Local canines head to Westminster

At least two local dog owners are excited and nervous as they prepare to have their animals judged at the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, one of America’s most prestigious canine competitions.

More than 2,700 dogs in 187 breeds will be judged during the New York City competition Monday and Tuesday. Entrants come from all 50 states as well as Canada, Brazil, Germany, Croatia, United Kingdom, France, Japan and Mexico. More than 200 entries come from Pennsylvania alone.

Among those aiming for top honors this year are Debra Decker, of Nisbet, who will show two dogs: Adonis, an English setter, and Landon, an English cocker spaniel, and Judy Silker, of Winfield, who will show Troy, a Norwegian elk hound.

Decker said she always has owned dogs, even as a small child. When she attended her first dog show in the early 1980s, she immediately was attracted to the sport. For many years she showed exclusively English setters, but recently decided to “downsize” to an English cocker spaniel.

“The two dogs have a similar coat, so they need similar grooming techniques to get ready for the shows. They’re both lovely breeds,” Decker said.

Both of Decker’s dogs will be shown by their handlers at Westminster. Decker completed Landon’s championship herself, but decided to hire a professional handler once she saw the dog’s true potential. Adonis has had a handler for most of his career. Decker said she thinks that his breed does better with a handler in the arena.

“For me, it’s a time constraint. I love dog shows and I try to go to as many as possible, but a professional handler is going to shows every weekend. They’re going to be able to get my dogs seen by more people than if I was trying to show them both myself,” Decker said.

Both of Decker’s dogs have been staying with their handlers as they prepare for the competition. This will be the third time that Decker’s dogs have been shown in Westminster.

It’s unusual for an owner to have two different breeds of dogs entered into the show, Decker said.

“Both of these dogs just rose to the peak of their potential at the same time. We knew both of them had the ability to be strong competitors, so we entered them both,” she said.

Silker began showing dogs in 1976, after attending a local show held by the Bald Eagle Kennel Club.

She said she always has shown Norwegian elk hounds, and is very drawn to thick-coated northern breeds.

Silker said that Troy was a bit of an ugly duckling in his puppy years, but matured into a beautiful dog with a great deal of potential.

“I almost got rid of Troy when he was a puppy. I didn’t think he’d be a good show prospect. But he had such a wonderful personality and was so lovely to live with, I decided to keep him as a pet,” Silker said.

Silker also owns Brice, which was crowned the No. 1 elk hound in the country in 2011. After such a rigorous show season, she decided to take 2012 a bit slower.

On a whim, she decided to enter Troy in a competition, and was delighted when he won. After his first six shows, Troy had beaten enough other dogs to earn his grand championship title.

“I couldn’t believe it. He finished in the top 10 last year without me really trying. I had a lot of unsolicited positive feedback on the dog and I started seeing him in a new light,” Silker said.

She ultimately decided to place Brice in semi-retirement and focus her energies on Troy. This will be the dog’s first Westminster competition.

Silker is a bit of a rarity on the professional dog show circuit because she owns, trains and shows her animals. She also is approved to act as a professional elk hound judge.

“It’s the kind of sport where there are professional handlers competing with dogs; but an owner handler who works hard enough can still be very successful if they have the right animal,” she said.

For the first time, Westminster will be held at two different locations. Preliminary competitions will be held at Piers 92/94. Winners from those competitions will head to Madison Square Garden to compete in the finals.

The competition at Madison Square Garden will be broadcast live from 8 to 11 p.m. Monday on CNBC and Tuesday on USA Network.