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The experience (and expense) of a trip to Westminster


There’s the life of Riley, a phrase that conveys fine living. Then there’s the life of Jack, a piebald French bulldog from West Des Moines, whose expenses this year will outpace those of most American households.

Jack, a champion whose formal name is Pudgybull’s Jill’s Jack of My Dreams, won an award of merit last month at the Westminster Kennel Club competition at Madison Square Garden, the most important show in the United States and one of the most prestigious worldwide.

That Jack, who will be 2 years old in June, would turn out to be such a strong competitor was a large stroke of genetic luck. How he got to Westminster, and the efforts his owners are currently making to get him there again, is a story of determination and the desire for a unique experience. It also involves plenty of money.

“I was just happy to go,” said Jill Neidig, who co-owns Jack with her husband, David, and the dog’s breeder, Marilyn Burdick. “I never dreamed he would place.”

The award of merit is the recognition typically given to the third-place dog in a breed. There can be more than one award of merit given at a show, depending on how many dogs are in the contest. At this year’s Westminster show, there were 25 French bulldogs and three awards of merit handed out.

The road to Westminster is tough. The top five dogs from each breed recognized by the Club earn invitations. Those are determined by the number of points earned in the prior year’s competitions, which take place nearly every weekend in cities across the United States.

Additional spots are granted by lottery. Only champions are considered. Hundreds of dogs apply for a few dozen spots. Jack earned his way to the 2003 Westminster show through the lottery. This year, his owners want him to gain entry via the show circuit.

For Jack, that means living for a year with his handler in Bixby, Okla., which can cost between $25,000 and $40,000, Neidig said. On top of that are travel expenses, and handler and entry fees for the shows, which can cost $100 each weekend.

Then there are the tens of thousands of dollars that it costs to buy advertising space in various national dog show magazines, which are closely read by dog show judges.

Subjectivity rules the world of competitive showing. A dog that takes top honors one week may go home empty-handed the next. Judges become known for their biases. Just like other sports that involve judgment, such as figure skating, well-known names have a better chance of winning blue ribbons than unknowns do.

These issues aren’t lost on dog handlers and owners, who employ a variety of tactics to boost their chances of winning. Some won’t take their dogs to shows staffed with judges who haven’t given their dogs top ratings in the past. Others stay away from crowded big-city shows, preferring to accumulate points in smaller towns where competition is lighter.

Participating in dog shows represents a lifestyle change for Neidig, who spent 20 years working as a nurse before she quit in 2000 to open a high-end store for dog and cat lovers in Valley Junction called E. Claire & Co. Her husband is an anesthesiologist at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. The couple has two children and five dogs.  

Jill and David are longtime dog lovers and had attended the Westminster show for a decade, but never thought one of their dogs would participate in the event. Having Jack in the show was a chance they felt they might not have again, so they decided to make the most of it.

“Some people ask, ‘how can you spend all this money on your dog?'” Neidig said. “Jack just turned out so nice. I don’t know if we’ll ever have such a nice dog again, so we figured we’d just go for the ride.”

Jack is getting more attention than just the dog show. Late last month, Neidig and Jack were featured on an edition of “Martha Stewart Living” that focused on the Westminster show.

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