During the mad dash through an obstacle course, an always unfamiliar terrain, a dog frequently glances back at its handler for guidance. At a competition as intense as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, those quick interactions are crucial.
“Probably the hardest skill is learning to let the dog know what’s coming up before you get there,” said Jill Blum of Peconic. “It’s not as easy as it seems.”
A handler has just eight minutes to walk through a course without their dog before the competition begins. During that time, they must discern where a dog might be fooled and establish which obstacles are meant to be avoided.
After that, it’s show time.
“You better have your handling skills sharpened,” Ms. Blum said.
On Saturday at Pier 94 in New York City, during the 141st annual Westminster dog show, it all came together for Ms. Blum and her 11-year-old Papillon, Dallas. Competing in the 12-inch division of the Masters Agility Competition, Dallas earned a third-place finish, the best in his competitive career. Dallas, who is a little bigger than most Papillons at around 10 pounds, posted a time of 41.88 seconds in the finals. The winner was a Miniature Schnauzer named Jonesy that ran 35.17.
Dallas’ top finish came as somewhat a surprise for Ms. Blum, who is the dog’s owner as well as his handler.
“I know there’s some good dogs out there that are much younger and that are up and coming,” she said. “I was very pleasantly surprised. He was really in the mood. He did his job.”
Ms. Blum, 59, also competed with another dog: 3-year-old Acela, who is also a Papillon (the breed’s name is French for “butterfly”). Acela competed in the same agility competition but in the 8-inch division, which refers to the height of obstacles in the course. Ms. Blum said she expected Acela to be the dog that reached the finals. But it was Dallas, an old man as far competitions go, who won the day.
To advance to the finals, Dallas needed to compete in two runs. The first featured an array of obstacles such as a seesaw and dog walk. The second was a jumper course in which the dog is judged on speed and accuracy. Ten dogs out of 67 were selected for the finals.
Ms. Blum, who has lived on the North Fork for 35 years and is a retired microbiologist, said this was her fourth straight year competing at Westminster. The Masters Agility competitions only started in 2014, she said, and differ from the show’s typical competitions, which are eventually featured in the main event at Madison Square Garden. She said the agility competitions have gotten bigger and bigger.
“It was wildly successful for them,” said Ms. Blum, who has been training dogs for nearly 20 years.
Ms. Blum said Dallas has been training since he was a puppy and that he participated in his first show at 15 months old. She said it’s never known for sure whether a dog will enjoy training, but Dallas happened to take to it right away.
“He was very anxious to get in the ring and get that leash off and start running around,” she said. “But it takes a while to be a good team. They have to learn to do it in the correct sequence and to watch their handler for cues on what to do next. It does take a few years, sometimes longer than a few years.”
Training typically starts slowly, since dogs need to learn to safely navigate a course’s obstacles without falling before they can increase their speed.
That never worked for Dallas, though.
“Dallas always had one speed — as fast he could possibly go,” Ms. Blum said.
Photo caption: Jill Blum of Peconic poses with Dallas after the Papillon placed third at the Westminster Dog Show. (Credit: courtesy photo)