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Stephaniellen Photography © American Kennel Club

History was made at the 2023 AKC National Championship, which took place at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, from December 16-17. The newest Best in Show winner was crowned: three-year-old Shih Tzu “Comet” GCHP CH Hallmark Jolei Out Of This World. This is the first Shih Tzu to win Best in Show at the AKC National Championship, and only the second time that a breed from the Toy Group has won Best in Show. The Best in Show competition took place on Sunday, December 17, judged by Mr. Clay Coady.

The Reserve Best in Show winner was German Shepherd Dog “Mercedes” GCHG CH Kaleef’s Mercedes, winner of the Herding Group.

Meet Comet, Best in Show Winner

Comet is owned by couple Luke and Diane Ehricht, Bonnie J. Miller, and Susan Carter. Luke, who is a professional handler, shows Comet. “I’ve always been attracted to the long hair, the glamour,” Luke says of the breed. “I like the size, and I thought they have the most adorable faces, and they have great personalities. They kind of make you smile just to be around them.”

Though Comet is only three years old, he’s already taken the Conformation world by storm. At his first competition at nine months old, he won his Breed and the Toy Group. Luke didn’t show him much, a few times again until at 13 months, Comet won the Shih Tzu National Specialty. “Right off the bat, he started winning,” Luke says. “He just excelled in all the things that are really important to us in the breed.”

Stephaniellen Photography © American Kennel Club

When he’d racked up about 12 Best in Shows, Miller and Carter approached Luke and Diane about sponsoring and co-owning Comet. “With him being our own dog, and professional handling being our living, it cost us money to show him,” Luke says. “They were interested in sponsoring him because they thought he was a beautiful dog, and his career just blossomed from there.”

Shih Tzu From the Start

Luke’s journey with handling and Conformation started when he was a teenager living in Toronto. He didn’t come from a family that showed dogs, but a friend in high school, whose family showed Bouvier des Flandres, invited him to go to shows with them. “I fell in love with the dogs,” Luke says. From there, he’d help people at shows, and got to know a veterinarian who asked him to help socialize her puppies. The following year, he got his first dog from his mother, a Lhaso Apso, and began showing.

Shortly after he began showing, he saw Shih Tzu competing and fell in love with the breed. Though still young, he got one from a breeder that had just had a litter of puppies, and began showing, and eventually breeding, the dogs. Coincidentally, around the same time, Diane, who lived in Toledo, also began showing Shih Tzu, and the two quickly connected.

Luke went on to become a professional handler, handling many different breeds of dogs in the conformation ring. Today, he is still a professional handler, along with owning Hallmark Jolei, their Shih Tzu breeding program, with his wife, Diane.

The kennel name is a combined testament to their long-standing love for the breed. Before they combined their kennels, Luke’s was “Hallmark,” Diane’s “Jolei,” which together formed Hallmark Jolei, the breeders of the quality Shih Tzus like Comet that you see today. Now, they live together in Ohio, and have been married for 33 years, their love of Shih Tzus still as strong as it always was when they started in the breed in 1973.

Double Accolades: Breeder of the Year

Luke and Diane didn’t just bring home the coveted Best in Show win — Hallmark Jolei also took home Breeder of the Year. One honoree is chosen in each of the seven groups for the Breeder of the Year award, and the Ehrichts represented the Toy Group. For the past 21 years, they have been ranked the top Shih Tzu breeder in America, and this is the second time that Hallmark Jolei has been selected as Toy Breeders of the Year. Their most decorated Shih Tzu, “Andy” Ch Hallmark Jolei Raggedy Andy, won 84 All Breed Bests in Show and three National Specialties.

Stephaniellen Photography © American Kennel Club

To have Comet, one of the dogs that they bred, also win Best in Show, is huge. “We’ve had a lot of consistency in our breeding program,” Luke says. “When people look at our dogs [over] decades, we’ve had a very consistent type, a very consistent style, a very consistent look. Our breeding goals haven’t really changed.”

Part of the reason that the Ehrichts decided to campaign comet because of his confidence in their breeding program. “Dog breeding is definitely something that is an art in a lot of ways,” Luke says. “You really have to have an eye for it.” The Ehrichts also heavily consider dogs pedigrees, genetics, and how they fit together before breeding any dogs together. “We never consider one feature — you’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

Taking Home the Win

When Comet was a puppy, Luke says they already knew he was special. “He was a really beautiful example of our breed,” Luke says. “As he got older, Comet had what it took as far as his personality too, and his love for doing this, pleasing and showing.”

“Comet is a combination of a lot of what we’ve always looked for, and he seemed to have it all,” Luke says. And although he’s confident in his dogs, he never thought he’d win the largest dog show in the United States, triumphing over more than 5,700 other dogs.

“I know my dog is a really good dog, but I am very superstitious,” Luke says. “I don’t ever basically count my chickens before they hatch.” This is the first time Luke has ever shown to a Best in Show judge at the AKC National Championship, with any breed. “I really just try to go in there thinking that we’re going to do our best to have a good time and show off, let people see the dog.”

Stephaniellen Photography © American Kennel Club

Even when Comet won, the Best in Show win didn’t register for Luke at first. “It was surreal. I think the people around me started congratulating me before I even totally realized that the judge had said ‘Shih Tzu’,” Luke says. “It was extremely emotional and extremely thrilling. It’s a dream come true, something that you always hope for, but you never really think is going to happen.”

The Toy Group’s Second National Championship Win

Since its first show in 2001, only two dogs in the Toy Group have won Best in Show at the AKC National Championship. Comet is the second, and the first Shih Tzu to ever take home the title. In 2019, a Pekingese, “Wasabi” GCH CH Pequest Wasabi won the AKC National Championship, also the first of its breed to win the title.

Historically, the Terrier Group has the most AKC National Championship Bests in Show. Herding, Hound, Sporting, Non-Sporting, and Working Groups all have three Bests in Show each, with Toy having the fewest group wins so far. Dogs competing for Best in Show are not competing against each other — but rather, which dog fits their breed standard the most.

“The quality in the groups was so deep and so strong. All your competition is beautiful,” Luke says. “It just comes down to the judge’s preference, and which dog performs the best and is the best representative of the breed, in the best condition, showing the best.” And at the 2023 AKC National Championship, that dog was Comet.