A breed apart: Rare Westminster dogs have ring to themselves

An English foxhound, the only one of its breed to compete, appears at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Jennifer Peltz)
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Every dog breed has its day at the Westminster Kennel show. That day can start by facing off against dozens of dogs — or no others at all.

Outside the ring where as many as 48 French bulldogs vied this week to be best of their breed, Peter and Tracy Rousseau kept a sense of perspective about the field their Norwegian lundehund would face later in the day.

A member of the rarest breed in the American Kennel Club’s rankings, Eva was one of only two lundehunds at the nation’s most prestigious dog show. Last year, she was the only one. “We’re trying to get people to understand this breed and have an opportunity to see” a small dog that is truly a breed apart, Tracy Rousseau said. Originally bred to hunt cliff-dwelling puffins, lundehunds have extra toes and extraordinary flexibility to help them climb. “They’re very unique,” so much so that fanciers strive to make sure people realize the unusual feet aren’t a deformity, Rousseau said.

To the Rousseaus, it’s worth traveling from Franktown, Colorado, to New York just to get attention for lundehunds at Westminster, where Eva had a memorable turn in last year’s televised semifinals. She stopped to scratch her ear and back while parading around the ring, drawing laughs from the audience.
On Monday, Eva’s only competitor, Pikku, won the breed and took its spot on TV. Owner Carrie Riley of Rockwall, Texas, said she’d like to see more people take an interest in lundehunds. Some dogs had the breed ring all to themselves at this week’s show, including a Boykin spaniel named Nana, a harrier named Cora and an English foxhound named Whiskey. The English foxhound and harrier are among the 10 rarest breeds in the AKC rankings, but Boykins aren’t all that uncommon, and they’re the state dog of South Carolina. But the small, water-loving hunting dogs were for years something of a South Carolina secret, and they’re still not as widely known as some other spaniel breeds.

The sole sloughi that was entered didn’t show up. The athletic, greyhound-style dogs became eligible for Westminster just two years ago. Rarity and super-popularity are both seen as mixed blessings in canine competition, and sometimes in the purebred dog world as a whole. Less competition in the breed ring makes it easier to reach at least the semifinals. But that means facing other breeds that judges may know better. Points toward championship titles are based partly on how many dogs of the same breed a winner beats at a given show. And aficionados such as Mary Clegg, who owns the winning kuvasz in a ring of three on Tuesday, sometimes worry for the futures of their beloved breeds.

“They’re becoming more and more rare,” said Clegg, whose 17-year-old daughter, Caroline, showed their kuvasz Mo’Ne. The stunning, snowy-white Hungarian livestock guardian has a protective, independent nature that requires an experienced owner, said Clegg, of Lebanon, Ohio. The harrier, meanwhile, is trainable and a great family pet if provided enough exercise, said Cora’s co-breeder, Donna Smiley. “We’d love to get more folks interested in them, so we can keep the breed going,” said Smiley, of Indio, California. “This is a breed that is very much in danger of going extinct.”

Overall, the more than 2,800 dogs that signed up to compete for Best in Show this year come from 203 breeds and varieties. That’s every AKC-registered breed except the Chinook, a sled-puller that’s the official state dog of New Hampshire. Dogs such as French bulldogs and golden retrievers — the show’s biggest entry, with as many as 57 competing Tuesday — have to best a crowd just to get past the breed ring. Frenchies have rocketed from 76th to fourth in the AKC rankings in 20 years, the kind of surge that makes aficionados both proud and concerned about lax breeders trying to cash in. “It’s a great breed, and you want people to fall in love with it,” Christine Dudney of Temple Terrace, Florida, said as she waited to show her French bulldog, Millie. “You just worry about people getting into it for the money aspect.”

Some uncommon breeds do put together a robust presence for Westminster. There were nine keen hound faces in the Cirneco dell’Etna ring, though the rabbit-hunting breed is the seventh-rarest in the U.S. and debuted at Westminster only in 2016. Dr. Cheryl McDermott and her 12-year-old daughter, Brenna, brought four of the Cirneco contestants. “The biggest thing for us is to represent the breed with the best dogs possible,” said McDermott, a veterinarian in Ethel, Washington, “so that people can have more exposure to this breed as a possibility.”q