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Fame, fortune and fur: D.C. dog owner’s Westminster wins

Jewel, top hound at this year\'s Westminster Dog Show, placed first in her breed and group. This is only the second time an American foxhound has won its group at the annual competition. (Courtesy of Westminster Kennel Club)
D.C. dogs dominate Westminster Dog Show

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 5:49 pm

Natalie Plumb, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON – In this year’s Westminster Dog Show, more than 2,000 dogs and their owners competed in one of the most popular dog shows in the nation. From the thousands, two dogs from Washington were among the top winners.

Jewel, a 3-year-old American foxhound, and Honor, a 4-year-old Bichon Frise, won their respective breed and group categories at the 137th annual event last month. District resident Ellen Charles, 75, is the proud co-owner of both pooches.

“I just enjoy owning them and watching them in the ring,” she says.

The show at Madison Square Garden in New York is the second oldest continuous sporting event in the U.S., just after the Kentucky Derby. The show started in 1877, when nearly 1,200 dogs pranced around then Gilmore’s Garden in New York. This year, the two-day event hosted 2,712 dogs, according to David Frei, spokesman for the Westminster Kennel Club.

“It’s the pilgrimage that dog-fanciers take every year,” Charles says. “It’s a tradition.”

Ellen Charles: Dog owner, breeder, judge and lover

For Charles, it was love at first sight.

“I saw a picture of the Bichon on Facebook, and I thought he was handsome so it wasn’t long before I went and saw him,” Charles says.

Charles grew up surrounded by dogs. Her family owned dozens of Dalmatians. One of the puppies, Teddy, was her first champion dog, meaning he had received top marks at dog shows throughout the nation.

During competitions, dogs are ranked and awarded points based on the number of contestants in their category. The points add up at each show until a dog becomes a champion. For this reason, some dogs have “Ch” in their official names. In Honor’s case, his full name is “Bichon Ch Vogeflight Honor.”

In the 1970s, Charles’ mother, Adelaide Close Riggs, was one of the first women to become an all-breed judge. Riggs was licensed by the American Kennel Club to judge in the United States, England, Scotland, Canada and Bermuda. As a child, Charles attended the shows her mother officiated, often even the ones in England or Scotland.

Though Charles is now primarily an owner, she followed her mother’s footsteps and also breeds and judges. She bred her first Puli litter in 1970 and a Bichon Frise litter six years later. The first Bichon Frise she owned won the breed in 1998 at the Westminster Dog Show’s Madison Square Garden, known as the “Garden” among show aficionados. Charles started judging dog shows in 1991.

Co-owners like Charles often do not house the dogs they compete. Jewel’s co-owner, breeder and handler is Lisa Miller of Mechanicsville, Va., and Honor’s handler is Lisa Bettis, of Goshen, Ind. Handlers train, groom and house each dog. Handling bills can cost at least $1,000 per month, and owners also pay travel expenses and accommodations.

Diva dogs bring Jewels and Honor

Charles says finding her American foxhound was “serendipitous.” One year ago, after an award dinner at the Garden, a well-respected judge with experience breeding hounds suggested that Charles should take a look at Jewel.

“She’s been amazing, just amazing,” Charles says. “She’s done so much winning, and foxhounds aren’t the glamour dogs.”

Charles says she’s been showing Jewel for only a year, and the American foxhound has broken “all the records.” Only once before has an American foxhound won the group category at the Garden, she says, and that was about six decades ago. She credits that win to the dog’s muscular appearance and tall stature.

Though winning the hound group was a pleasant surprise, Charles says Jewel has never been beaten in the breed category.

“It would’ve been a huge upset had she been beaten,” Charles says. “She’s just a star.”

The American Kennel Club has guidelines that determine a dog’s quality. By winning Best of Breed, a dog is named the quintessence of its breed.

After winning the breed, a dog advances to the group competition. Dogs place in seven groups — sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting and herding. If a dog wins its group, he or she is eligible to compete for the ultimate prize the second day of the competition: Best in Show.

Both Jewel and Honor won Best in Group for their respective groups, hound and non-sporting. Charles was not surprised. She says Jewel has won 40 Best in Shows in her career at various competitions, but never at the Garden. Honor also won Best in Show, Charles says, multiple times, though not at the Garden.

In her experience breeding Bichons, Charles says she has never seen a dog move like Honor, who she describes as having tremendous front and hind leg extensions.

“He’s got a beautiful face, beautiful head, steely, intense black eyes and just a wonderful look about him,” Charles says. “He is an absolutely exquisite moving dog.”

She says Honor comes the closest she’s ever seen to a dog who’s slightly longer than he is tall — one of the standards the American Kennel Club recognizes in a dog’s physique. Honor requires a lot of grooming to maintain that appearance, she says.

Honor and Jewel made the cut to the final seven. But that’s as far as they got.

On Feb. 12, Best in Show was awarded to a tiny, black Affenpinscher named Banana Joe and an Old English sheepdog named Swagger.

Next paw prints

Charles says Jewel and Honor have at least another year under their belts in dog shows. After that, she says it’s hard to say. A dog can only be shown for so long before the judges get tired of seeing him or her, or before the dog gets tired of being seen.

“I always want to retire them when they’re on top,” Charles says. “I think it’s so sad to see a dog that’s had a brilliant career not make it out of the breed.”

The lifespan of a show dog varies from owner to owner. Two years is about the average for a dog seen a lot. In Jewel’s case, Charles says she wants her to have puppies soon.

“Some dogs have wonderful careers, and we all love to win so it’s hard to stop,” Charles says.

Even when she does stop competing dogs, Charles still has her three poodles — Fran, Angelina and Hazelnut — that are champions and currently live with her. Charles had four poodles until Monday, when the youngest left to live with its handler in Ohio to begin his show career.

Related Photos: 137th Westminster Dog Show

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