Jun. 18—HIGH POINT — Here's to Rookie, the little wire fox terrier who started it all for Roz Kramer more than 50 years ago.
Kramer was only 12 when she and her mother got Rookie from a breeder. Like most girls that age, she was just happy to have a pet and knew almost nothing about the sport of purebred dogs, much less the esteemed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, considered the granddaddy of all dog shows.
This week, though, as Westminster's 146th annual show gets underway, the 64-year-old High Point woman finds herself in an enviable spot — judging the competition. Kramer, who operates a home and personal decor business in High Point, is judging at Westminster for the fourth time, a distinction she says she doesn't take for granted.
"It's by invitation only, so it's a real honor to be asked to judge," Kramer said. "I don't know all of their criteria, but a lot of it is based on the number of years you've been in the sport, and your experience with different dogs. I have a lot of experience with toys and terriers — those are my two main groups — so that's why I was asked to judge, and it's an honor for me."
Specifically, this year Kramer will judge the toy group at Westminster, which includes about 30 small breeds such as Maltese, pekingese, chihuahuas, toy poodles, shih tzus and pomeranians. One dog from each breed will advance to the toy group through the preliminary "Best of Breed" rounds, so Kramer will be judging about 30 dogs, from which she'll pick her top four. The top dog in her group will advance to the coveted "Best In Show" competition to determine the overall winner.
Events at Westminster officially begin today, but Kramer's judging assignment will be on Tuesday. The show will be broadcast on television and live-streamed on the Westminster website.
Kramer, who has judged numerous other competitions — and occasionally still shows her own wire fox terriers — essentially grew up in the world of dog shows after Rookie came along. Rookie was just a pet for the first year or so, until the breeder called Kramer's family and suggested he might be a good show dog, because the rest of his litter was doing well in that arena.
"One thing led to another, and she got us into showing," Kramer said. "That's how I got into the dog show world."
Through her teenage years, Kramer became a regular on the dog show circuit, she earned her dog's "championship" status — a level of accomplishment based on points accumulated at shows — and eventually began breeding wire fox terriers.
When she was 19, Kramer became an apprentice for a professional handler, which is someone who shows dogs for a fee. As an apprentice, she learned all about the care, conditioning, training and proper breed presentation for terriers. After about five years, she was ready to become a professional handler herself.
"Being a handler is similar to being a horse trainer," Kramer explained. "You're conditioning and training the dog — everything from diet and exercise to coat care. You've got to build a relationship and bond with every dog. Plus, they go to shows every weekend to compete and show their clients' dogs. Sometimes the average Joe can't go every weekend, but they want their dog to be shown, so they send it with a professional handler."
In that capacity, Kramer handled many top-winning terriers and toys. She also expanded her show career by learning to handle hounds and the occasional herding and working breeds.
Around 2005, Kramer joined the American Kennel Club's operations center in Raleigh as an executive field director, a job she kept until around 2009. After leaving that position is when she began judging dog shows.
As a judge, Kramer looks for certain characteristics within each breed related to the dogs' appearance, including grooming, coat condition, body condition, how they walk and other factors.
"Also, dogs are like people — they have their little attitudes, sometimes called showmanship," Kramer said. "Some of these dogs are livin' the life — they think it's fabulous to go in this ring in front of all these people and strut their stuff. They're like little hams."
The key, Kramer said, is to weigh each dog's strengths, and it's no easy task when so many of the dogs compete at an elite level.
"What you have to do as a judge is prioritize the good points of each dog," she said, "and then decide which dog you think is slightly better than the others."
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