Dog Show Fancy

When it comes to judging at Westminster, this Virginian gets our vote for Best in Show.

     It isn’t every day that you receive a letter in the mail from the Westminster Kennel Club extending an invitation to judge their Best of Sporting Group at the prestigious All Breed Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. But two years ago, Karen Wilson, 72, of Slate Mills, received just such a letter.

     Wilson, an approved American Kennel Club (AKC) judge in the sporting, hounds and terriers groups, has judged all over the U.S. as well as in Canada, Australia, China, Brazil and Denmark, and was delighted by the invitation to judge the 137th annual show. Though it wouldn’t be the first time the veteran would judge at Westminster—she had judged in four previous years—this was her first invitation to judge the Best of Group.

     “It is quite an honor,” says Wilson, a tall, striking woman with a warm demeanor, “and it’s live television, which is scary because you have to manage a timeframe in addition to your judging responsibilities. You only get two minutes per dog, tops, and you have to be aware of everything around you, not only the dog you are watching.”

     On Tuesday, February 12th, Wilson, dressed in a blue lace evening gown befitting the formality of the final nights of competition for the second-longest continually held sporting event in the U.S. (preceded only by the Kentucky Derby), took to the center of the ring to cast a critical eye on the best of 30 different breeds. They included some of America’s most popular like the golden and Labrador retrievers, whose trainability, loyalty and eagerness to please make them perennial favorites, the gentle and devoted cocker spaniel, and more obscure breeds like the vizsla, a hard-working pointer-retriever, and the wirehaired pointing griffon, whose rough coat allows it to excel in the field and in the water.    

     Wilson admits to being nervous leading up to a high profile judging assignment like Westminster, but says that once she is in the ring and on task, it’s all about the dogs: “The nerves disappear, and your knowledge fuels confidence.”

     In the end, Wilson awarded the honor of Best of Sporting Group to a German wirehaired pointer, GCH Mt. View’s Ripsnorter Silver Charm, owned by Victor Malzoni Jr. of São Paulo, Brazil, and handled by Phil Booth of Blue Rose Kennels in Fowlerville, Michigan. Registered show names are often long and complicated-sounding to outsiders looking in, but to seasoned dog show exhibitors, a name tells the story of a dog’s origins. A prefix designates a title which has been earned through showing such as “GCH” or “Grand Champion” and the name will often have the breeder’s kennel such as “Mt. View’s” followed by a combination of the sire and dam’s show names.

     “This year’s sporting group was one of the best groups I have had the pleasure and honor to judge,” Wilson recalls. “If you read and study the breed standard and apply it to this year’s group winner, he is all that you would desire of the German wirehaired pointer.” According to the AKC breed standard that means a “well-muscled, medium-sized dog of distinctive appearance,” whose most distinguishing characteristics are “its weather-resistant, wire-like coat and its facial furnishings.”

     With the judges asked to keep their cut—a final round of selections prior to the placing—to no more than eight dogs, the pressure is on to make a quick decision. Each breed has a written standard and judges are expected to evaluate the dogs against that standard as it relates to temperament, conformation and showmanship.

     While it may appear straightforward to audience members, judging in the ring is incredibly difficult. Judges give each dog their undivided attention during their two minutes in the spotlight, but as a result cannot see the other dogs at all times; sometimes things are missed. Wilson explains that spectators sitting in the stands would have the vantage point to see if a dog is standing cow-hocked—a conformation flaw—waiting in the line up on the perimeter of the ring, something the judge who is evaluating another dog might not see.

     Wilson and her husband Gary, who are both from California, first got into working with dogs in 1965 when they saw an ad in the paper for an obedience trial. The family’s passion for the sport took off when Gary bought an Airedale terrier and Karen bought an Irish setter and they joined an obedience club. They began showing in conformation shows, or “breed” shows, in which a judge evaluates dogs against the breed standard as defined by the AKC.

     “That was truly the beginning of this whole hobby,” says Karen. “To this day, the Irish setter holds a special place in my heart.” Ever the consummate judge, she adds, “However, if I’m judging one, it’s got to be spectacular.”

     When Gary’s job with the U.S. Forest Service relocated them to Manassas in 1969, they continued showing their dogs. Their two young daughters Teresa and Tamara, who were 8 and 9 years old at the time, also participated in junior showmanship and the family traveled to not only the local shows, but also to shows in Pennsylvania and New York.

     In 1970, the family bred their first litter of Irish setters and named their kennel “Karengary.” Their puppies would go on to great success in the show ring earning many championships; CH Karengary’s Classic was one of the top male Irish setters in the country during the 1980s.

     In a sport where owners are not always so hands-on—in many cases, show dogs live with their professional handlers—the Wilsons did it all. “We were the owners, handlers and breeders,” says Wilson.

     In 1976, after Karen developed back problems, her doctor told her that if she wanted to continue to show dogs, a smaller breed would be a better choice. That’s when she bought her first Cairn terrier, which is known for its small size, lively personality and desirability as a family pet.

     Wilson admits that at one point, the family had 24 personal dogs in their kennel, many of which included puppies, even though they were only actively showing three to four dogs.

     “For us, our dogs were part of our family,” says Wilson, “you keep them forever, even after their show careers are over. They were our pets.”

     Wilson began judging in 1991, but came to it in a roundabout way. Her daughters were very involved in competitive gymnastics throughout high school and college, and Wilson began judging their competitions. This experience eventually led her to dog shows, which, she says, felt like a natural evolution for someone who loves to learn.

     “When I was a competitor, I loved the competitive atmosphere,” explains Wilson. “As a judge, it’s exciting to be always searching for that special dog that fits the written standard of that breed.”

     To become an AKC-approved judge, one must have owned and exhibited dogs for at least 12 years and have bred five litters of puppies, four of which must have become champions. Rigorous training is followed by testing and in-the-ring assessment of performance as a provisional judge. Once approved by the AKC, judges must complete continuous education seminars every three years. There are 3,000 AKC-approved judges in the U.S.

     But for Wilson, judging is not just about conformation and show-day excellence. “Sportsmanship is very important on the part of the owner and handler. We all compete to win, but I feel strongly that we need to be equally gracious with our wins and our losses.”

     Like many competitive sports where awards are based on a person’s opinion, the dog show world is not without politics. Once the judging assignments are announced, the campaigning often begins. Wilson says that despite her excitement at being invited to judge the Best of Sporting Group at Westminster this year, she had to keep her judging assignment a secret until 10 months before the competition due to the potential political maneuverings that accompany campaigning a show dog at the top level. Wilson is quick to point out that displays of poor sportsmanship make a lasting impression. (Once, a handler was not pleased with his ribbon and snatched it from Wilson’s hands during an awards ceremony.)

     But after nearly 47 years in the dog show world, having judged at all three of the major dog shows in the U.S. and many more abroad, Wilson remains passionate about her sport. She travels from her home, which sits on a mountaintop in Culpeper County and is filled with the memorabilia of a life devoted to dogs, an average of two weekends a month to judge shows, and has several international assignments on the calendar.

     When her schedule allows, Wilson, a grandmother to 11 and a great-grandmother to one, has judged baked goods, jams and jellies, quilting and needlework at the State Fair. “I love to sew, cook and garden,” she says, but most of all, “I love to learn, and dogs can teach us a lot about life.”

     What does Wilson say she has learned from dogs? “Patience, compassion and a generosity of time and self,” she answers. “I always told people who bought one of my puppies that they should raise their dog just like their children with a lot of love, discipline and compassion. If you give love and compassion to a dog, they give it back in spades.”

For a complete list of Virginia’s winning dogs at Westminster this year, go to

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