NEW YORK - I admit it, I'm not a toy type.
But a free-spirited, 8-year-old papillon named Kirby stole my heart and certainly went a long way toward changing that prejudice in Madison Square Garden earlier this month.
Unless, you've arrived from another planet, you know that Kirby a k a Champion Loteki Supernatural Being beat six bigger foes for the coveted Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show best-in-show title.
Little or no advertising, highly selective competition beforehand, unranked in the American Kennel Club Top 10 standings and not even listed in the Top Five of his breed, Kirby and owner John Oulton of Norwalk, Conn., put on a robot-like performance that captured the big Garden crowd.
Kirby wasn't among the favorites, since he'd had few outings immediately beforehand. In fact, many were uncertain Oulton and Kirby would compete.
"This was one we really wanted to win," said Oulton. "It would be hard to tell he's 8 years old by the way he performed here. He still has that puppy sparkle and charisma. He's not ready to retire yet." For the balance of the year, competition by the well-traveled Kirby will be limited to breed and toy specialty shows.
The big favorites were Champion Lake Cove That's My Boy (Treson), a gorgeous 55-pound Standard Poodle that handler Dennis McCoy of Apex, N.C., guided to a runaway 1998 AKC all-breed points title; Champion Toledobes Serenghetti (Sera), a sleek 5-year-old Doberman pinscher, piloted by Andy Linton of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., which finished third in the '98 points race and is the top winning female working-group dog of all time with 98 bests-in-show and 281 group titles; Champion Bit O Gold Titan Treasure (Kirby), a charismatic 6-year-old Gordon setter handled by Ken Murray of Island Lake, Ill., the sporting group's two-time defending champion, No. 9 in last year's final standings and winner of 64 bests-in-show and 93 group victories in '98 alone.
"It's a special place to end a great show-dog's career," said Linton, "but it can also be a very disappointing way to wrap it up, too. With a dog like Sera, you want to remember the good times." Shockingly, Sera failed to even earn a working-group placement.
Treson and Kirby, the Gordon setter, held their own, winning their group titles and a spot in the Select Seven final.
Linton and McCoy were seeking their second BIS title at Westminster. This was Murray's third consecutive trip into the Select Seven ring with Kirby, a record.
"The group judges deserve a lot of praise," said Edd Bivin, of Fort Worth, Texas, the best-in-show judge. "It's as fine a field as I could have asked for.
"The performance of that little dog (he was pointing to Kirby several feet away) and that man (Oulton) was electrifying. I've been around dog shows for many years and their presentation was as good as it gets.
"That little dog responded in every way he asked. While he was the smallest of the seven, he raised the bar for the others and gave them something to shoot for. But none of them quite reached it.
"John and the papillon left me with chills and memories for a lifetime.
"And did you see all the poise and patience that dog exhibited afterward? He sat in that silver bowl (which goes to the best-in-show titlist) for 20 minutes and enjoyed every minute of it as the photographers popped one picture after another.
"That's the mark of not only a great show dog but a well-trained companion animal. And isn't that what this is all about? This dog typified the behavior we'd like to see in our own."
Bivin, according to Kirby's breeder, Lou Ann King of Solon, Iowa, has been instrumental in three of Kirby's landmark achievements. King finished Kirby under Bivin in 1992 and later that year the Texan gave the dog its initial toy-group championship, with Oulton handling for the first time.
Soon after, King and Oulton became embroiled in a bitter six-year ownership and breeding dispute surrounding Kirby that was not resolved until last October in a Hartford, Conn., court, when Oulton assumed full ownership of the animal.
The Westminster triumph was Kirby's 31st best-in-show and made him a Triple Crown winner of sorts - he beat 15,628 others to win the Federation Cynologique Internationale (world dog registry) show in Helsinki last June, and won the first Royal Invitational Dog Show in Toronto last November, which drew top entries from 21 countries.
Asked to compare Kirby's performance at the Garden with Helsinki, Oulton replied, "He was better here. He didn't miss a beat. He was on both nights. Quite frankly, I didn't have to hardly work, he did it all.
"This is unquestionably the highlight of my career. We came close once before and I could almost taste it. Westminster is the crowning achievement in our sport."
While winning Westminster is a prime target for most teams, it represents a Catch-22 for the breed sometimes. This is the first win for a papillon in the storied 123-year history of the show, and almost guarantees it will become an overnight focus for America's thousands of backyard breeders and puppy mills.
And one of Kirby's biggest fans is Arlene Czech of Naples, Fla., a 45-year breeder. "His attitude is typical of the papillon," she said, "lively, impish and alert. Sometimes owners will try to subdue this in a show dog. They shouldn't, because it's their nature. All who were watching could see Kirby say to the judge, `Pick me, I am the best!'
"But I'm concerned what this might do to our breed. The breeders have done a remarkable job in improving the breed over the years. I hope this notoriety doesn't make them forget quality for quantity. I have already received requests for litters - not just puppies."
The top performance by an area dog came in the terrier group when Champion Silvery Moon UnforGrettable (Greta), a 3 1/2-year-old Bedlington terrier owned by Kay and Richard Kraft of Arlington and handled by Kevin Chestnut of Moses Lake, finished second.
Greta was a close runner-up to a 2-year-old Welsh terrier, Champion Sunspryte's Just in Thyme, owned by comedian Bill Cosby, Beth Bates and Jean Heath, of Pleasanton, Calif. Greta has earned one best-in-show and six group titles, in addition to winning the Bedlington Terrier Club of America national specialty last fall in Pennsylvania.
Champion Lajosmegyi Far and Away, a komondor owned by Patricia Turner and Anna Quigley of Chehalis, won its breed for the second consecutive year. Cruise is well-traveled, visiting Hungary and Italy for shows, but makes shorter trips to nursing homes and schools in Southwest Washington.
Another area breed champ was Champion Vangard Ingenue, a Pembroke Welsh corgi, co-owned by Robert L. Simpson of Mill Creek and Gail Deuel of Snohomish.
-- Westminster Kennel Club show chairman Chet Collier estimated the two-day attendance at approximately 35,000.
-- Lou Ann King of Solon, Iowa, breeder of Champion Loteki Supernatural Being (Kirby), the best-in-show winner, has seen her papillons win the breed championship six of the past seven years, with Kirby taking four of those.
-- Westminster entries closed in less than an hour on Friday, Nov. 13. Attempting to assure themselves a spot in the 2,500-dog field, some owners and handlers sent in as many as 10 entries on the same dog.
-- The USA Network telecast of the Big W garnered a record overnight Nielsen audience of 3,054,000 homes the second night. This marks the first time USA has cracked the 3-million plateau in 16 years of airing the Super Bowl of dogdom. The first-night's viewership was 2.6 million homes.
-- Darlene Vogel, floor reporter for the USA team, stars on the network's popular Sunday night series "Pacific Blue." She owns one basenji and a basenji mix and has been involved in animal rescue in the Los Angeles area recently.
-- Of the 153 American Kennel Club breeds and varieties, only the Finnish Spitz was not represented.
-- Three group winners and 90-best-of-breed titlists returned this year to defend their titles.
-- Stan Flowers of Buffalo, Minn., was confronted with irony aplenty. On hand at the Dog Fanciers Club luncheon in the famed Sardi's restaurant the day following Westminster to receive his Fido statuette as the handler of the year, the 50-year show veteran said four of his entries - the No. 1 French bulldog, the No. 1 English bulldog, the No. 1 American foxhound and No. 1 Weimaraner - arrived in the show-superintendent's office after the field had been filled. "That's the first time that has ever happened to me," he lamented. "There's something wrong with the system when four of the best breed representatives in the country don't make it in."
-- Lynette Saltzman of Westport, Conn., the working-group judge, has not missed a Westminster show in 50 years; her toy-group counterpart, Richard Bauer of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a native New Yorker, has a string of 49 consecutive years.
-- Champion Sweetsound's King 'O' Rock N Roll, a West Highland white terrier, owned by Robert and Susan Ernst of Wilmington, N.C., holds the unofficial squeaky-dog toy record at Westminster with 10 in his crate. But Elvis' attention was drawn away in Manhattan this month, as his pastime became chasing pigeons down Seventh Avenue.
-- To say Champion Ariko's Sky Rider of Pride is a lock might be literally stretching it. The Akita, owned by Marilyn Morimoto, Nancy Fisk and Anna Sanchez of Huntington Beach, Calif., relieves boredom on the road by playing tricks in the hotel room. Sky once set the deadbolt from inside, requiring hotel security to open the door, and later opened the door while his owners were out, greeting guests in the hallway.
-- Four-time Olympic gold-medal diver Greg Louganis, in New York to promote his new book, "For the Life of Your Dog" (Pocket Books, $24) co-authored with Betsy Sikora Siino, attended the show. His Jack Russell terrier, Nipper, accompanied him on the book tour, which also takes him to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta this month.
-- Elaine Young of Seattle has been selected to judge in the FCI World Dog Show in Mexico City June 3-6.
ore dog-show coverage
Animal Planet network has secured a multi-year agreement in association with BBC Television, to be the exclusive U.S. television carrier for the Crufts Dog Show in Birmingham, England.
The network will present three same-day one-hour telecasts nightly from Friday, March 12 through Sunday, March 14, beginning at 8 p.m.
Founded in 1891, Crufts is the most important dog competition in Britain and one of the most prestigious in the world. The annual event attracts approximately 20,000 entries.
Animal Planet's coverage will be anchored by Wayne Cavanaugh and Michael Barkann.
Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue is offering a limited number of certificates good for free sterilization of any purebred dog. They may be redeemed until March 31 at any of more than a dozen participating veterinarians in Seattle and on the Eastside.
To obtain a certificate, send the following to SPDR: a photograph of the dog; owner's name, address and telephone number; the dog's breed, name, age and sex; a self-addressed stamped envelope. The dog's photo will be returned along with the certificate.
Mail it to Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue, P.O. Box 3523, Redmond, WA 98073. For information about adopting a dog through the organization, phone 206-654-1117.