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February 10, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Inside Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

Billy & Dee Dee.jpgGet ready to grab your dog, a bowl of treats and the remote control.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, arguably the most prestigious in the United States, will be back Monday and Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York with more than 2,000 dogs competing for the coveted best-in-show trophy.

Over two nights of televised coverage, we'll see some of the nation's -- and the Northwest's -- top dogs.

The Seattle Times asked respected dog-show blogger and columnist Billy Wheeler, of Memphis, Tenn., to fill us in. In two posts on Saturday and Sunday, Wheeler, who crafts the increasingly popular blog Dog Show Poop and is a columnist for the new online publication Best in Show Daily, tells us what to watch for, who to watch for and why.

Wheeler, pictured above with his Cairn terrier, Shadowland's Devil in Disguise, talks about his lifelong passion for purebred dogs and how he found his niche in retirement:

•   •   •

I attended my first dog show in 1968 here in Memphis, Tenn. The host club was the Memphis Kennel Club, the club that held the first dog show in the nation on Oct. 8, 1874.

That show was won by the Afghan hound, CH Dahnwood Gabriel, the top Hound of 1968, handled by Michele Leathers Billings. The two of them were like rock stars, glamorous and larger than life.

I was a short, plain-looking kid with glasses from Memphis and knew I was never going to be another Elvis or James Dean, but here was a world where mere dog owners were superstars.

Now 40 years later, Elvis and James Dean are dead, but I'm still going to dog shows. I never did achieve that rock-star fame (Success is just as elusive in dogdom as it is in music or films), but I've shown at Westminster (the Garden), Philadelphia, Santa Barbara, Calif., San Francisco (the Cow Palace) and Portland, Ore.

I've had several starts and stops actively showing dogs. My first time in a show ring was with the family's pet Saint Bernard. It only took one show to realize I needed a real show prospect.
billy & Pooh.jpg

When I moved to New York in 1972, we acquired a Maltese (don't laugh; I couldn't keep a Saint in an apartment).

Wheeler is pictured, left, with Maltese, Barnone The Pooh Bear of Brenbill, circa 1975.

My show career has been interrupted a couple of times by the arrival of children, but we found time to show a Sealyham terrier in the 1980s and even tried our hand at showing cats in the 1990s.

While working in the Bay Area, I used my experience as a congressional liaison to work with several dog-owners-rights initiatives, most notably a joint AKC/CFA effort to fight the infamous San Mateo anit-breeding ordinance.

I left the Bay Area in 1997, prompted by the Navy's Base Closure initiative, and, after doing a year's penance at the Pentagon, returned to my hometown of Memphis.

In 2005 I suffered a massive heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. When I returned home to convalesce, my family presented me with a Scottie puppy. I credit Bernie with saving my life. As good a companion as Bernie is, he is no show dog.

In 2008 after attending a local dog show, I decided to return to the show ring, once again at age 59. A couple of weeks later I had a 10-week-old Cairn terrier, Shadowland's Devil in Disguise.

While waiting for my Cairn to mature, I started the blog, Dog Show Poop, to document my life with my new puppy, but I got side tracked. I got caught up in the excitement of the race for the No. 1 dog all breeds between the pointer, CH Cookieland Seasyde Hollyberry, and the giant Schnauzer, CH Galilee's Pure Of Spirit.

Gradually, I found that the show reports and rankings that were available were woefully untimely.

Using the same statistical tools I used in my career as a management consultant, I developed a statistical model to estimate the number of points won based on entries. I also started developing a network of show reporters who sent me show reports.

I started reporting just the shows attended by the top 10 dogs. Now I report on every AKC all-breed show. I also cover a few limited breed shows and as many national specialties as I can get results on.

I have developed my own ranking system based on the number of best in shows and group placements won, weighted by size of show.

After starting with just a few hundred readers, I am now getting almost one million page views a year, from all 50 states and 166 countries on six continents. I receive hundreds of emails and dozens of phone calls every week. I knew that there were "dog show junkies" out there like me. I just never knew how many there were.

The blog is a personal, noncommercial endeavor. To protect the blog's impartiality, I decided early on not too take any advertising from breeders, owners, or handlers. I derive less than $100 a year in income from a few ads for dog-related products on the blog.

Today I blog several hours, virtually 365 days a year (I did get a few days off this year around Christmas). I'm typically at the computer seven or eight hours a day. I've recently partnered with the new site, Best In Show Daily, doing a daily column called The Back Story, adding a couple of hours a day to my routine.

The blog has found its niche in the dog world and I have found the best way to spend my retirement, in the company of dog lovers like myself. I will be traveling all over the country this year to see as many of the top dogs as I can. In addition to Westminster, I will be at the Northern California shows in April and plan to be at the Olympic Kennel Club dog shows in Enumclaw in August.

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