Billy Wheeler publishes Dog Show Poop, a blog dedicated to promoting the sport of conformation dog shows. Wheeler answers our questions about this year’s Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

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The Seattle Times: For all of those folks who don’t follow the dog-show scene but plan to tune in to Westminster, what makes this show so important and so special for exhibitors and dogs?

Billy Wheeler: The Westminster Kennel Club show is the second-oldest continuously running sporting event in America, second only to the Kentucky Derby. It is the only dog show in the world to be live broadcast. Many exhibitors would rather have a breed win at Westminster than a Best in Show (BIS) at a small venue show.

Q. The show recently has been split between Piers 92/94 and Madison Square Garden, with the breeds showing at the Piers and the groups at the Garden in the evening. How did that go for exhibitors and spectators? Are there any other significant changes planned for this year?

A. This will be the third year of the split venue. The Piers have some pros and cons. While the benching is far superior to the Garden and the rings are larger, access to the rings is challenging.

At the Garden one could retreat to the elevated seats and get a good view of the action. On the Piers it is six deep around all the rings and only the very tall or very early spectator will get a good view of the judging.

This year we have two new breeds competing, the wire-haired Vizsla in the Sporting Group and the Coton de Tulear in the Non-Sporting Group.

Q. For the average viewer who probably thinks all dogs in a particular breed look a lot alike, can you describe what the judge is looking for when he or she selects best of breed?

A. Each dog is judged against a written breed standard describing the perfect specimen of that breed. Each judge has a mental picture in his head of what that dog looks like.

Q. And in the same vein, how does one judge really know how to pick a Best in Show?

A. Again, the judge is not comparing each dog in the Best in Show (BIS) ring against the other six finalists, but against that mental picture he has in his head. The problem is a Best in Show lineup at Westminster will have seven dogs that all come close to being the perfect specimen of that breed. I always ask, “Is the dog I see the best one of that breed I have ever seen?”

Q. What should viewers at home be looking for this year? What key selections will you be looking at that could tip the balance in the finale?

A. This year’s entries will be the most competitive in years. The top dogs have maintained an exhausting schedule with most of the dogs logging more than 150 shows last year.

The No. 1 dog, Matisse (GCH CH Claircreek’s Impression de Matisse), a Portuguese water dog, won a staggering 180 Working Groups. I will be looking to see if the 2014 campaign has taken its toll on our top competitors. The BIS winner will have to look fresh and at his /her peak.

Q. Tell us about Matisse? Can anyone stop him?

A. Matisse has won more BIS, 237, than any other dog in AKC history, save one, the German shepherd dog (GCH Altana Mystique), who won 275 BIS in the early ’90s. Matisse has already won eight BIS this year. He is certainly one of the most impressive show dogs I have ever seen.

But he has also lost a few times in the past few months to dogs he may encounter at the Garden, most notably to the Skye terrier (GCH CH Cragsmoor Good Time Charlie), who denied Matisse a repeat win at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship (AENC) in December in Orlando. The bloodhound (GCH CH Flessner’s International S’Cess), also bested Matisse twice recently in Virginia.

Q: Last year, Sky, a wire fox terrier (GCH CH AfterAll Painting the Sky), who was the No. 1 dog all breeds in 2013, took home the big prize. The terriers have 45 Best in Show wins. What kind of competition does the terrier group hold this year?

A. I do expect Charlie (GCH CH Cragsmoor Good Time Charlie), the Skye terrier, to take the Terrier Group this year, though he is sure to get strong competition from the Welsh terrier, Jennie (GCH CH Sharieab’s Bayleigh, Maid of Honor), provided she gets out of the breed.

Look for the Scottish terrier, Knopa (GCH CH McVan’s To Russia with Love), as well. Knopa was the No. 3 terrier last year and counts two BIS wins over Matisse in her résumé. I am also looking forward to seeing a dog from the Pacific Northwest, the miniature bull terrier (GCH CH Imaginabull’s First Edition), who won the Terrier Group all five days at the Rose City Classic in Portland last month.

Dr. John Reeve-Newson of Toronto, Canada, will have his hands full in the Terrier Group. The good doctor did not name a terrier BIS or Reserve Best in Show (RBIS) at any of the three shows where he was in the final ring last year. However he did name the Skye terrier, Charlie, his Terrier Group One at the Greater Panama City Dog Fanciers Association show in Tallahassee, Fla., in February.

Q. In the herding group, there is Swagger (GCH CH Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect), an old English sheepdog who won the first Reserve Best in Show (RBIS) two years ago at the Garden as a young dog and carried the group last year. He was the No. 2 dog in all-breed points in 2014. What do his chances look like? Who will be his stiffest competition?

A. The German shepherd dog (GCH CH Lockenhaus Rumor Has It v Kenlyn), will be bringing a lot of momentum into the Garden, having won eight BIS, four RBIS and 14 Herding Groups so far this year.

However judge Dr. Klaus Anselm of Keswick, Va., our Herding Group judge, has shown a decided preference for the Corgis. In his last BIS assignment he named the Pembroke Welsh corgi (GCH CH Coventry Allure at Wyndstar) his top dog at the huge Del Valle Dog Club of Livermore, Calif. That was in October 2013.

Since then he has been in the Herding Group ring three times. In Dallas in July he named another Coventry Corgi, Etta (GCH CH Coventry Just a Little Crush), his Group One. Etta would go on to BIS that day.

At the Kennel Club of Greater Victoria show in San Antonio, Texas, in March he would name last year’s Westminster Herding Group winner, the Cardigan Welsh corgi (GCH CH Riverside Telltale Coco Posh), his Group One. In Virginia in January last year, he named the Australian shepherd (GCH CH Collinswood Spark Fly), his Group One, while naming the German shepherd dog (GCH CH Lockenhaus Rumor Has It v Kenlyn, GSD), Rumor, his Group Three.

Q: What about the toy group?

A. The two dogs that have dominated the Toy Group lately are the Pomeranian, Danny (GCH CH Hitiem What the Inferno), and the Shih Tzu, Rocket (GCH CH Hallmark Jolie Rocket Power). The Pom, Danny was 2014’s No. 1 Toy Dog and is leading the group this year so far with six BIS and 10 Toy Groups, including two BIS at the Rose City Classic.

The Shih Tzu, Rocket, last year’s No. 3 Toy Dog, bested Danny at the AENC to take the Toy Group. Rocket, who is owned by Patricia Hearst Shaw (yes, that Patti Hearst) has one BIS, two RBIS, and 13 Toy Groups so far this year.

The Toy Group will be decided by judge Elliot Weiss, who named no Toy Dog BIS at any of the six shows where he had the opportunity. He did choose last year’s No. 2 Toy, the pug JJ (GCH CH Hill Country Tag I’m It), as his RBIS at December’s Champlain Valley Kennel Club show in Massachusetts. JJ was also Weiss’ Group One at the Ravenna Kennel Club show in Ohio last May.

Q: In the Non-Sporting Group, Ally (GCH CH Brighton Lakeridge Encore), a Renton white standard poodle, won the RBIS last year and has retired, much to the relief of the nonsporting group in the Pacific Northwest. This group always seems to dominated by a poodle. Who is the leading poodle this year and who might be able to beat him in this group?

A. Like every year, the standard poodle competition will be fierce. Last year’s No. 3 Dog All Breeds (GCH CH Dawin Hearts on Fire), is sure to be a contender as will the No. 6 Non-Sporting Dog (GCH CH Del Zarzoso Salvame From Afterglow).

There will be several great bulldogs at this year’s Westminster show. The group judge, Canadian Shirley Limoges, named a bulldog (GCH CH Cherokee Legend Cowboy) her Group One at the Ladies’ Kennel Association Of America show in May, eschewing the ubiquitous standard poodle. She did name a Lhasa apso (GCH CH Xeralane’s Kid Rock) her RBIS at the Caribe Kennel Club in Puerto Rico in April, her sole appearance in the final ring last year.

Q: How impressive are the hounds this year?

A. Any one of the 2014’s Top Four hounds, last year’s group winner, the previously mentioned bloodhound, Nathan, the 15-inch beagle (GCH CH Tashtin’s Lookin’ for Trouble), the whippet (GCH CH Sporting Fields Shameless), and the Afghan hound (GCH CH Tells Matrix Reloaded) could win the group this year. However, the Afghan and whippet are sure to face formidable competition in the breed ring.

Betty-Anne Stenmark of Woodside, Calif., will judge the Hound Group. Stenmark is one of AKC’s most popular judges, having judged BIS nine times last year. She did not choose a hound BIS any of those times. However, she did name the previously mentioned Nathan, her RBIS at the Ingham County Kennel Club show in East Lansing, Mich., in November.

Q. Could the Sporting Group provide some surprises?

A. We think the Dog2Watch in the Sporting Group is the Brittany spaniel, Beckett (GCH CH Rainbow Splash’s Ruggedly Handsome). Beckett was the top Sporting Dog in 2014 and the No. 4 Dog All Breeds. He already has six BIS this year.

The Sporting Group judge, Ken Murray, is from Island Lake, Ill., and has judged many of the top sporting dogs that will be at Westminster.

Among those he has named Group One are the golden retriever from California (GCH CH Sandpiper’s Let Freedom Ring), the Clumber spaniel from Arizona (GCH CH Clussexx Legal Limit), and the black cocker spaniel from Tennessee (GCH CH Ashdown’s time to Thril).

Q: Do you know of any dog coming out of retirement that could prove to be the spoiler?

A. The one dog that I know for sure will be in New York is a dog from the Pacific Northwest, the American Staffordshire terrier Jelly (GCH CH Alpine’s Highwayman). Five-year-old Jelly is the top winning AmStaff of all time.

I will also be looking for two European dogs who have made recent visits to the U.S.: the 2014 Crufts BIS winner, the British standard poodle (CH Afterglow Maverick Sabre), who made a surprise visit to the AENC in December winning the Non-Sporting Group, and the Terrier Group winner at the 2014 Crufts and 2014 FCI World Show, the Belgian wire fox terrier (CH King Arthur van Foliny Home).

King made his American debut last fall in Monroe, Mich., where he strung together three consecutive Terrier Group Ones and then went on to win his first AKC Best In Show at the Hatboro Dog Club’s show in Wrightstown, Penn., defeating Matisse and more than 1,000 other terriers.

Q. There are 59 entries from Washington. Who do you like from the Pacific Northwest?

A. In addition to the previously mentioned AmStaff and minibull, the Pacific Northwest will be represented by Westminster perennial, handler Tim Brazier. While Tim has won the Non-Sporting Group in recent years with his standard poodles, this year he will have a BIS winning toy poodle (GCH CH North Well Vivian Jp Rose Queen). Rosie is owned by New Yorkers Toni and Martin Sosnoff and is sure to be a crowd favorite.

Another dog that I am excited about is the owner/handler Norwegian buhund (GCH CH Jotunn Bella Binna), owned by Amie McLauglin from Sammamish. Binna is the only buhund to ever win an AKC BIS and is sure to charm the Westminister crowd.

Q. This is the second year agility makes a showing at Westminster. More and more conformation shows seem to be incorporating agility into their lineups. What do you attribute this to?

A. Few first-time dog-show visitors have the expertise or eye to fully appreciate the huge variety of dogs we see in the conformation ring. However, anybody can enjoy a race through an obstacle course. The addition of nonpurebred dogs has expanded the audience and the entry which is 50 percent larger than last year with 330 dogs entered.

Q. Since there isn’t a big financial payoff to winning Westminster, why do dog owners care so much about winning this show?

A. Even though the BIS winner can command huge stud fees and inflated prices for offspring, no owner of a Westminster BIS winner can expect to cover the expenses of a national campaign costing a quarter of a million dollars or more. A win at Westminster is simply the ultimate reassurance that you are on the right track in your breeding program. It is the Oscars of the dog world.

Q. Who would you like to see in the final lineup?

A. My dream lineup this year would be:

Sporting: Brittany spaniel, Becket

Hound: bloodhound, Nathan

Working: Portuguese water dog, Matisse

Terrier: Skye terrier, Charlie

Toy: Pomeranian, Danny

Non-Sporting: standard poodle, Flame

Herding:old English sheepdog, Swagger

The BIS judge David Merriam, a retired trial judge from Bonsall, Calif., is a past president of the AKC and past president of the Bull Terrier Club of America. Surprisingly, he has never judged an AKC all-breed show or any breed outside the Terrier Group. He has not judged at an AKC show since 2009. It’s anybody’s guess who he will put up for Best In Show.