In any field of endeavor, there are personalities so larger than life that only part of their name is sufficient inducement to bring them to mind.
In fashion, there are Valentino and Iman. In music, Adele and Beyoncé and Madonna and too many more to count.
And in purebred dogs, there’s Sunny.
A Household Name
Like those aforementioned headliners, Sunny Shay was a household name in Afghan Hounds for much of the late 20th Century, world famous for her tightly bred and just as tightly held Grandeur line. Her modest house and kennel at 302 West John Street in Hicksville, Long Island, smack in the middle of an industrial area flanked by auto-repair shops and livestock-feed stores, produced some of the breed’s most influential dogs, among them the incomparable Intl. Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur, the first hound of any breed to win Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
Some of today’s most high-profile fanciers got their education in dogs by visiting the flamboyant Shay in her ramshackle house, with Afghan Hounds in seemingly every available inch, including longtime American Kennel Club CEO Dennis Sprung and his then-newlywed wife Susan; well-regarded judge Lee Canalizo and her son Michael, now an equally sought-after adjudicator who runs the AKC National Championship show in Orlando each December; and the well-known Reisman sisters Carol, Honi and Fran, the first two judges and the last the publisher of the long-running Afghan Hound Gazette.
First Hound to Win Westminster Dog Show
An aspiring dancer who decided instead to breed and show dogs — always on her toes, literally, in the ring — Shay was more than just a colorful footnote in Afghan Hound history. (How colorful? All the stories her devotees still share, from the muffins she stashed in her bra to her “Sunny Side Up” T-shirt with strategically placed yolks, are true, as are the many they won’t tell for attribution, because they are as risqué as they are entertaining.)
Shay’s Best in Show win with Shirkhan at Westminster represented a turning point in the sport of dogs, which had always been the province of the well-to-do and well connected. But in the moment judge Beatrice Godsol presented that silver trophy to Shay — a chubby, Jewish, female breeder-owner-handler — dog shows were transformed into the great levelers that they still are today, in which someone from any walk of life with a great dog at the end of the lead can aspire to — and achieve — the very top.
“I was standing in the hall that ran around the amphitheater when Sunny walked up the steps to the ring with Shirkhan,” remembered the late Anne Rogers Clark, an iconic judge who said she held Shirkhan in her mind’s eye as the ideal against which she judged all other Afghan Hounds. “And when Shirkhan reached the top stair, he looked out into the ring. I could see that he wasn’t looking at the ring to see what was going on. He was looking through the ring, through the concrete wall, and out into Central Park. I will always remember that look as if in memory of ages past” — those last seven words a reference to the breed’s kingly presence described in the Afghan Hound standard.
Claiming the Afghan Hound
Shay’s first Westminster win was in 1930 when as a nine-year-old she won her class showing her Wire Fox Terrier, Sniggy Wig of Grandeur. In her teens, Shay and her twin sister Dana worked for a well-known Poodle handler, and it was then that she saw her first Afghan Hound and claimed the breed as her own.
Shay was nothing if not tenacious, and after some false starts — her first bitch never produced any puppies — she acquired her foundation bitch Far Away Loo and began mixing and melding dogs of diverse lines, always with an eye toward the breed’s exoticism, intelligence, and soundness of both body and mind. When the aftermath of World War II made importing dogs difficult, Shay again persisted, dispatching her friend Sol Makin to visit English breeder Juliette de Baïracli Levy, who was equally famous for the herbal lore learned from the gypsies she lived with and emulated.
That gangly black puppy — Shay tried to return him after he wobbled out of the shipping crate, so dismayed was she at his appearance — transformed into the handsome Ch. Turkuman Nissim’s Laurel, who won the Hound Group at the Garden in 1950, shown by Shay dressed in black-and-white riding gear. When crossed with Shirkhan’s offspring, that Turkuman blood cemented the Grandeur dynasty, producing legendary dogs such as Ch. Blu Shah of Grandeur, a pivotal dog who carried the Grandeur line into the 21st Century; Ch. Triumph of Grandeur, who, thanks to frozen semen, recently sired a litter decades after his death; and the bitch Ch. Tryst of Grandeur, bred by Roger Rechler and Susan Sprung, and piloted by Michael Canalizo to a record-shattering 161 Bests in Show, making her the number-one Hound of all time.
The Tragedies of Sunny Shay
For all her successes, Shay also had her share of tragedy. A 1977 fire on the eve of Westminster killed 20 of her dogs and was a serious setback to her breeding program. Thankfully, Shay had taken some of her best dogs to the home of Roger Rechler, who was hosting a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Shirkhan’s Westminster win. Shay and Rechler had partnered under the Grandeur banner, and after the fire, the successful real estate developer provided a comfortable roof over Shay’s head and the means to focus on the line of dogs that had come to define her.
Shay’s well-deserved respite was tragically short-lived. A little more than a year later, she had a heart attack at a Fairfield, Connecticut, dog show, collapsing at the feet of the judge after gaiting her dog. A week shy of her 58th birthday, Shay was whisked away in an ambulance, never to regain consciousness; the dog she was showing, Ch. Boy Blu of Grandeur, took first place in the Hound Group later that day.
Remembering Sunny Shay
But that somber vignette isn’t the one on which to end Shay’s story. Let’s turn instead to the late English judge and Pekingese breeder Nigel Aubrey-Jones, who described watching Shay trot a young Shirkhan on a loose lead down Third Avenue in Manhattan in 1956, “eyes and teeth flashing, shouting, ‘He’s a King!’” Her great show dog, who would make the history books with his Westminster Best in Show the following year, “flowed through the traffic, his head and tail held high and proud,” Aubrey-Jones wrote in a dog magazine a quarter-century later. “He created his own desert and you could almost see the sand and hear the wind of the Sahara on Third Avenue. ”
The taxi and truck drivers leaned on their horns, but the great Shirkhan was “ignoring everybody and everything but Sunny, as he flowed through the traffic, his head and tail held high and proud,” Aubrey-Jones remembered.
That’s where we’ll leave them both for eternity, traffic blaring, skyscrapers looming, jaded New Yorkers stopping in their tracks by the mutual showmanship of the famously unconventional breeder and her equally famous dog — Sunny and Shirkhan.