Fame, Fortune and Reality

The dogs with the biggest records are almost invariably very good, but they aren’t necessarily also the best.

By Bo Bengtson | Posted: November 3, 2014 10 a.m. PST

Ch. Altana's Mystique
AKC's all-time top Best in Show winner, German Shepherd Dog (bitch) Ch. Altana's Mystique, was almost an unkonwn. She was going to retire after a great Specialty career but no all-breed record. But Jimmy Moses "found” her and handled her to many BIS wins. Photo by Warren Cook.

A few years ago I was sitting at ringside, watching judging at a National Specialty for a breed I like but am not particularly familiar with. (If you only go to your own breed’s National, you are missing a lot, I assure you; there’s much to be gained from attending National Specialties for other breeds as well.) Scores of beautiful champions were competing for Best of Breed; an established breed expert was judging with such ring presence and authority that it was clear to anyone watching that she really knew what she was doing. Only one of the specials in the ring was known to me: a bitch that had won a large number of Best in Shows. In fact, the reason I knew this dog was that she was one of the top contenders in the all-breed rankings that year. She showed superbly and got a good look from the judge. Surely she would win?

Well, you guessed it. The famous bitch made the cut. She was one of the finalists for Best of Breed, but she did not win. I was surprised, and although I didn’t exactly assume this was a case of giant-killing, I have to admit that the thought flitted through my mind. However, when I spoke to a number of breed specialists later, the fact was established that although the famous bitch was widely admired for the good PR she made on the all-breed scene, her opponent had at least as big a reputation within the breed, and had already defeated the more famous competitor on at least a couple of occasions. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the two bitches were of about equal quality; nobody felt that the less famous one was in any way inferior to the one I knew.

That made me think a little. In our own breeds, those of us who have been around for a while and may legitimately claim to know something about these breeds are often aware that the dogs with the biggest records aren’t necessarily also the best. They are almost invariably very good: Nobody in their right mind would incur all the expense and work involved in a big-time specials career if the dog that’s at the center of attention is no good. You can fool some of the judges most of the time and most of the judges some of the time, but you certainly cannot fool all of the judges all of the time — so any dog with a really big show record can reasonably be expected to be a first-rate specimen. (Some of us may have a hard time admitting that on occasion, especially when we are defeated by that famous dog time after time, but an objective spectator who knows a thing or two will usually agree there’s a valid reason that top dogs win as much as they do.)


"Unknown" Superstars

What’s different is that there are — usually, in most breeds — a few dogs acknowledged by the experts to be of the same caliber as the super-famous, top-ranked BIS winners, perhaps even better, yet almost nobody outside the breed has ever heard of them. These dogs are owned and usually also bred by that ever-diminishing group of hardcore fanciers who are (surprise, surprise!) totally uninterested in the rankings game; people who show dogs purely because (again, surprise!) they are proud of them, go only to events they feel are important and compete only under judges whose opinions they are seriously interested in. Sometimes dogs of such outstanding quality are snapped up by a professional handler and a well-financed sponsor, and will then eventually become known to all of us — but that isn’t always the case, and the dog may remain known almost exclusively to people within that particular breed.

I can’t give you the names of many such dogs because in most breeds they are by definition unknown to outsiders, but here are a couple from the past that I just happen to be aware of. Did you know that the all-time top Best in Show winner in AKC history, the Canadian-born German Shepherd Dog (bitch) Ch. Altana’s Mystique, already had won a large number of Specialty Bests (reportedly 18), but had no all-breed record at all and was on her way to permanent retirement when Jimmy Moses "found” her? Launched on a new career at a relatively mature age (I believe she was nearly 5 years old), ‘Mystique’ ended up winning 275 all-breed Bests, as well as Top Dog of all breeds 1992 and 1993. If Jane Firestone and Jimmy had not decided on a major all-breed campaign and succeeded as magnificently as they did, long-time GSD specialists would probably still remember Mystique as a great specialty winner, but the rest of us would most likely never have heard of her.

When I was researching dog show history for my book Best in Show a few years ago, one of the most difficult chapters to write was the one about specialty winners. There is just no reliable information about which dogs have won the most at this level; even when I started digging into the data for each breed, there were no easy answers. Some breed historians keep immaculate records of the past; other breeds don’t even have a historian or any information from the past at all. That’s why I don’t know if the impressive data I came up with are in fact records or even if they still stand. However, let’s note that while both the Afghan Hound Ch. Pahlavi Puttin’ On The Ritz and the Saint Bernard Ch. Aksala’s Arie won all-breed Best in Shows, they won a lot more at specialties: 51 SBIS for the Afghan in the 1980s and early ‘90s, 49 SBIS for the Saint 2002 to 2006. I have no idea how highly ‘Arie’ is regarded among breed specialists, but certainly ‘Taco’ (as Puttin’ On The Ritz was known) is habitually mentioned among the all-time greats of his breed in spite of never appearing high in the all-breed rankings.


Ninety-One Specialty Bests!

There was a Rough Collie bitch, Ch. Shoreham Triumph Timeless (‘Mocha’), who captured even more Specialty Bests than the Afghan and the Saint: She reportedly won 91 SBIS in the late 1990s and early 2000s. ‘Mocha’ won some Groups, too, but I don’t believe she ever won an all-breed Best in Show. I could hardly believe her total number of wins when I was first informed of it, but they are well documented. If any other dog has won even more SBIS, I would be curious to hear about it; as mentioned, there is no way to maintain reliable records for every breed.

A huge number of specialty wins is not necessarily a guarantee for iconic status among the experts any more than an impressive all-breed record is — but it’s a start and a different way to measure dog show success. (The number of specialties held also varies greatly from breed to breed, so in some cases a dog would not be able to amass a great number even if it won every one held for a couple of years!) One of the weak spots in our American dog show system is that there is almost no fair way to estimate how "great” a dog is by its show wins. There are just too many shows, and building an impressive record is often as much a question of ability to cover many miles and attend hundreds of shows as anything else. Isn’t there a way that the system can be tweaked so that how often a dog is shown isn’t such a big factor in rankings success? I can think of a few suggestions and hope to return to them later.

Remember that National Specialty where I learned that the — to me — "unknown” dog was, in fact, at least as highly regarded by the breed experts as the famous all-breed winner? Something similar occurred a while ago when I was judging one of the breeds where I feel I can offer a confident opinion. My Winners Bitch was lovely; I heard later that she finished, won an occasional big Breed under a specialist judge, but was never seriously campaigned. Among the specials was a handsome dog with a huge record, any number of Best in Show wins, and beautifully shown by a professional handler. I had them go around an extra time because it was pure pleasure to watch such a handsome pair together. The dog was in my opinion marginally better than the bitch, and for that reason won BOB — narrowly. The difference in quality was so small, yet the discrepancy in their careers so large — many Best in Shows versus an occasional Breed win — that it once again brought home how basically unfair our sport can be.


Dog Shows and "Regular" Sports

However, that’s life. Dog shows aren’t that different from most other things. We like to think they are, but many other, unrelated activities that people feel passionately about are as heavily influenced by seemingly irrelevant factors as dog shows are. Take regular sports, for instance. I’m in general not a huge sports fan, but I read Sports Illustrated any chance I get because it’s simply one of the best-written, best-edited publications anywhere. Baseball analyst Joe Sheehan wrote an excellent article some time ago about the necessity of "separating man and myth,” specifically as it pertains to Derek Jeter. Sheehan agrees that Jeter’s talent is undeniable — he’s one of the greatest shortstops ever, but as Sheehan said, "the things we see in him are only in part things that are in him.” Here’s the last paragraph of the article. It’s easy to exchange a few words for the appropriate dog show expression:

"[Jeter is] one of the greatest players in history ... an essential part of the game’s story. Remember, though, that what separates the immortals from the perennial All-Stars isn’t necessarily ... any of the ineffable qualities we rush to grant successful athletes. Sometimes it’s about who drafted you, when you came up, who didn’t trade you and whether you worked for people who put you in position to succeed. Derek Jeter was great, and Derek Jeter was lucky. Acknowledging both doesn’t diminish him one bit.”

Who would have expected one of baseball’s greats to be compared to show dogs? It may seem ridiculous at first glance, but the underlying truth is the same in both cases.


From the November 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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Gayle   Valley Center, California

6/3/2015 5:06:29 AM

Good article Bo! As usual, you nailed it! Collies had a huge winner in the 80s. He was campaigned rigorously at the all breed level, but he couldn't win a specialty if his life depended on it. I was huge fan of Mocha and I think you are correct that she never won a BIS, although I think she had a couple of groups. She won our National once and a BOS another time. She remains our biggest specialty winner, male or female.

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Melian and Tiny   Etna, CA

12/10/2014 11:57:58 PM

So true. There are so many that don't show at all!

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