About 2,700 of man's most high-maintenance best friends vied for career-making glory at the Westminster Dog Show Monday and Tuesday, obediently posing and flitting about the ring of Madison Square Garden in pursuit of what many (owners, at least) felt to be their true destiny: Best in Show, the crème de la crème "top dog" prize bestowed on just one pup a year since 1877.
Finally the judge, Dr. Richard Meen, picked Purina® Pro Plan® Sport Performance 30/20 Chicken & Rice-fed GCH Vjk-Myst Garbonita's California Journey (C.J., once you get to know him), a 3-year old German shorthaired pointer, as the loveliest of the bunch. The bestowal of a large trophy, sash, ribbon, and life-long bragging rights had no discernible effect on C.J. himself, but thrilled his co-owner, breeder, and handler Valerie Nunes-Atkinson, who has been training show dogs since she was 10.
"I just couldn’t believe it," Ms. Nunes-Atkinson told reporters. "For us that are in this sport, and promote purebred dogs, [Westminster] is the pinnacle. This is what we strive for, this is what we go to bed dreaming of at night, this is what we shed tears over."
Yet C.J.'s slight upset over other final contenders, including runner-up Lucy the Borzoi, Panda the shih tzu and Charlie the Skye terrier (to use their first names), may have been written in the stars, she said.
"He was born this way. At 6 weeks, he walked across the living room floor and we said, 'Oh, my.' He has that sparkle that makes you stop and look at him. He’s my heart dog."
"We expected great things of him from the start," she added.
To be fair, C.J. inherited some powerful genes. His grandmother, Carlee, took the crown in 2005. And given that Westminster's main prize is reputation, C.J. may have his own prodigious progeny trotting through the ring one day.
Perhaps that's why his journey to New York was such a quick one: C.J.'s gone from total show novice to its superstar in 6 months, winning 18 smaller Best in Show competitions before The Best in Show title. (Although it's usually an expensive one; an American Kennel Club expert estimated the cost of a show dog's "campaigns" at up to $100,000 per year.)
Over the past two days, C.J. went from one in 2,751 to The One by besting all other male German Shorthaired Pointers, one of 199 breeds allowed at the Show, then GSPs of both genders; then the entire sporting group; and finally facing off against winners in the other six groups: hunting, terrier, working, herding, toy, and non-sporting, a more official-sounding "miscellaneous."
Each February, Madison Square Garden becomes an alternate, dog-centric universe for two days, where jargon can be just as confusing to navigate as the wall-to-wall canine situation. When official show dog names, which are already tongue-trying enough, appear in the press, they're often appended to the dog's official diet of choice. Purina, which co-sponsors the show with hosts the American Kennel Club, is happy to celebrate winners like "Purina® Pro Plan® 30/20 SPORT Chicken & Rice-fed GCH Tashtin's Lookin For Trouble" and "Purina® Pro Plan® Sensitive Skin & Stomach-fed Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind."
The company is doing something right: C.J. is the 10th winner in a row to eat some version of their Pro Plan®. But one benefit of taking home the prize is a cheat day: Best in Shows typically enjoy a steak the next day at Sardi's restaurant in the theatre district, although they may need it to fuel up for the media blitz ahead. C.J. made his Good Morning America debut, with typical poise, on Wednesday.
It was that stoicism that won over Judge Meen, he said Tuesday. "He never stopped looking, focused in front of him, and he floated around the ring," looking every inch the official definition of a German Shorthaired Pointer. Although audiences may gasp when a dog (or its handler) steps out of line, literally or figuratively, most of the judging is based on "breed correctness," or how well the animal matches official guidelines for its breed: GSPs' distinctive "liver" coloring, for example.
Other details, though, give more room to personal opinion. GSPs are supposed to look "aristocratic," which apparently C.J. managed well.
Although he may not be an up-by-your-bootstraps winner, owner and handler Nunes-Atkinson said there's no question C.J.'s special.
"He has that extra sparkle," she told reporters. "He's an old soul."