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2017-02-18 09:37:10
Wealth Matters: A Good Westminster Show Dog? It’ll Cost a Lot More Than Some Kibble

For dog lovers, watching Rumor — the German shepherd named best in show this week at the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show — glide around Madison Square Garden with her owner was thrilling. They were man and dog in harmony.

But that harmony — never mind a victory at an event as grand as Westminster — does not come cheap.

Most owners spend tens of thousands in the year leading up to the competition — some breeders place the figure at more than $100,000 for certain dogs with deep-pocketed backers — to get their dog ready and recognized by the judges.

It may seem like the ultimate indulgence for the uninitiated, and it very well may be. Unlike with racing horses, another favored investment for animal lovers of means, there isn’t even a guarantee that winning will bring riches in the puppy world.

“It’s very unpredictable,” said Mary Wiest, who for the past 50 years has been breeding and showing Labradors from her kennel, Beechcroft Labradors in Warren, N.J. “If everything goes right, you’ll make money. But if something goes wrong, you can lose a lot.”

“In all the years I’ve been breeding, probably five of those years I’ve made money,” she said. “The rest of the time, my husband supported my hobby.”

It is the hobby aspect that attracts many of the people who watched Westminster this week. Wouldn’t it be great to be out there with your dog? It probably would. But getting there takes as much time as it does money.

The first cost is the dog itself. A purebred dog can range from $1,000 to $5,000, said Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer of the American Kennel Club. The rarer the breed, the more expensive the dog. And within breeds, dogs meant for the show ring (and not just the couch) command a premium.

As with any dog, there are also the costs of veterinary visits, shots and periodic grooming, the price of which depends on where someone lives. The same holds true for emergency care — like sock swallowing or worse — and procedures as a dog ages.

Dr. Klein cautions that paying more doesn’t ensure a great show dog. “The higher the price tag doesn’t guarantee success,” he said. “It’s what you do with the dog — it’s how they’re raised, in an individual manner. There needs to be a bond between owner and dog.”

And regardless of what someone is going to do with the dog, he said, owners need to get pet insurance: “The care we offer can be expensive.”

Then there is training and grooming. Most breed clubs offer relatively inexpensive training sessions — say $5 a class — but with a top trainer, the sky’s the limit.

With some breeds, that grooming cost is incurred even if the owner isn’t showing the dog.

Take the Puli, a dog bred for sheep herding, whose fur grows into tight cords that hang to the ground. As those cords begin to come in after the puppy stage, the owner needs to pull the hair apart and knead it into shape, or else the cords will grow together in a tangled clump or puff out like a balloon.

Julie Schuh, the corresponding secretary of the Puli Club of America, said the time between one and two years is the most labor-intensive for an owner. Someone should sit with the dog for at least 20 minutes every day, pulling the fur apart, she said.

But that is nothing compared with the time and cost of bathing these giant mops. Ms. Schuh said a bath takes about 45 minutes, a lot of that time spent rubbing shampoo into the cords and rinsing it out. Then comes drying: Sometimes a Puli will sit in a crate, being dried, for eight hours or longer, if it’s humid.

“If you don’t dry them, it’s like when you leave your clothes in the washing machine and forget about them,” she said. “When you go back the next day, they smell musty.”

Ms. Schuh, who works for an electrical contactor in Appleton, Wis., said she sometimes leaves her show Puli in the crate while she’s at work, dryers on.

The shows themselves aren’t overly expensive, around $30 for a one-day affair. “When you have two to three days of shows, those fees add up,” said Betsy Conway, president of the Otterhound Club of America and a former best-in-breed winner at Westminster. “Then you have your travel expenses, hotels and meals. And if you decide to hire a professional handler to show your dog rather than do it yourself, those costs add up.”

Ms. Conway said a handler for a regular show costs $100 to $125, plus travel expenses. For a big show like Westminster, fees rise to $500 to $1,000. If they win, the handlers’ contracts stipulate bonuses. And since the sport rarely pays prize money — and when it does, those prizes are typically a few thousand dollars — those bonuses are borne by the owner.

The almost unbounded expense for a show dog is what is known as a campaign. This encompasses the time and big money spent flying a dog around the country to top shows and buying advertising in dog magazines to brag about an animal’s success. The practice, which has the whiff of pay-to-play, inspires disapproval among some breeders.

“It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the top dog,” said Kim Vavolo, who has been breeding and showing American cocker spaniels for 22 years. “You’re paying your handler to fly all over the country. It could cost you $1,500 a week to advertise your dog in the all-breed magazines. And that’s to bring your dog to the attention of other judges. Me as a breeder, owner, handler, I don’t have the kind of funds to do that.”

She said she had helped clients with campaigns for dogs they bought from her, to the tune of $1,500 to $1,800. “My dogs usually sit in the shadows of my clients,” she said.

A well-planned and costly campaign doesn’t mean success. Unlike horse racing, where the fastest horse wins the race, dog showing is more like ice skating: It comes down to the judge’s opinion.

One of the big upsets at this year’s Westminster show involved Preston, a Puli who is ranked No. 1 out of all breeds in the country. He came in as a heavy favorite to win it all, having accumulated more points from shows last year than any other dog. He finished second in the herding group — albeit to Rumor, who won best in show.

“It’s up to the judge, and the judge’s eye,” said Ms. Schuh, who is friends with Preston’s owners. “All those dogs are great show dogs. Sometimes it just comes down to personal taste.”

Ms. Wiest said she spent between $27,000 and $30,000 on a campaign for Baccara, who was the No. 1-ranked Labrador in 2014. Going into Westminster, the dog was a favorite to do well. But she didn’t even win her breed.

Two years earlier, Ms. Wiest had a male named James who won his breed and placed fourth in the sporting group at Westminster. She spent less time and money shuttling him around the country to shows filled with all the breeds than she did with Baccara.

“A Labrador hadn’t placed in group in years and years and years,” she said. “It wasn’t our win. It was the Labrador community’s win.”

And as show dog people say, the point of all of this is to highlight their breeding stock and bring attention to the dogs they love. It had better be.

Winning best in show at Madison Square Garden comes with no prize money, but it did get Rumor a polished pewter bowl from the Westminster Kennel Club.