Canadian dogs, judges and handlers head to Westminster dog show seeking glory

Consider them the four-legged version of Team Canada.

More than 100 Canadian dogs compete this week at the venerable Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, where carefully groomed pooches and pedigree canines will strut their stuff in a bid to be named best in show.

The homegrown competitors include record-holding champion Inuk, a snow-white 10-year-old from Caledon, Ont., who heads into the competition as the top American Eskimo in Canada for 10 consecutive years.

“When he walks in the ring he kind of (communicates): I’m here, so all eyes on me,” his owner, Sharon Robertson said of Inuk’s knack for performance.

This will be Inuk’s 10th appearance at Westminster, where he’s previously won eight best in breed titles and was awarded the title of “select dog” last year, for a second-place showing.

Robertson, who’s been showing American Eskimos for almost 20 years, says she knew he was a champion since she first saw him as a puppy.

“He was just one of those dogs that you spot an attitude, you spot — and it sounds dumb — but I call it, ‘It.’ It’s just a quality that every time you look in the box and see six puppies that’s the only dog you see. And that was Inuk,” said Robertson.

Canadians have had a solid track record at Westminster, the second-oldest continuous sporting event in the United States, after the Kentucky Derby.

Canuck dogs have won best in show at Madison Square Garden six times, most recently Miss P the beagle in 2015.

Miss P’s handler, Will Alexander, returns this year to show eight pooches from the United States and Canada.

“Your whole year, this is what you strive for, making your dogs look good for this show,” Alexander said as he prepared for the trip from his home in Milton, Ont.

“Westminster is sort of the Olympics of dog shows, right?”

The judging panels, too, feature a healthy Canuck contingent, with Vancouver-native Betty-Anne Stenmark presiding over the all-important finale.

Stenmark, who moved to California in 1975 after meeting her husband at a dog show in Michigan, will be the fourth Canadian to judge the category, and the second Canadian woman.

She spent many years as an exhibitor and breeder, cultivating a specialty in Dandie Dinmont terriers, but discovered an eye for judging in the 1970s.

“I was watching this judge do a terrible job with the breeds and I can remember saying to myself, ‘I can do as good a job as that,’” said Stenmark with a chuckle.

But it’s not easy to be a judge. Qualifications require applicants to have bred dogs, produced champions, judged apprentice shows, and completed exams on anatomy and specific breed standards.

Stenmark, who now lives in the Sierra Foothills, says she’s licensed to judge about 130 breeds, including all breeds in the sporting, hound, and terrier groups.

Generally speaking, she’ll be on the lookout at Westminster for good breeding stock.

“When you’re faced with two lovely dogs before you, you think to yourself, ‘I would be happy to have that dog at my house’ and that’s the one you choose. It’s simply judging the quality of the dog and its abilities to reproduce and improve the breed with every litter,” she said.

Other Canadian judges include Pamela Bruce of Toronto; Stephen Dainard of Niagara Falls, Ont.; John Reeve-Newson of Toronto; and Canadian-born Elliott More, now of New Hampshire.

Then there’s husband-and-wife judging team Michael and Rosemary Shoreman, who head to Westminster for the first time, although they’ve judged all over the world.

“It’s a great show, it really is,” said 73-year-old Michael Shoreman, who will be judging 170 dogs over two days in the terrier, toy and non-sport groups.

“Very often Canadian dogs do very well. The Canadian breeders, in a lot of breeds are very strong,” he said.

Rosemary Shoreman said the Phelpston, Ont. couple will likely take more time than usual to assess the dogs, mindful of the big stakes at the televised event.

“Because it’s a prestigious show, you don’t rush through what you’re doing,” said the 70-year-old, who will be judging 159 dogs in the terrier and toy breeds.

“It will take a little bit longer than it would at a regular dog show. We’re probably going to be judging in total each day about four hours.”

Whittling some 2,800 dogs down to a single best in show winner is no easy task.

Stenmark has judged at Westminster 10 times, but admits the best in show category can come down to “a real lottery.

“The competition at that point is phenomenal, and as a judge when you get to those seven dogs you can’t make a mistake — they’re all good dogs,” she said.

“It becomes more: Who’s really on that day? Who’s out there seemingly wanting it? And we’ll see what happens.”

The Westminster Kennel Club dog show runs Monday and Tuesday in New York City, with the best in show prize to be announced by 11 p.m. Tuesday.

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