For this Westminster best-in-show judge,
it was memorable 20-month emotional ride

Photos courtesy Mary Bloom, John Ashbey, shibaguyz and Randy Roberts

By Ranny Green

Michael Dougherty and his wife Michelle pause for a photo op just prior to his taking the floor at Madison Square Garden in February to judge best-in-show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Michael Dougherty and his wife Michelle pause for a photo op just prior to his taking the floor at Madison Square Garden in February to judge best-in-show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

When Michael Dougherty walked out to his Escondido, Calif., mailbox on a summer morning in 2011 he wasn’t expecting anything in particular. But what he received that day was about to set off a 20-month invigorating carousel of emotions that ranged from ecstasy to secrecy.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “I picked up the mail like we all do and started thumbing through it one envelope after another. Suddenly I came upon one from the Westminster Kennel Club and couldn’t imagine what it was about. Before I gingerly opened it I was thinking maybe they were inviting me back to judge some terrier breeds or maybe even the terrier group. I opened it and there it was: An invitation to judge best-in-show in 2013!

“I remember being stunned and I think a few tears began welling up in my eyes. I thought to myself that this did not happen. It is nothing you could ever dream of. It always happens to the other guy. Pride was bursting out of my chest. I walked down the driveway and into the lobby of our resort (Windsong Resort . . . for Pets) and told Michelle (his wife), ‘Honey, you have to read this,’ he said, while in Seattle March 9-10 to judge many terrier and hound breeds at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show, in addition to the hound group March 9 and the terrier group March 10.

Dougherty looks over Swagger, a 90-pound Old English Sheepdog, in the Westminster best-in-show ring as owner-handler Colton Johnson, of Colorado Springs, Colo., looks on.

Dougherty looks over Swagger, a 90-pound Old English Sheepdog, in the Westminster best-in-show ring as owner-handler Colton Johnson, of Colorado Springs, Colo., looks on.

“I began counting my heart beat and wondered if this could even be possible. I remember her saying, ‘Oh, my God!’ and we kissed and hugged. We basked in the glory for the next 12 to 14 hours.” But one of the mandates of the invitation is that it must be kept totally secret until the club announces the judging lineup the following May. Other than Michelle, the only one to whom Dougherty confided was his brother Steve.

The following morning he received a phone call from show chairman Tom Bradley officially inviting him to accept the assignment. “It isn’t supposed to happen that way,” laughs Dougherty. “The phone call is supposed to come first, followed by the letter. When I told Tom the letter arrived yesterday, he said, ‘Oh . . . ‘ Then I cracked, ‘Tom, you are not calling to take it away from me, are you?’ And he laughed, ‘No, I am just here to tell you we want you.’ ”

Dougherty covets the sworn-to-secrecy aspect of the job. “It makes it so special,” he explains. “I didn’t have a problem with it, as long as Michelle and Steve knew. After that, I could put it in a box and not open it until the public announcement by the club.”

Dougherty and Sari Brewster Tietjen (2009) are the only Westminster best-in-show judges to also have competed in juniors at the iconic event. Here they are shown together at the Seattle Kennel Club show in March, where both were judges.

Dougherty and Sari Brewster Tietjen (2009) are the only Westminster best-in-show judges to also have competed in juniors at the iconic event. Here they are shown together at the Seattle Kennel Club show in March, where both were judges.

While not comparing it to the Heisman Trophy grouping of former winners, Dougherty acknowledges that being one of 18 living former Westminster best-in-show judges is special company. He and Sari Brewster Tietjen (2009) are the only Westminster BIS judges to have previously competed there in junior showmanship. For Dougherty, that came in 1968, when he was 15. The 2013 best-in-show invitation marked his fifth judging appearance at Westminster, including the hound group in 2007.

Dougherty estimates he is among 15 or 16 individuals who have judged best in show at Westminster and the famed Montgomery County (Penn.) Kennel Club Dog Show for terriers (2007).

Once Westminster Kennel Club announced the 2013 judging slate in May 2012 Dougherty began receiving congratulations from friends and acquaintances throughout the dog world. Upon receiving the Westminster invitation, he opted out of any best-in-show assignments in 2012, although Westminster asks the best-in-show judge to refrain from accepting any best-in-show judging invitations for only six months prior to the iconic February event at Madison Square Garden. “I opened the window a bit wider so when I walked into ring at the Garden, it would be even more special.”

The days and weeks went by quickly leading up to the 137th renewal of America’s premier dog show, recalls Dougherty, but the final weekend was not without its anxious moments, thanks to a snowstorm that forced cancellation of hundreds of flights into New York area airports.

At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb.8 the Doughertys received a cancelled flight notice from the airline for their scheduled nonstop from San Diego to New York City. So Dougherty acted quickly, making reservations for a flight through Dallas-Fort Worth and to Washington, D.C., from where they took Amtrak into New York City.

It’s time to get up close and personal with Westminster finalist Honor, a Bichon Frise, while handler Lisa Bettis, of Goshen, Ind., watches.

It’s time to get up close and personal with Westminster finalist Honor, a Bichon Frise, while handler Lisa Bettis, of Goshen, Ind., watches.

“It was a long day physically and psychologically,” he says. “Not the way you want to start out a special Westminster weekend. And on top of that I was coming down with a cold and my sinuses were acting up. But you deal with it. ”

For the in-crowd that weekend is packed with one party after another but the Doughertys kept their social calendar under tight control. A Westminster Kennel Club Saturday night party introducing judges, stewards and officials to Piers 92/94 (where breed judging was held for the first time; a Westminster Kennel Club board of governors dinner Sunday night, where Dougherty delivered a five-minute address thanking the club for the invitation to judge, a tribute to his parents and a mini biographical introduction; and a small dinner gathering with friends Monday night before best-in-show judging Tuesday night.

“I revised my board-of-governors talking points several times in the weeks beforehand. Because I was very close to my parents, I wanted to acknowledge and thank them. I ran the idea by Michelle but she felt I might break down and not get through it, since I am a pretty sentimental sap when it comes to both of them. But everything went beautifully and I know dad (the late Jack Dougherty) was proud. (Michael Dougherty started with his family in purebred dogs in 1961, acquiring his first Whippet in 1963.)

Everyone's all smiles here, including Dougherty, handler Ernesto Lara and this year's Westminster popular winner, Banana Joe, the Affenpinscher, who makes himself comfortable in the winner's bowl.

Everyone’s all smiles here, including Dougherty, handler Ernesto Lara and this year’s Westminster popular winner, Banana Joe, the Affenpinscher, who makes himself comfortable in the winner’s bowl.

“I wrote and rewrote that speech three or four times and read it over to Michelle each time, asking for her input. I think it went well, but I was very concerned I wouldn’t have much of a voice that night with the cold and sinus infection,” he adds.

Sunday morning Dougherty attended a TV planning meeting with USA Network and Westminster officials, aimed at fine-tuning his on-air stint Tuesday night and answering everyone’s questions.

Dougherty emphasizes that his internal clock has always been good and that he tends to judge quickly, adding “I knew I would be in good shape for my allotted time on TV.”

Most of the day Monday the couple traveled about the city, simply relaxing and taking in the sights. “It was a chance to get a fresh break from the dog-show world and proved invigorating.”

Dougherty brought a laptop along on the trip but never went online; nor did he turn on TV in the hotel room or purchase a newspaper. Protocol calls for the best-in-show arbiter to have no advance knowledge of the Select Seven field other than the final moments before entering the ring when the show superintendent informs him of the seven breeds he will be judging.

“It was a terrific field. The group judges gave me seven excellent animals. After I entered the ring I was waiting for someone to make a mistake and it never happened. Obviously I am judging each dog vs. its standard but beyond that it comes down to presentation and charisma to see which one separates itself from the field. As a judge, you always hope one will do so.”

The native San Diegan, who has been judging for 27 years “was confident, comfortable and totally focused on the job at hand. The whole arena beyond the ring was basically a blur and fuzzed out. Inside the ring, my vision was crystal clear. It’s just the way I envisioned it would all come together.”

Dougherty characterizes the show – America’s second oldest continuous sports event – a mix of the Miss America pageant, Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl. “It is an athletic event and beauty pageant wrapped into one,” he explains, “accented with personality and passion.”

Asked how the Westminster notoriety has changed his life, Dougherty responds, “It has brought added business to our pet-resort business, nice judging assignments and a certain level of celebrity, particularly with Southern California media.”

A refreshing Dougherty concludes, “The Westminster experience was like no other. I wanted to embrace it, enjoy it and give it the respect it merits. Hopefully, I delivered on all counts.”