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The Super Bowl and World Cup have referees. The World Series has umpires. When it comes to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show presented by Purina® Pro Plan®, the second-longest-running sporting event in the United States, there is a different type of officiating crew. Judges are given the difficult task of choosing the crème de la crème of four-legged contestants, and when it comes to the world of dog shows, there is no greater honor than being invited to judge the Best In Show category at Westminster.

Best In Show judges are chosen carefully by the WKC more than a year ahead of time. For 2013 Best In Show judge Michael Dougherty, that invitation came almost two years in advance and had to be kept secret until an official announcement was made months and months later.

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“I didn’t have a problem with it,” Dougherty told the Seattle Kennel Club in 2013. “As long as [my wife] Michelle and [my brother] Steve knew.”

Judge Michael Dougherty and wife Michelle
Judge Michael Dougherty with his wife,
Michelle, moments before 2013 Best In Show.
Photo: John Ashbey.

Like Dougherty, most show judges establish a love for dogs at a young age, developing a passion that they never lose. Last year’s Best In Show judge, Hon. David Merriam, found his zeal for purebred dogs as a teenager in the 1950s when he would hitch rides to dog shows from his mentor, a retired military colonel. The colonel gave Merriam a white Bull Terrier puppy named Gigi, sparking his dog show career.

“At 11 months old, she won a large specialty [show] and I was hooked,” Merriam said. “For the past 64 years, my involvement in the sport – breeding, showing, judging, and kennel club governance – has afforded me wonderful experiences and pleasure.”

A lot goes into picking a Best In Show winner at Westminster. Both Merriam and Dougherty agree that the biggest quality they look for among winners of the Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Herding groups is breed correctness – how well the dog measures up to its breed standard. Is it balanced and symmetrical? Does its physical characteristics allow it to do its job herding cattle, tracking game, or being a companion? Next comes its physical and mental soundness and alertness in the ring. Very rarely, if at all, does a dog’s behavior or the way it’s handled come in to play.

“Only lastly do I consider showmanship,” Merriam said. “In the Westminster Best In Show ring, showmanship is a given.”

Picking a Best In Show winner is not something judges take lightly. They take their time evaluating each group winner. For Merriam, who named Purina® Pro Plan® 30/20 SPORT Chicken & Rice-fed GCH Tashtin’s Lookin For Trouble top dog, the decision wasn’t necessarily hard, but it was carefully considered. Considering he has spent 20 years as a trial court judge, Merriam is used to making tough decisions, but he thanks his group judges for making it easier on him.

“The seven [group-winning] dogs I had were magnificent,” he said of last year’s Best In Show competition, where he chose the Beagle. “On another day with another judge, any of them could have been Best In Show and I would not quarrel with that decision.”

Best In Show 2015
From left to right: Seán W. McCarthy, Westminster Kennel Club president; The Hon. David Merriam, Best in Show judge; Purina® Pro Plan®-fed “Miss P”; Will Alexander, handler; Thomas Bradley III, Westminster Kennel Club show chairman.

Sometimes a group winner just has everything going for him, making it easier for judges to make their pick, which is what happened for Dougherty when he named Purina® Pro Plan® Performance-fed GCH Banana Joe V Tani Kazari, a fluffy black Affenpinscher, Best In Show in 2013.

banana joe westminster 2013
Purina® Pro Plan® Performance-fed
GCH Banana Joe V Tani Kazari after
winning Best In Show at Westminster in 2013.
Photo: Jack Grassa/WKC.

“He was in great condition and had a wonderful level of fitness and muscle tone for a Toy,” Dougherty said. “Every element was what it needed to be on that night. He never let down, showed with great energy and moved and stood as if he owned that huge ring. He was every inch an Affenpinscher.”

Judging Best in Show at Westminster is certainly not something judges will ever forget. It’s easy to get caught up in the stress and pressure, but both Dougherty and Merriam took moments to really take the experience in.

“There is truly nothing like it: a packed venue, television cameras, the full press section. All eyes are on one single thing – the competition in that ring at that moment,” Dougherty, who described Westminster as a mix of the Miss America pageant, Kentucky Derby, and Super Bowl, said. “The atmosphere is electric, and the dogs are sparkling in presentation with great energy, health and joy of the moment.”
It was no different for Merriam.

“Westminster is like no other show,” he said. “It has a wonderful history and tradition. The group- and Best In Show-level the quality of dogs is the best. I was honored to become a part of Westminster Kennel Club history.”
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Best In Show Miss P
“Miss P” greets the media after being named Best In Show. Photo: Jack Grassa/WKC.
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