At the Westminster Dog Show, Flynn the Bichon Frisé’s Triumph Surprises Even His Handler

NEW YORK — Deb Cooper never guesses right. She writes for The Canine Chronicle and has been involved in the dog-show world for three decades, but you are pretty much guaranteed to lose as soon as she picks you to win. Still, when Bill McFadden and bichon frisé Flynn trotted into the ring Tuesday night for the Best in Show judging at the Westminster dog show, Cooper got the attention of McFadden’s wife, Taffe. The McFaddens hail from outside Sacramento and they were booked on early flights home the next day.

“Do you have a backup plan?” Cooper hissed at her friend.

“No,” Taffe said. There was no reason to expect this dog to win, no reason to stay in town past the morning.

Not 20 minutes later, as judge Betty-Anne Stenmark raised her arm to point at the winner, Cooper leaned over again. In her seat a few rows above center court at Madison Square Garden, she grinned. “I think you need a backup plan,” she said.

And with that, five-year-old Belle Creek’s All I Care About Is Love became Grand Champion of the 142nd iteration of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, just minutes before the clock struck Valentine’s Day. It was Flynn’s first victory at the sport’s most prestigious event, but McFadden had been there once before with Mick the Kerry Blue terrier in 2003.

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Mick’s win had come after two straight almosts at Westminster, so there was a certain relief when they prevailed. As for Flynn, “He has my heart,” McFadden says. “He is pure joy.”

The little cotton ball of a dog—bichon frisé is French for curly pet—pranced around the ring and seemed generally delighted to be there. At one point he greeted Stenmark with a raised paw, as if going in for a handshake. But the crowd favorite was surely Bean, a portly brown Sussex terrier who looked rather like the food for which he was named. He plodded happily around; at rest he often rolled backward to sit on his haunches, his little front legs waving in the air. Biggie the pug drew aws every time the jumbotron showed his smushed jowls. Ty the giant schnauzer bear-hugged his handler when he was announced as runner-up. Slick the border collie was the most athletic, Lucy the borzoi the most graceful, Winston the Norfolk terrier the cutest. They formed a pleasant cross-section of the canine world even as PETA protesters outside called on the organization to do more to promote rescues. (In seeming reference to their concerns, Stenmark opened her remarks: “I love all dogs, both purebreds and crossbreds alike, but this is a special celebration of purebred dogs, the best of the best, purposely bred by responsible dog breeders.”)

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But inside the Garden, the focus was squarely on the sport. Yes, sport—just ask Slick’s handler, Jamie Clute, who tore his right ACL and meniscus while loping around the ring at a show last spring. He doesn’t even remember which one—“I do 160 of these a year,” he explains—but the result is that he rides a golf cart or motorized scooter while Slick runs alongside him, two miles a day. Many handlers resort to doggie treadmills to keep their pups in shape. Even Bean lumbers on and gets his 20 minutes a day, just like the CDC demands.

There is a certain amount of gamesmanship at dog shows, too. Each animal is assigned a large cubby in the staging area, topped with a gold sign announcing its breed. Fans file by before the event starts, taking photos and trying to pet the athletes. Rebecca Cross, convinced that her dogs respond to crowd reaction, scrawled CLAP FOR BOPPER on the sign belonging to the Scottish terrier she bred and owns and CLAP FOR ATOM on the sign of the Westie she was handling this week. The idea spread among the terrier group; soon CLAP FOR KHALEESI appeared above the crate of the Welsh terrier, CLAP FOR STAN above that of the Staffordshire bull terrier and CLAP FOR BENJI above that of the Skye terrier.

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Flynn needed no treadmills or applause; his tiny legs, hidden by his clouds of hair, do not require the cosmetic muscle of, say, a bare-haunched boxer or bull terrier, and he is high-strung enough whether the crowd cares or not. McFadden prepared by spending more than two hours fastidiously grooming the already immaculate dog before the judging. The snipping and preening was mostly about keeping them both calm, he admitted later. He thinks he removed “no more than a tablespoon of hair.”

The chaos has not subsided just yet. They did not make it to the Best in Show party—where a security guard was assigned to keep an eye on Flynn—until well after 12:30 a.m., and the Westminster people planned to arrive at their hotel room at 6:05 to begin the press tour: Good Morning America, then trips to the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock, and eventually the traditional steak lunch at Sardi’s. McFadden knows the drill; he did this 15 years ago.

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Taffe will head home in the morning. She is an accomplished handler herself, and she is showing 32 dogs at an event in Santa Clara in two days. Their assistant Colton O’Shea has a 6 a.m. flight back to Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, where an econ midterm awaits. But first they will call United and change McFadden’s 12:45 p.m. flight. He needs to stay an extra day or two.

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