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Croghan has a top dog at Westminster show

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CROGHAN — An area small-town dog was named best of breed at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday.

Owner, breeder and handler Catherine E. Lewandowski, of Soft Maple Curly Coated Retrievers in Croghan, entered on the last day after being persuaded by the owner of the top-rated curly coated retriever in the United States and Canada.

“I did not think we had a chance at winning breed and going to the group ring at such a prestigious show,” Mrs. Lewandowski said.

But her inaugural showing at the top dog competition went better than expected with 18-month-old Dana.

Mrs. Lewandowski said she believes she was one of the only breeder-owner-handlers in the sporting group.

“Most of the dogs were shown by the top professional handlers in the business,” she said.

“When we won the breed, it was unreal,” she said.

She credits the win to Dana’s great condition, since she gets a lot of exercise in the woods near their Soft Maple Road home.

Judges check the dog’s teeth and expression, feel the dog’s structure and the texture of the coat and watch how the dog moves. Curlies were bred as hunting dogs, and should be athletic looking. Attitude also is considered in the judging.

“This show is huge, with a lot of stress, but she took it all in stride. Her tail never stopped wagging in the ring,” Mrs. Lewandowski said.

Mrs. Lewandowski, a clinical analyst at Lewis County General Hospital, Lowville, began showing dogs at age 15 with her family Irish setter, training with Jefferson County 4-H Junior Showmanship classes and the North Country Kennel Club obedience classes.

She and her husband, Mark, have bred dogs at their Soft Maple kennel since 1979 and became active with curly coated retrievers in 1993.

Tuesday was a long day for both dog and owner. The showing for the curly coated retrievers was at 10 a.m. Then, since it is a benched show, the dogs were on display from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Piers in a purple and gold booth.

“Thousands of dogs stay for the public to see, and waves and waves of public keep pouring in,” Mrs. Lewandowski said.

The top dogs in each breed left at 3 p.m. to compete again in the best of group at Madison Square Garden.

“Most of the pro handlers have an entourage of helpers and groomers. Since I didn’t have an entourage of my own, some of the competitors we had just beaten helped me get my equipment, dog and crate to the Garden,” Mrs. Lewandowski said.

Once at Madison Square Garden, they again waited in the benching area until the live television airing of the show began.

“The size of the arena, all carpeted in green, lined with purple and gold banners and flowers, was overwhelming,” she said. “I have watched it on TV every year, but standing there was so emotional. The show flew by. I was hoping I wouldn’t pass out! I could hear the announcer talking about my breed as I went around the ring. Dana kept wagging her tail. I looked up once and saw us on the Jumbotron. It was unreal.”

An Irish water spaniel won the sporting group.

Dana and the other breed winners and their people were given the royal treatment, with photographs and petting of the dogs.

“I am glad Dana can’t write, or they would have wanted her autograph,” Mrs. Lewandowski joked. “It is an experience I will never forget.”

She said she and her husband chose to breed curlies because they were “looking for a versatile wash-and-wear breed that wasn’t overbred for popularity.” Also, Mr. Lewandowski wanted a dog to hunt with. “The curly was just what I was looking for: a dog I could do obedience, agility, field work, show and be a member of our family,” she said.

According to their website, Soft Maple-bred and/or -owned curlies hold more than 150 titles in conformation, field, obedience and agility, with more than 20 group placements, including three best-of winners and four awards of merits at National Specialty dog shows. Soft Maple Curly Retrievers bred the first championship-titled curly to achieve a master hunter title —“proving that the dogs could have beauty and brains,” said Mrs. Lewandowski, a National Clubs breeder of the year award winner.

What’s up next for the best of breed winner? Finishing up the Grand Championship title through the American Kennel Club and some agility and higher obedience titles, Mrs. Lewandowski said.

“The judge complimented her and told me, with the right professional handler who could get her a sponsor, that she could go far. But I could never send her out on the road with a handler for months at a time. I have been the breeder of the number one female in the nation before, and know how much money it took the owners to get her to that level. I know Dana is great, but she is just going to have to settle for being great on my couch, and not in the limelight.”

To see Dana in action at the Westminster show, visit http://www.westminsterkennelclub.org/videos/Breed%20Judging/2014/Sporting/pid:I0RSjCzd4Ofz. Mrs. Lewandowski is wearing purple with a number 12 armband.

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