Spring 2010 Magazine

Cover Story

The Journey to Westminster

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the world's most famous dog competition, commenced its 134th show on February 15, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Two thousand five hundred dogs and their owners, handlers, groomers and judges gathered at 8 a.m. to begin the two day show that would culminate in the pinnacle of all dog show accolades - Best in Show at Westminster.

Among those pursuing dogdom's biggest prize were three New Mexicans and their canine companions - Sharon Newcomb and her Papillon, Mickey, from Santa Fe; Arlene Nonnemacher and her Bouvier Des Flandres, Uno, from Albuquerque; and Christi Leigh and her Briard, Cognac, from Carlsbad. For these women, the long journey to Westminster began years before that February morning.

Sharon Newcomb & Mickey

Sharon Newcomb has been showing dogs for more than 40 years, and Papillons since the 1970s. This year she was at Westminster with her Papillon Mickey, aka Champion Domino's Once in a Blue Moon. Mickey is a six-pound bundle of fluff and spunk who is calm in the ring and clearly familiar with the routine of competition.

Dogs are a family affair for Sharon. She and her two daughters own several boarding kennels and grooming shops. All three are active in the dog show world. Sharon refers to the three of them as "lifers." Sharon jointly breeds and shows Papillons and Anatolian Shepherds with her younger daughter Elyse Vandermolan. They were in the ring together at Westminster, Sharon with Mickey and Elyse with her Papillon, Paco. Sharon and her older daughter Kim Marcus raise and show Havanese as well as Anatolians. Sharon can't remember the first time her daughters went with her to a dog show. "They just always went, they were like 'little sponges' soaking it all up," she recalls.

Sharon has become an accomplished and well-respected judge in the show ring. She rarely shows Mickey at Papillon breed shows any more. "Because I am judging them more and more, I don't like to be competing one weekend and pointing (how judges indicate the winners) the next weekend with the same entries," she explains.

2010 is not the first time Sharon has been to Westminster. In 1971, her Pomeranian, Champion Duke's Little Red Baron of O'Kala won Best in Toy Group at the Garden. The first and only German Shepherd Dog to win Best in Show at Westminster, Champion Covy Tucker Hill's Manhattan, aka Hatter, lived with, was groomed by and conditioned by Sharon. She and her family were at the Garden that February night in 1987 when Hatter won Best in Show. It was an emotional experience she remembers with great excitement. "We had an impromptu party at the hotel across the street afterward and Hatter wandered from table to table being petted by all. He was a sociable fellow and was really loved by the dog world." And mighty little Mickey took the best of breed as top Papillon at Westminster 2009.

Christi Leigh and Cognac

Participating at Westminster for the first time were Christi Leigh with her Briard Cognac, aka Champion Celebratia's Vintage Eighty-Four. Briards are a large breed and the silken haired Cognac weighs in at 85 lbs. Christi was traveling in France in 1991 when she saw a Briard for the first time. She was taken by the breed's graceful movement, gliding as if floating on air. She was also impressed by their strength, stamina and agility. She was smitten by the intelligent herding dogs and five years later she began to show Briards.

Cognac's lineage is unusual. Christi prefers the old style breed characteristics that she saw in France. Cognac was sired by frozen semen from an old world style Briard who had been born in 1984. Cognac's champion name - Vintage Eighty-four - reflects his auspicious beginning.

As with the Newcomb daughters, Christi grew up around dog shows. Her mother, RuthAnn Leigh-Phillips showed Chesapeake Bay retrievers in both confirmation and performance for 35 years. RuthAnn has been an inspiration and mentor to Christi. "Mom started showing my dogs for me. She mentored me about breeding and about how to show a dog." Her best advice - "Relax and believe in your dog."

RuthAnn helps Christi with the Briards, and accompanied Christi and Cognac to Westminster. The trip was a dream come true for both mother and daughter.

Christi used a professional handler to show Cognac because she gets a bit nervous at big shows. And there isn't anything bigger than Westminster. She remembers the overwhelming feeling when Cognac was about to step into the ring. "Before Cognac went in the ring, my handler, Susie Oliveri, noticed my necklace that has a painting of Cognac's grandmother on it. She had shown that dog for me as well. The second Susie noticed it, tears came to my eyes. It has been a long road from there to here."

Arlene Nonnemacher and Uno

Arlene Nonnemacher loves Bouviers Des Flandres. The large muscular herding dogs are strong and intelligent. She has two. Cai is a 7-year old therapy dog who regularly visits the University of New Mexico Children's Hospital with Arlene. Uno is the showman in the family. The 4-year old male weighs 91 lbs. For all of his size, he is a calm, laid back fellow. Try to talk with Arlene while she is with Uno and you will constantly be interrupted by people asking questions, taking photos and asking to pat Uno. He is a Bouvier rock star. His personality, unusual coat and large size attract a lot of attention.

Arlene and Uno are first timers at Westminster. Uno received his championship in 2009. When Arlene was notified Uno had been selected to participate in the 2010 Westminster show, she was ecstatic. Then the reality of the trip to New York City sank in. The journey required tremendous planning. It was no easy feat to travel 2000 miles by air with a large dog, an extra large dog crate, her own luggage and everything she would need for the show and for staying with Uno in a hotel in downtown NYC. To show in an event as big as Westminster, she says, "You've got to love it."

How does is feel to show your dog at Westminster for the first time? For Arlene it became real when she saw Uno's name in the program. "I just cried," she said. "It was so emotional." Arlene handles Uno in the judging ring. She and Uno were the first pair to enter the ring at Westminster. In that moment as she stepped before the judge, she felt confident. "I got us here all by myself. No matter what happens, I was proud of myself and my boy!"


For others interested in making the long journey to Westminster, the three women have some sage advice. "Take the best dog that is possible, train it the best and groom it the best - and then just pretend you are in a cow barn show in West Texas," Sharon says with a smile. She also suggests a mentor, "someone to show you the ramps and back ways to navigate Madison Square Garden, the easy places to keep dogs and how to exercise them in the city."

"Be prepared," says Arlene. "Go first as a spectator. See what happens behind the scenes. If it is still what you want to do, go for it!"

Christi advises, "Be aware that it is a hard show on everyone involved, so don't expect too much. Look for the joy in the experience where you can."


Mickey, Cognac and Uno performed well in the ring, but awards were not to come their way this year. Sharon, Christi and Arlene are unanimous that it isn't just about winning. For the three women there are no regrets. So what makes it worth all they went through to get to Westminster?

Christi explains what the experience meant to her. "For me it was worth it because it was a chance of a lifetime. My mother had so much fun and was so happy, which makes me happy. It is something I can say I did, and I love my dog."

Westminster for Arlene was "an amazing high of adrenaline. Like getting the brass ring. I'm the kind of person that needs goals, and this one was a big one. Dream, work, achieve. Anything is possible, with hard work. I didn't give up when people told me to. Would I go again? Absolutely, to win next time!"

For Sharon, it's like an addiction. "We really can't help it," she says. "It is our world with dogs. Our friends. Our places where we feel like we come home every time we walk into a show anywhere in the world. We share a common language - DOGS!

Know Thy Dog

Not all breeds of dogs are appropriate for all people, lifestyles and families. Please seek out guidance and information before adopting a breed whose looks you may like but who may not be a match for you.

Remember. There are many wonderful All-American mixed breeds and purebred dogs waiting to be adopted at shelters and rescues throughout the country.

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