One could call it the cat’s pajamas of dog shows, but that wouldn’t bring home just how prominent the Westminster Kennel Club dog show really is.
“It’s the super bowl of dog shows,” says Betty Regina Leininger, and she should know.
In 2014, Leininger will have the honour of judging Best in Show at Westminster.
If Westminster is the superbowl, the Best in Show judge is the most valuable player — trumped only perhaps by the dog she chooses.
To add some perspective, Westminster is the second-oldest continuous sporting event in the United States. Only the Kentucky Derby is older. The show is watched on television by millions and beamed out to 187 countries around the world.
How Leininger went from being a young girl in Newfoundland to being a dog show judge in Madison Square Garden starts with a little inheritance.
Discovering dog shows
In the mid-1960s, Leininger was working for a law firm in St. John’s when she inherited a German shepherd from a retiring RCMP officer.
“I was extremely proud of my dog and I used to walk him around Churchill Park,” she says.
One day she was stopped by a stranger who suggested she enter the animal in an upcoming dog show in Harbour Grace.
“I’d never been to a dog show. As a matter of fact, I’d never heard of a dog show.”
Nevertheless, she entered her dog and on Labour Day she walked into the small Harbour Grace arena where there was an entry of about 100 dogs.
“I walked in and I saw so many different dogs and all these exhibitors milling around and judges judging different breeds and I thought, wow. This is really something. This is exciting.”
Despite her lack of experience, Leininger managed to do alright with her shepherd and came close to winning some championship points. More importantly, dog show mania had sunk its teeth into her.
She purchased two female German shepherds from a breeder in Ontario. Now all she needed was a few more shows other than the two or so a year Newfoundland was hosting. She befriended some other people interested in going to the Maritimes in the summer for a two-week dog show circuit. There were people and dogs from other parts of Canada and from the U.S.
“This seemed a whole subculture of the world. I had no idea. It was a wonderful, wonderful hobby and I just really, really got excited about it.”
So much so, she knew Newfoundland couldn’t keep her.
“I got on an airplane with two German shepherd dogs, two suitcases and a letter of reference to a law firm in Toronto and all the money I owned in the world in my pocket.”
She dropped her dogs at the breeder to be cared for and made her way into downtown Toronto.
Once again, she proved her senses were sharp in new experiences. She landed a job with a large firm in the big city, and if that had been the change Leininger was looking for, things would have been great. But it was dog shows she was after and in this set-up, she didn’t even have her own dogs living with her.
Luckily, one evening she got a call from some friends she met in the Maritimes who lived in the Syracuse area in New York state. They asked if she would like to come to a dog show in the U.S.
Would she ever. However, she didn’t quite realize what dog show she was about to walk into.
“Monday morning in February of 1970 I walked into Madison Square Garden and the Westminster Kennel Club and I thought I had literally died and gone to heaven,” Leininger says.
There were thousands of people, lights, cameras, excitement — and, of course, lots of dogs.
“It was electric.”
She says she was frozen in her shoes. After that, she knew Toronto wasn’t going to cut it. She had to get herself and her dogs into the United States. She emigrated to the States and became an assistant to a professional dog handler. The law firm was no more. It was all dogs from here on in.
She eventually got a licence as a professional handler, and married somebody well established in the dog show world. They settled in Atlanta and travelled throughout the country as professional handlers.
Leininger developed a fine reputation as a dog handler, something that takes an incredible amount of work, but also some natural talent, she says.
“Somebody who has an eye for beauty, balance and symmetry can take a good quality dog and work wonders with it.”
It’s an artistry to show a dog to its full advantage in the shortest amount of time, she adds. But you still need a good dog.
“(You can’t) make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”
Following a divorce, she decided she needed a change.
“The obvious thing to do would be to apply for a judge’s licence,” she says.
She got her approval in 1983 and started a judging career.
“Eventually you get to the point where you make it to where you’re desirable for most of the larger kennel clubs to hire you because you’re qualified and approved to judge lots and lots of breeds.”
Her judging has taken her all over the world. In 2002, she was called to judge some breeds at Westminster.
“I was just absolutely blown away,” she says.
She’s been called back several times to Westminster to judge, beginning in 2002 up until 2012, when she judged the working group.
“There was something magical about that night in 2012,” she says.
Others must have thought so, too, and it wasn’t just the dogs that were catching the eye of those in the Westminster Kennel Club. Shortly after the 2012 show, Leininger received a call from the show chairman of Westminster. He told her they wanted her to come back in 2014, but they didn’t have many dogs for her to judge. Just seven, in fact. Seven best-in-groups to make the seven dogs competing in the Best in Show.
“My knees got weak,” Leininger says.
She couldn’t tell anybody for 13 months, although she let her then 93-year-old mother in on the good news.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It’s something that you really want to stand up on your rooftop and just scream out.”
How big of a deal is it to her?
“It’s the most sought after assignment for any judge anywhere in the world, really,” she says. “In my opinion, Westminster is as good as it gets.”
Which begs the question, what will she do after she walks into that electric ambiance this coming February and judges Best in Show of the most prestigious and iconic dog show in the world?
It won’t mean retirement, she says. But she will start to choose her judging gigs more carefully.
As for what she’ll be thinking when she walks into Madison Square Garden this February, it will be a trip back to 1970 where it all began.
“I always think about the first time I walked in there. This will be my sixth time as a judge. What could be better than that?”