Westminster Dog Show: Striker the Samoyed enjoys retirement

TORONTO — No one who watched the Westminster Kennel Club dog show last year could have missed Striker the Samoyed, a dazzling white of fluff and enthusiasm who stole the show with his ridiculous joie de vivre. Unfortunately for his fans, Striker lost in the final round, beaten by a grimly dignified hound and a jolly little French bulldog.

But have you spent the last year moping around the house, complaining about what could have been?

“Hell no,” said Judi Elford, Striker’s breeder and, along with Marc Ralsky and Correen Pacht, her co-owner. “Do you mind that it didn’t win Best Show at Westminster? As long as he gets attention, no, he won’t.”

Striker, an old dog at 6 by the show world’s harsh standards, retired last year and will not return to Westminster for this year’s competition, which began on Saturday and concludes on Tuesday night. But he’s still a champion and he’s still busy: playing, romping, posing and stripping in the house he shares with Pacht and Ralsky in north Toronto.

Samoyeds are an unusually calm breed, their owners say, and Striker is an unusually calm dog. “He wakes up happy and says, ‘Come on!’” Ralsky said. “He never has a bad day. Whatever you want to do: ‘Let’s go for a drive in the car.’ Let’s sit on the sofa. Let’s watch a movie. Let’s go buy an ice cream cone, he’s up for it.”

Striker has a special friend, a lovely Siberian husky who also shares the Pacht-Ralsky house. “She’s amazing,” Pacht said when he recently introduced her. Turns out she’s literally Stunning is her name, given by her breeder, but she’s also a bit complicated. “Siberians are put on this earth to make people alcoholics,” Ralsky said.

If Awesome is the queen of the household in the eyes of Striker, who slavishly follows her should she want to play with him, she’s happy to relinquish the celebrity spotlight. Striker is a born radio amateur who believes that he is, or should be, the center of attention at all times.

“He’s always scanning the room to see who’s watching him,” Elford said. Meeting other people as he walks, he stops to “stack,” dog show slang for posing. “He’ll think, ‘Why is everyone walking if not for me?’” Ralsky said.

In fact, when a photographer and his assistant arrived, Striker climbed onto a box in the yard and stood there in perfect show dog configuration, his fur blowing in the breeze, basking like Norma Desmond in the undivided attention of six humans. and a lot of people. Camera equipment

Elford, who raised Striker (full name: Ch. Vanderbilt ‘N Printemp’s Lucky Strike) Since I was a puppy, I always knew there was something special about him. It wasn’t just that he fit the breed standard, with his wedge-shaped head, almond-shaped eyes, powerful build, and double-textured coat; it was the addition of a certain ineffable quality.

“He’s always had that X factor,” Elford said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s the next level.”

Elford met Ralsky on the dog show circuit a few years ago, when, alphabet being what it is, his Samoyed stepped into the ring in front of his Siberian husky. Unnerved by the dazzling whiteness of his dog, Ralsky joked that he had “a can of black paint in the car and he was going to use it,” Elford said.

From that inauspicious start, a friendship was born, and then the three humans agreed to share ownership and cost of Striker. Although they might get some money for breeding Striker, it’s mostly been a waste of money proposition.

“It’s like having a kid who plays hockey or gymnastics or some other elite sport,” Ralsky said. “We would fly here or there and get up at God knows what time. The money is the same, and so is the stress: the emotional ups and downs, the wins and the losses.”

The pandemic disrupted normal dog show hours, especially for Canadians when the US-Canada border was closed. Striker lived with his controller in the United States for much of 2020 and 2021, though Elford crossed the border a couple of times using various ingenious methods, once chartering a helicopter, when restrictions were loosened.

Throughout 2021, Elford said, Striker was the top-ranked dog in the United States, despite stiff competition. “There were dogs breathing down her neck,” he said, “a Lagatto Romagnolo and a boxer dog named Wilma.” That year, with Elford secretly watching as he hid his identity behind a pair of sunglasses so as not to excite the dog too much, Striker lost Westminster by a Pekingese named Wasabi.

In 2022, he got a second chance.

First, he defeated all the other Samoyeds. Then, for the second year in a row, he won the working group, prevailing over dogs like the Doberman Pinscher and the Great Dane. (“Working dogs” were bred to do things like herding, guarding, rescuing, transporting, and hunting, though it’s fair to say that modern show dogs don’t do these things.)

Going into the best show competition, Ralsky and Pacht were nervous.

“I had a couple of Aperol spritz,” Ralsky said.

“I had quite a few,” Pacht said.

“It’s like reaching the US Open final,” Ralsky said.

When Striker came out, the crowd went wild over his cloud-like majesty and the hilarious way his tongue stuck out as he cavorted around the ring. He seemed happy to be there, which is more than can be said for some dogs. “Everyone was yelling and cheering,” Ralsky said. “It was perfection.”

“Everybody loves a Sammy,” Pacht said.

The best show judge in 2022, Donald G. Sturz, he said in an interview that he successfully shut himself out from the noise of the crowd while considering the dogs in front of him. Though she found Striker “beautiful,” she said the eventual winner, a majestically wrinkled hound named Trumpet, “gave me goosebumps.”

“He came out and planted his feet and stood there proudly and looked at me as if to say, ‘There you go,’” said Sturz, who is now the president of the Westminster Kennel Club. “And I thought, that’s my winner.”

Striker returned to Canada as a celebrity, the subject of newspaper and television profiles. A local company gave him purple and black ones. custom dog boots. He became a brand ambassador for a dog vitamin firm, earning perhaps $2,000, Ralsky said. Another deal, with a personal care products company, fell through when the brand reneged on its promise of free shampoo.

The most exciting moment came, perhaps, when his photo appeared on “Jeopardy!” and the host, Ken Jennings, greeted him. “Here’s Striker,” Jennings said, “a type of this Russian name dog that won the Westminster title in 2022 for best working group dog.”

No one got the correct answer. “What is a Bolshoi?” guessed a contestant. (Wrong! Among other things, that’s not a breed of dog.)

His owners fully admit that Striker is a spoiled child, with constant access to a full complement of gorgeous plush toys, including plush versions of things like Cheez Doodles and bottles of rosé. (“It’s very weird though,” Pacht said. “He only likes small baby toys, like he’s a baby.”)

She bathes every two weeks, a serious multi-hour chore that requires a dizzying mix of products and “a mega-force hot-air dryer,” her owners say. To protect his coat from bad weather, they make him wear a raincoat.

He gets two gummy bears for an evening snack and spends the night in his owners’ bed, touching them to get their attention.

He may be the most successful Samoyed in dog show history, Ralsky said, “but at the end of the day, he sleeps with us.”