Mattituck mastiff tapped for Westminster Dog Show at MSG

Mattituck, NY
BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Diane Harkoff of Mattituck and her mastiff, Cowboy, who will compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden next month.

Diane Harkoff always knew there was something unusual about Cowboy, her three-year-old mastiff.

She’s had five other mastiffs, a huge English breed used historically as guard dogs. All were regal, loving dogs with intense personalities. But there was a bit of sparkle in the way Cowboy made his own rules, whether climbing over furniture to get to where he wanted to go or making mischief in general when her back was turned.

“The breeder said there was something special about him,” said Ms. Harkoff, who took Cowboy home from a Pennsylvania breeder when the pup was eight weeks old. “He’s naughty. That sometimes makes them stand out a little bit from the crowd. He’s done everything a little bit differently.”

He began once-a-week handling classes in Holbrook when he was eight months old, to help him interact with other dogs. It was well worth the investment.

In mid-December, while on her way back with husband Dennis from taking Cowboy to a Pennsylvania dog show, Ms. Harkoff received an email from the Westminster Kennel Club announcing that Cowboy had been selected to participate in its prestigious, internationally known show at Madison Square Garden next month.

“I started screaming and sending text messages out to all my friends,” said Ms. Harkoff, who had never applied to send a dog to Westminster before Cowboy came along.

He’s been in dozens of dog shows in the past two years and has earned the title of champion from the American Kennel Club after winning two major championships in his breed. The Harkoffs, who own Legends restaurant in New Suffolk, hope that one day Cowboy will become a “grand champion.” To do so, he must beat out three other champion dogs in shows with different judges.

Ms. Harkoff said she entered him in Westminster after hearing that the club accepts the first 2,000 applications from dogs who became AKC champions in each breed during the previous year.

The Westminster show takes place on Feb. 13 and 14, and Cowboy is scheduled to be shown on Feb. 14. Ms. Harkoff hires handler Jane Hobson of New Jersey to work with him in the ring.

“I don’t want to be a part of the show. I just want to watch,” said Ms. Harkoff. While some show circuit dogs spend months with their handlers, Cowboy, she said, “is still first and foremost our pet.”

She’s shown her dogs before, but none took to the limelight the way Cowboy did.

“He needs more stimulation than other mastiffs,” said Ms. Harkoff. “If there’s not enough commotion, he gets bored. He thinks it’s a party and he enjoys being the center of attention.”

One minor concern for Ms. Harkoff is that dogs in the Westminster show stay in large crates backstage, where owners and breeders meet with the public before the show. As a pet, Cowboy hasn’t been trained to stay in a crate. Ms. Harkoff has just ordered a crate, but she’s not sure if he’ll be comfortable in it.

“My husband said, ‘We should just put you in the crate with him and you’ll be fine,’ ” she quipped.

Their pre-show to-do list included having Cowboy’s nails buffed with a Dremel rotary tool for the first time.

At home earlier this week, Cowboy was hanging out with the Harkoffs’ other mastiffs, Twila and Zeus. Each dog averages about 225 pounds and Ms. Harkoff said Cowboy eats about six mugs of food per day. She first became interested in the breed in the mid-80s when a co-worker introduced her to his mastiff.

“I was kind of intrigued by their noble look,” she said. “I loved their demeanor, their size and that they’re couch potatoes.”
Cowboy, she said “Is like a kid. He’s a brat all day long, but you put him in church clothes and suddenly he behaves like an angel.”

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