Stepping onto the big stage at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will assume an entirely new meaning—and challenge—Tuesday, June 21 for Travis Torsak.
Gaining the coveted initiation will be his first handling endeavor ever with Jack, a Grand Champion West Highland White Terrier he co-owns.
Torsak has always hired professionals to handle his Westies through the years, although he attended many of those shows. The 146th annual dog show will be his first time stepping into the ring. This year, the show is held June 18-22 at the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, New York.
But 2-year-old Jack was prepping for Westminster long before Torsak knew he would be handling the Westie. His late owner, Dr. Brian O’Callaghan, Ph.D., died of a heart attack on March 2 shortly after learning Jack had qualified for a Westminster entry.
“His wish had always been to get one of his dogs to Westminster,” says Lori Rehage, O’Callaghan’s niece and executor of the estate. “And we’re going to make it happen.”
Stepping Into Handling Shoes
On the grassy lawn in New York and in front of a nationwide audience, Torsak is embracing the moment. “I may not be a professional handler nor handled a dog in the show ring, but GCHB Ch. Brimar’s Irish Blessing de Cane Creek (Jack) will wow the crowd,” he says. “He feeds off being around people and they will recognize it.”
Is Torsak nervous about his first handling event? In a word, yes. Not only has he been watching and studying past Westminster shows and handling videos on YouTube, but he has also been grooming to perfection. He’s been stripping, pulling, combing, and plucking for weeks hoping to get Jack’s coat to shine.
“I wasn’t really nervous about Westminster until a couple of weeks ago,” Torsak says. “Now, I truly feel the pressure of the green carpet and all the eyes that will be watching who prances across it.”
There are nine Westies entered in the Breed competition, and the breed judging will happen on Tuesday, June 21 at the event.
Torsak and his office manager/assistant, Crystal Lang-Hutchinson, will make the 14-hour trip from Tennessee to Tarrytown several days before the show. This will also be Lang-Hutchinson’s first dog show she’s ever attended. However, she has her fair share of experience helping Torsak’s breeding with KenLakes Westies.
“She loves dogs as much as I do and is with me every time one of my girls whelps,” he says. “Without her, there is no way I could accomplish half of what I do.”
Torsak, Rehage, and longtime Westie breeder Rose Carpenter have been the key players in what has proved to be a highly challenging adventure in getting Jack to Tarrytown.
Gaining Jack and a Legacy
It was almost a week after O’Callaghan’s death, that Rehage was legally named executor. “My priority was to get [his] dogs’ new homes,” she says.
At that point, there were four Westies at home and Jack out on the show circuit. All but one was left to a specific person per Brian’s will, but a good home was found for that one, as well. One was rehomed with Rehage.
That left Jack, who was left to Carpenter. Next, Rehage reached out to handler Leonardo Garcini in the Midwest, who had been showing the 20-pound dog since September 2020 and building up a strong résumé chiefly in the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast, including many Best of Breeds.
Jack was last shown in late February at the Wisconsin Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison, Wisconsin.
“At first we thought Rose and Leonardo could make arrangements to get Jack in Rose’s hands, but my attorney advised me that I would have to take possession of the dog and transfer it to Travis and Rose,” Rehage explains.
On March 28, Rehage flew to Louisville and drove 22 miles to Garcini’s kennel in Henryville, Indiana, to get Jack and transfer him to Torsak. Since then, Carpenter and Torsak have applied to AKC for a change of ownership of Jack in both of their names. Carpenter, the original owner of Jack, was given the puppy in 2020 by his breeder, and shortly thereafter, she underwent a medical procedure that resulted in her searching for a “show home” for him.
That’s when she found O‘Callaghan, a longtime Westie fancier who wanted to exhibit him and promised an eventual breeding back to Carpenter.
Bringing a Dream to Fruition
“The show isn’t about me,” Torsak says. “I am incredibly sensitive to the fact that Dr. O’Callaghan was so excited that Jack had been invited to Westminster. The fact that he saw that come to fruition is outstanding.”
But because he doesn’t have a relationship with any handler, Torsak was initially stumped on how to get Jack to the show. To not see Jack in the prestigious ring at Westminster is such a shame that he felt compelled to take him.
“Jack is the star here and he deserves to go despite my lack of experience or expertise in the ring,” Torsak says. “I plan to go out and put my best foot forward, stay out of Jack’s way and let him shine. Brian would have loved to see Jack there and that is my motivation. I am hoping to make him proud and feel like he is looking down and guiding us on this journey, whether we come home with any ribbons or awards or not.”
Jack and Torsak won’t be alone. Kathleen O’Callaghan DelRio and Rehage will be in Tarrytown to cheer them on. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Rehage says with a smile.