratford, was judging terriers, toys and nonsporting breeds. In this ring, I watched as small, often very young dogs—a match show, I learned from ECKC president Abby Patrizio, is open to novices, including puppies as young as 3 months old—took on the challenge of trotting through the rather tall grass. They were encouraged by the voices of their owners, who were in turn given helpful suggestions from the understanding judge.

Sporting breeds—spaniels, retrievers, pointers and setters—were assigned to the adjoining center ring where judge Julie Jussume assessed and worked with these larger, more athletic dogs, who, in their youth, often move and act like gangling adolescents. Once they’d traveled around the ring so that she could see and possibly comment on their gait, the dogs were expected to stand for examination, often coaxed by their owner/handler. The more mature dogs in the group moved easily into a pose that emphasized their breed’s lines and conformation, known as “stacking” in dog show parlance.

In the third and final ring, Kim Holmes’s judging of working, herding and hound dogs alternated with Canine Good Citizen testing. To obtain a CGC certificate, which confers certain special privileges, a dog must complete a series of tasks that display an ability to respond to commands and ignore real-world distractions, the latter requiring the dog to ‘stay’ while the handler moves to an out-of-sight spot, and doesn’t return for three long minutes. This was a difficult undertaking for both the Golden Retriever and Great Dane I watched. But with a few gentle reminders from the tester, they both managed to remain in place, while longingly gazing toward the spot where their owners had disappeared. Each received their certificate.

Following this successful day in the sun, with winners earning points from the overarching American Kennel Club, the ECKC, along with clubs from Newtown and Darien, will be participating in a four-day series of AKC-sanctioned shows to be held in August at the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the 2021 Westminster Kennel Club Show, postponed from its usual February slot at MSG, is now scheduled for June 11-13 to be held on the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, New York. It will be broadcast by Fox and live-streamed at, after what Patrizio calls a “year with very few opportunities” for dog fanciers.

It might explain why Saturday’s match show felt less competitive and more congenial than most shows. It was a balmy day, and the fog of COVID had begun to lift, and people and dogs alike just seemed happy to be back out there.

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Written and photographed by Nancy McNicol.

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