To win at Westminster, dogs campaign like presidential candidates

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—Claire Wisch knew there was something special about Oakley even when he was a puppy. Rowdy and playful, Oakley, a German Wirehaired Pointer with a distinctive salt-and-pepper coat and long red beard, was a “handful” when he was young, recalled Wisch, a longtime dog breeder from Brunswick, Md.

But when Oakley did stand still, Wisch was stunned to see him adopt what handlers in the industry call a “free stack”—a perfectly squared pose where the dog’s tail, back and nose are framed in a straight line. Oakley had assumed the posture with no training—only the genetics of his mother, who had enjoyed a brief career as a show dog before he was born.

“He would just stop and pose,” Wisch says “He just had that look. He had a spark. It was clear that he was born to be in the ring.”

This week in New York, Oakley will be the dog to beat in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He enters Westminster, the most famous dog show in the world, as the top ranked dog in the country, having racked up more than 80 best-in-show titles in his career. He bested more than 97,000 dogs in shows around the country in 2012—spending virtually every weekend last year in competition.

But like most of the dogs who make it into Westminster, Oakley’s rise wasn’t just about his performance in the ring. The dog world's top competitors, much like presidential candidates, are also expected to wage a pricey, high-profile campaign of photo ops and major advertising to help the win attention and establish a recognizable identity if they are to have any chance to win.

Wisch gave up ownership of Oakley two years ago, signing him over Victor Malzoni, a Brazilian real estate mogul and dog breeder, who agreed to fund what people in the industry describe as a "campaign" for Oakley to raise his profile and to help him achieve the ultimate victory at Westminster.

Over the last year, Oakley has starred in glossy ads in dog industry trade magazines, including Dog News, documenting his many wins around the country as a way to build his “brand” among judges of future contests. The ads, run by virtually every leading dog at Westminster, are similar in spirit to the “For Your Consideration” ads that run ahead of major Hollywood award shows.

But that’s not all. In a move eerily similar to the kind presidential hopefuls undertake every four years, Oakley’s owner agreed to fund a full-out campaign sending the dog to crucial shows around the country to help him rack up points in hopes of earning an invite to Westminster.

Wisch said Oakley traveled to at least 150 dog shows in 2012. In some cases, his handler registered the dog at multiple shows on a single weekend, deciding at the last minute where to deploy the dog to earn the most points.

A dog accumulates points in shows based on the number of dogs competing. For example, if a dog competes against 10 other dogs in a breed category and wins, he or she wins nine points. If the dog then wins best in show at a competition where there are 300 dogs, that’s another 299 points. Dog owners are not only looking to compete in an intense schedule of shows, but they are also looking to score big by winning large competitions.

In December, Oakley edged out his closest rival—an English Springer Spaniel named Peyton—by just 2,100 points to claim the rank of top dog in 2012. His handlers managed the narrow victory by sending him to compete in Pennsylvania, at a smaller show, after learning that Peyton was competing at a larger show in Ohio during the final weekend of competition. It was a fight right to the finish—and no other dogs were close. The closest competitor, a Doberman Pinscher named FiFi, ended the year with just over 66,000 points—almost 30,000 points behind Oakley. All three earned an invite to Westminster.

“It’s a numbers game,” Wisch says. “Do you want to go to Ohio, where there are 3,000 dogs, or do you want to go to Pennsylvania, where there are 1,500 dogs, but you have a better shot at winning? And where is your main competition going to be? Can you beat him that particular day? It’s all a chess game. A high-stakes chess game.”

And it's pricey. While no owners were willing to say exactly what they pay to “campaign” a dog, some suggested it might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost a dog ahead of Westminster. That’s a total that includes not only advertising but travel costs, hiring an experienced handler and the intense grooming and conditioning schedule the dogs maintain.

In some cases, dogs have traveled the country to do meet-and-greets with potential judges--looking for more face time than the typical 30-second period of judging at a show would allow.

“It’s a very expensive hobby,” says Steven Sansone, who, with his wife, Cynthia, owns Havannah, a Giant Schnauzer that will compete at Westminster. “We know there’s a lot of money in dog showing because we have left it there.”

Sansone, who lives outside Philadelphia and works in the finance industry, simply cleared his throat when asked for an estimate on how much he’d spent to promote his dog. Havannah has been featured in several two-page full color ads in Dog News in recent months—an ad that, based on the magazine’s rate card, cost at least $1,200 each time it ran. And that doesn’t include the cost of designing and producing the ad.

“If you are going to do this, you have to promote your dog,” Sansone said. “Does it work with judges? I don’t know. But it’s creating a brand. Your dog has to be known. No question.”

And that is the big unknown: Does any of this campaigning actually work? Many of the judges associated with Westminster declined to talk about their duties ahead of the show. But the show’s organizers have insisted that the judging is based only on how the dog is viewed inside the ring on competition day.

Yet many inside the industry are skeptical that campaigning doesn’t have an impact—suggesting the proof it works is that most of the major dog owners are doing it in more places than ever before.

In the run-up to Westminster, two of the major dog glossies—Dog News and Canine Chronicle—published two of their biggest issues ever, at more nearly 200 pages each. And the campaign has moved online, as a growing number of dog owners have published their ads on websites, including Best in Show Daily.

Denise Sutton—who owns Leo, a top Irish terrier who will compete at Westminster—says she began receiving phone calls and emails about advertising once her dog began moving up in the ranks. She ultimately ran one full-page ad in Dog News in early January, which cost $600.

“There are so many places to advertise now. And I’d love to do more, but it gets really expensive. Let’s get real,” Sutton says. “It adds up.”

But Nancy Martin, a veteran handler who has been showing at Westminster since 1970, says advertising is a requirement for any dog aiming to be taken seriously.

“To me advertising is proof that a product is a worthwhile product. It’s that simple,” says Martin, who was prominently featured in a two-page glossy ad in a recent edition of Dog News with Mimi, a Japanese chin she’ll show at Westminster this week.

Some owners take it even farther. London, a statuesque black poodle from Boca Raton, Fla., has a Facebook page in addition to his ads in the dog industry magazines. His owners, Jamie Danburg and Michele Molnar, post candid behind-the-scenes pictures of London on the road---including photos of the dog in curlers and looking at his iPad--and promote his victories around the country for the public.

“I think people want to keep up with dogs in different ways,” Molnar says. “People are curious about what goes into being a show dog and how he’s doing… People are interested in the subculture of the dog world.”

But some dogs come to Westminster without having campaigned much at all, in hopes that the best dog in judging really does win.

Keaton, a shaggy-haired Tibetan terrier from Long Island, N.Y., arrives at Westminster this week having been the subject of just one ad in Dog News last year.

Herman Goldstein, who owns the dog with his wife, Lois, says they couldn’t afford to do more—especially after last fall, when their house was flooded by Superstorm Sandy. The Goldsteins have been living in a motel ever since, while Keaton, who usually lives with them, has been staying with his handler. Goldstein says they never considered not competing.

“Some people spend so much money getting their dog out there. I wish I could do it. I wish I had the money to spend because I would. I just love my dog so much,” Goldstein said last week, as he affectionately lifted up Keaton’s long shaggy bangs so that this reporter could peer into his eyes.

“I just keep hoping that this will be like a movie, where a real dog like Keaton who really is our pet, can come into Westminster and win, in spite of all the money and campaigning you’ve seen from other dogs,” Goldstein said. “I think if there’s any place that something magical like that can happen, it’s here."