A Hall County dog still is basking in the limelight after winning Best of Breed at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City last week.
Champion Kombinalong Supernitrous, better known as "Stitch," is a 5-year-old Australian cattle dog owned by Marie and Bryan Lance of Clermont.
He’s currently ranked the No. 5 Australian cattle dog in the United States, based on the number of competitions he’s won.
But the Lances, who’ve been showing dogs for more than a decade, had never sent one to Westminster before.
"He almost didn’t go," said Marie Lance. "It’s been a hard year. We’ve put so much into getting this clinic ready."
Lance, a veterinarian, is working at a practice in Gwinnett County while she builds her clinic off Dawsonville Highway. She hopes to open the new business in May.
"I couldn’t afford to go (to New York)," she said. "I just sent the dog and the handler."
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has been held for 133 consecutive years, making it second only to the Kentucky Derby as the nation’s longest-running sporting event.
The two-day competition takes place at Madison Square Garden and is one of the last remaining "benched" shows, where the 2,500 dogs are on display to the public all day except when they’re in the show ring.
"The Garden is a great place to have a basketball game, but it’s a terrible place to have a dog show," said Robbie Hughes, Stitch’s professional handler. "You’ve got between 100,000 and 200,000 people crammed in elbow-to-elbow."
For a show dog to succeed in that environment, he’s got to be able to take things in stride. Hughes said Stitch never gets stressed out by the traveling and showing.
"He’s the class clown," said Hughes. "He’ll walk up to a stranger and want them to play with him. That’s not typical of this breed. They’re usually one-person or one-family dogs."
One of the breed’s ancestors is the dingo, a wild canine species in Australia, and the cattle dog resembles a dingo except that it has a grizzled, mottled coat.
All of Stitch’s competitors were good physical specimens of their breed, because they had to have already earned their championship in order to qualify for Westminster. To win Best of Breed, one of the dogs needed to stand out from the others, and Stitch did.
"He never stopped showing," said Hughes. "He was the only dog whose tail never stopped wagging."
Westminster’s group and Best in Show judging is televised live on the USA network, but the judging for individual breeds is not. The Lances only found out their dog had won his breed when they got a phone call from the handler Feb. 9.
They did get to watch Stitch compete in the herding group that night, but they weren’t surprised when he didn’t win. No Australian cattle dog has won or even placed in the group at Westminster.
Hughes said the more eye-catching breeds tend to win in group competition. "There’s nothing flashy or fancy about cattle dogs," he said.
Instead, the herding group this year went to the puli, a Hungarian sheepdog with a dreadlocked hairstyle that makes it look like a walking mop. The puli went on to compete against the six other group winners for Best in Show, which was awarded this year to the Sussex spaniel, another rare breed.
Despite not getting a group win, Marie Lance was more than happy just to have won the breed in her first attempt at Westminster. It was something she didn’t dare dream of when she first begin showing dogs.
The Lances started out with Australian shepherds, a breed that’s slightly larger than the cattle dog and has a longer, softer coat. When they decided to branch out into cattle dogs in 2003, they went for the best they could find, purchasing Stitch from a well-respected breeder in Tasmania.
"It was a risk (to buy a dog without seeing it first), but we were delighted with Stitch," said Marie Lance. "He’s happy-go-lucky and has never met a stranger."
Stitch has spent much of the year traveling the dog show circuit with his handler. But the Lances have five other cattle dogs and four Australian shepherds to keep them company at home.
They also have a Fila Brasileiro, a 120-pound Brazilian mastiff who is retired from police work. "He’s our guardian. He watches over all the other dogs," said Lance.
In addition, their 13-year-old daughter Taylor owns a whippet, which she shows in junior handling competitions.
Their youngest daughter Annelise is just 2, but she’ll no doubt want to get involved with dogs before too long.
As for Stitch, he’ll probably retire from the "beauty contest" type of show within a year or so. But then his energy will be channeled into other dog sports.
"He already does agility, and we also want to put him in herding competitions," said Marie Lance.
And then there’s the matter of creating more little Stitches.
"He won best stud dog this year at the national specialty (an annual show only for Australian cattle dogs)," said Lance. "Winning Westminster makes him even more valuable."