Portland Dog Wins Best of Breed
by Elizabeth Regan, Rivereast News Bulletin, February 23, 2018
She’s the most perfect representative of the Spanish Water Dog breed in the United States: Angel Kiss the S’Kai de Ariosa.
But you can call her Kai.
The Best of Breed honor was bestowed upon the 3-and-a-half-year-old dog with a distinctive curly coat at last week’s 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Handler Lisa Harper of Portland [Connecticut] put Kai through the paces first at the Piers and then at Madison Square Garden amid cheering crowds, bright lights and the constant buzz of television commentators.
Harper said the decision to recognize Kai as Best of Breed was made by judge Peter Green, whose career she described as long and distinguished. Green is a four-time Westminster Best in Show winner and a seven-time Westminster judge.
“When he pointed at us, I couldn’t believe it,” Harper said.
While Kai was bred by Susan Deangelo of Pennsylvania, it was Harper who bred the dog’s father many years ago.
“To show and win with a dog descended from my own line — well, that’s every breeder’s dream,” Harper said.
Harper, born and raised in Glastonbury [Connecticut], went west to college, stayed and made her career about dogs. Her connection to the breed began when she befriended a young, dangerously under-socialized Spanish Water Dog who was about to be put down. Harper took Tia, helped her overcome her fears, and took her to champion levels.
Harper subsequently became an advocate for the breed, importing dogs from Spain and Finland and competing in herding, agility, rally obedience, barn hunt and water work.
As the breed expanded, she helped establish the Spanish Water Dog Club of America, and served as chairman for six years. She currently serves as Vice President.
Dog clubs’ missions are to establish standards for their breeds, and to educate judges, members and the public on the breeds’ purposes and talents.
Harper’s goal as chairman was to qualify the breed for recognition by the AKC, which took 15 years of expanding the population and meeting AKC criteria.
The Best of Breed designation during the first part of the year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earned Kai a spot int he Herding Group competition at the vaunted Madison Square Garden venue, where she was evaluated against the other breeds that make up the class of loyal, intelligent and prey-driven canines.
The winning dog in each group goes on to compete for the Best in Show title.
“The judge’s job is to decide if this Spanish Water Dog is a better Spanish Water Dog than that Border Collie is a Border Collie,” Harper said.
First the judge examined physical features including Kai’s bite, head structure, ears, chest and back end, Harper said. Then the handler walked Kai around to show off the dog’s gait.
Harper said the judge went up and down the line of herding dogs “about 800 times” after he had examined all fo them individually.
She noted that some judges will “pull” out of the line a few of the dogs they really like.
“We didn’t get a pull,” she conceded. “Maybe next year.”
The judge ultimately chose a Border Collie called Slick as the group winner, according to show results.
For Harper and Kai, being a part of the venerable Westminster Dog Show was what the handler described as a surreal experience.
“Kai’s tail never stopped wagging the entire time we were their,” Harper said.
Harper shares ownership of Kai with Colleen Nolan of West Virginia. Kai splits her time between the harper and Nolan households.
“Colleen does most of the obedience training and I do the showing,” Harper said. “I works out great.”
Kai has called Portland home for the past year.
Harper described Kai as typical for the breed: loyal, easy to train and devoted.
Spanish Water Dogs are medium-sized with unique, curly coats that may form cords when long. They are rustic, multi-functional farm dogs, primarily used for herding goats and merino sheep in Spain for centuries. They are also useful for hunting, fishing and vermin control. The dogs excel in activities including agility, herding and obedience.
Harper added the breed has been put to work in Spain for bomb detection.
Spanish Water Dogs are perfect for an active person or family who likes to get out and do things, according to Harper.
“These dogs really like to have a job, even if it’s something like ‘go find my car keys.’ [They need] something they can own. They’re not hang-around dogs,” she said.
She noted that people researching breeds often regard their size and shedless coats as ideal attributes in a dog. But there’s so much more to any breed than what’s written on the internet, she said.
Spanish Water Dogs need mental stimulation as well as physical stimulation, she emphasized.
Kai has channeled those attributes into her status as an AKC Bronze Grand Champion with titles in obedience, rally obedience, and coursing. She will begin competing in agility this year.
The Westminster Kennel Club invites the top five dogs of each breed to their annual show. Harper has been invited every year since the breed was introduced to the show in 2016.
“To win at the world’s most prestigious show takes a great dog, a good handler, a judge who knows what he’s looking for, and alignment of all the stars,” Harper said.