Next best in show
February 25, 2014
By David Hayes
Local dogs bring home top prizes from Westminster show
To quote a famous Highlander, “There can be only one.”
For the Westminster Kennel Club’s 138th annual dog show Feb. 10-11, that one Best in Show was Sky, a wire fox terrier.
But that doesn’t mean Westminster didn’t have plenty of other awards to hand out, especially to three local dogs.
The two Norwegian buhunds entered by Vali Eberhardt and John Bradstreet, of Sammamish, walked away with “Best Opposite Sex,” for the male Chewie, and “Select” for Binna, essentially a second place for the females in the breed.
Eberhardt said that prior success unfortunately played no part for Binna — she is the reigning AKC grand champion for Norwegian buhunds — at this year’s Westminster.
Eberhardt has been showing the rare breed since 2007, when she and her husband started showing Binna’s grandparents in Canada, where they established their own pedigree, winning Canadian championships.
Many shows under their collars
Eberhardt said many people have hardly heard of the herding dog that rarely makes it to family dog status.
“These types of dogs really need to be out running on a farm,” she said. “They’re originally used herding sheep in Norway.”
Binna actually lives in Monroe with her handler, Amy McLaughlin. Eberhardt said the living situation is ideal for both parties, as McLaughlin helps train Binna while Binna works as a sort of service dog for Amy’s mom, who is handicapped and can’t see.
Back in Sammamish, Eberhardt lives with Chewie and Binna’s sister, Bergitta, whose official name is CH Jotunn Gnipa Bergitta. Eberhardt said they had planned to enter Bergitta at Westminster, but a last-minute scheduling conflict got in the way. Her husband, Bradstreet, is the one who handles Chewie, full name Jotunn Cheval Bayard, at shows.
“But he likes entering the agility competitions more,” Eberhardt said.
They enter the dogs at least once a month, with Binna having accumulated the most success at 24 placements. Last week, Binna — whose show name is GCH Jotunn Bella Binna — was already off to another competition in Canada, while Chewie and Bergitta were off to another in Oregon.
Although Binna and Chewie came away with ribbons, it was another dog that nearly stole the show.
Riley takes two top categories
Riley, an Irish water spaniel, co-owned by Tom and Bethany Urban, of Issaquah, was in the final group, having already won Best in Breed and Best in Sporting Group, that finished in the top five overall.
It was quite the finish to a whirlwind two years for the Urbans and Riley.
What began as a pet companion for their daughter Madeline ended up as the most decorated Irish water spaniel in history.
“For us, we’ve done in four years what most people do in a lifetime,” Bethany Urban said.
Before 2009, added Tom Urban, the closest they’d ever gotten to the Westminster dog show was watching it on television.
So, how does Tom, a 67-year-old retired computer consultant, and Bethany, a 59-year-old part time work-from-home mom, end up with such a champion-caliber pedigree from such a rare breed in the United States? Bethany blames her dad.
“As a hunter out of New York, he saw a picture of one on the cover of Field and Stream magazine back in 1935,” she explained. “He finally got one in 1948 and another in the mid ’60s.”
That’s the one she grew up with and adored.
Something special on their hands
Fast-forward three decades to when they were ready to get another of the lovable, hunting dogs for Madeline. Their research brought them to a breeder in Bothell, Colleen McDaniel. Initially, the Urbans’ plans were dashed, as McDaniel only bred show-quality litters and didn’t feel the Urbans were ready to take on such a high-caliber breed on their own.
But after weeks of them bugging her, and regular tests of their knowledge, the breeder finally relented, letting the Urbans part with the runt of an eight-puppy litter. They named it in honor of Bethany’s father Riley, after his favorite 1936 British sports car. Her full kennel name she’s registered under is GCH Whistlestop’s Riley on Fire.
After six months, after Riley had outgrown their daughter’s ability to handle her, the Urbans knew they had something special on their hands and decided to give a go at showing Riley.
At one of the early shows, Riley caught the eye of renowned trainer Greg Siner, whose knowledge of the breed is so extensive that commentators at Westminster call him “Mr. Irish water spaniel.” Bethany recalled the unconventional introduction he made.
“That’s a nice bitch you have there,” Siner told her, indicating the female name for a dog.
Bethany said the breed is so rare in the United States, that where most dogs have a gene pool, the Irish water spaniel has a “gene puddle.” So, it wasn’t a shock that Siner had shown Riley’s grandmother, Maud. He hadn’t shown the breed much since Maud died of cancer.
“But Riley turned a button on in him,” Bethany said.
Best in Show, again and again
Siner offered the Urbans, as dog-show novices, a rare opportunity to go full bore into the sport, putting Riley under guidance of a professional handler.
They decided to hand over training and co-ownership to Siner, fast-tracking her on the show circuit, also known as campaigning. Riley adapted quickly, wowing the crowds and judges alike up and down the East Coast, racking up an astounding number of Best in Show awards as top dog at each competition.
“After her first two Best in Shows, we thought, ‘OK, maybe there is something to this dog,’” Bethany said.
By the end of 2012, Riley broke the record for more Best in Shows for a bitch Irish water spaniel at 13. By her second appearance at Westminster this year, she had 41.
Riley’s success wasn’t a fluke — five of her eight littermates went on to multiple titles of their own at other various competitions.
They rode the momentum into this year’s championship, but Riley was actually an underdog against the other finalists up for Best in Show.
“They said there was over 400 Best in Show titles among the dogs in the finals,” Bethany said. “Many were saying that was the best final lineup they’d ever seen. Truly, every one of those dogs was a contender.”
As much as Riley enjoyed being in the spotlight, having honed her foot timing to near perfection, eventual winner Sky was just that much better.
“Sky worked it,” Bethany said. “He deserved every bit of the win. But, truly, every one of those dogs was a contender.”
Riley will participate in her final show this spring, then come home to Issaquah to eventually continue the championship line in puppy litters of her own.
The Urbans for now are raising another Irish water spaniel, Paige, Riley’s cousin, who is probably destined for the show circuit.
“Dog shows are like potato chips,” Bethany said. “Once you do one, you get addicted.”