In my 25 years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed a variety of subjects from Olympic Gold Medalists to presidential candidates and, in the process, have been to some fabulous and exciting places. But, as a person admittedly addicted to dogs and in particular, Shelties, none was more thrilling, or more fun, than covering the famous Westminster Dog Show February 11th at New York’s Madison Square Garden—the Olympics of dog shows.
Enhancing the experience even more was knowing one of the canine superstars in the competition. Champion Shellhaven Rabbit Run Rhapsody, a.k.a. “Annie,” a spectacular sable Shetland Sheepdog owned by Connie and Megan Nelson of Cheshire, Connecticut, gave me a personal connection that made it so much more special.
I got to know Connie through one of her puppies, who my husband and I are fortunate enough to own. Although he is our fifth Sheltie, the process of acquiring him was very different from our other dogs. You don’t just buy a puppy from Connie. Only selected candidates are approved to be owned by Connie’s puppies, and that after an extensive meeting with her.
You then become a member of the family, which includes regular visits with your puppy for special Connie ministrations. She grooms and trims the puppy as often as needed through puppyhood and beyond, just because she likes to keep track of them and watch them grow. As an owner along for the ride, it’s impossible not to become a friend and fan of this special lady and her Shelties.
Connie grew up with horses and horse shows. As a young married woman with a small daughter, she wanted something she could do that was simpler and less expensive than owning and showing a horse.
She discovered dog shows.
There is a close parallel between dog shows and horse shows in the way they are run and judged. But there’s a world of difference in the mechanics. There’s no trailer to pull, no tack, no thousand-pound animal.
It is not, however, as simple as opening your car door and commanding, “Come, Lassie!” The trappings and necessities for primping a pooch for the show ring are, while not as weighty as for a horse, certainly as many. Dogs are groomed right up to the minute they enter the show ring, with the care of a movie star prepping for her close up.
A dog can be shown in a wide variety of disciplines–obedience, agility, rally, herding, flyball, and many others. Westminster is a show that judges conformation. Dogs must be proven champions able to breed to qualify for Westminster, since conformation judging is all about breeding lines.
Unless it’s a “specialty show,” which is breed specific, the first level of judging involves choosing the best dog in each breed. Breed winners then go on to compete at the Group level; for instance, Shelties in the Herding Group, terriers in the Terrier Group, and so on. There were 2,500 dogs in 169 breeds shown at Westminster this year, each competing for the title in seven Groups.
Once a winner is chosen in each Group, they compete for Best in Show.
Connie and her daughter, Megan, who handles the dogs in the show ring, did not begin in the world of dog shows as breeders or winners. Megan started training her dogs and showing at age 10 in 4H, working her way through the ranks in Junior Showmanship, learning the sport as she went. Connie has always been part of the team, grooming and prepping the dogs for the show ring and cheering Megan on. It’s the same role each plays today, with great success. Megan, who graduated last year from Swarthmore, now works in the biotechnical field for Covidien in New Haven. She continues to travel with her mom to show their dogs on the weekends.
Connie bred Megan’s first winning show dog, Champion Cindahope Trade Mark, producing what turned out to be superb specimens of the breed. Mark has 17 Canadian and four American Champion offspring to date. Mark won his way with Megan through the Junior ranks, including qualifying to compete in Junior Showmanship at Westminster.
This winning team attracted notice among other Sheltie people, who began asking to breed their females to Mark. Annie was the result of one of those breedings, born in Canada to Connie’s friend and breeding partner, Karen Henley, who still co-owns Annie with Connie. Annie is also Connie’s pet, and queen among Connie’s eight or nine Shelties in residence, depending on when you visit. Mark, now 11, is still the basis for Connie’s championship line.
Connie is quick to say that she and Megan have had a great deal of help along the way, in their nearly 20 years in Shelties. She credits a number of people, both professionals and friends, for advising, mentoring and teaching them the ropes.
Clearly, she and Megan learned well. Annie was shown at Westminster last year as well, where she took Best of Opposite Sex in the breed or, in other terms, Second Place to the male Sheltie who won Best of Breed.
What I find most inspiring about Connie and Megan’s story is something that resonates with anyone who loves dogs or is involved in canine sports. They don’t run a big commercial kennel, or have a major breeding operation, but rather breed selectively and not even yearly. They don’t have a string of clients. Yet they have made it to the Broadway of dog shows through persistence, dedication and hard work, with great success. They love their dogs, and it shows in their animals.
Our Rabbit Run puppy will never see the inside of a show ring. But two of his siblings are already making their way toward championships with Connie and Megan, following in their aunt Annie’s pawprints. I predict we’ll be seeing them in the big time before long too.
You can understand why it was a thrill for me to be able to root for them at the biggest of all canine events.
In Part Two I’ll tell you about the Westminster experience and share the details of Annie’s exciting win there!