Warm memories for past champions of Westminster
J. R. and Stump were retired housemates and congenial bedfellows in Houston who shared a singular distinction: each won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
But last September, J. R., a merry 14-year-old bichon frisé, died.
Six days later, Stump, a low-key Sussex spaniel with stubby legs and a comeback story for the ages, was gone at age 13.
Both lived with their bedmate, Scott Sommer, a veteran handler who is showing seven dogs at this year’s Westminster show, which begins Monday.
“It wasn’t one of my best weeks,” he said by telephone.
Showing and training champion dogs is a nearly relentless pursuit that bonds humans to canines; when the dogs go home with the handler and play with squeaky toys or gnaw at shoes, the ties become even closer.
“When you live with them for that long,” Sommer said, “they’re a part of your life. I mean, they went everywhere with me.” J. R., with a fluffy helmet of hair, “just loved everybody and everything and he never had a bad day,” Sommer added. “He was always up. He never stopped.”
J. R. greeted the world with his front paws waving — unless he had to walk on them.
“Stump,” he said, “was very loving and if you were in bed for three days, he’d stay with you for three days.”
In 2005, he nearly died of a bacterial infection that went to his heart; he recovered after 19 days at the Texas A&M animal hospital. Four years later, he came out of retirement. He was entered in Westminster in 2009, almost on a whim, and at age 10 became the oldest winner ever.
“I was more surprised than most people,” Sommer said.
Stump immediately retired to the happy sloth of his, J. R.’s and Sommer’s home.
In his final days, J. R. showed no signs of illness. “He woke up in the morning, acted like normal, and 45 minutes later, he was gone,” Sommer said.
But Stump wasn’t eating in his last week. “We did everything we could for him for a week, and we kept going to the vet every other day,” Sommer said. “But he just didn’t want to do it anymore, and it wasn’t much of a quality of life.” Stump was euthanized
Stump and J. R. were not the only best-in-show winners to die recently. James, an elegant English springer spaniel, passed away in May 2011. Then, last August, came the death of Rufus, a colored bull terrier and therapy dog who helped allay the fears of bull breeds.
“It hurts all of us because they were all such great champions and great representatives of Westminster,” said David Frei, the club’s director of communications and the on-air analyst for USA Network’s coverage of the show. “Sometimes these dogs live out their lives quietly and someone will say a few months after the fact that they had died some time before.”
James died at 10, four years after winning Westminster in 2007.
Teresa Patton, his owner, still chokes up when remembering him: a gentlemanly service dog who trotted beside her wheelchair-bound father, who had a neurological condition, at Alzheimer’s events; a therapy dog with the intuition to know when to sit serenely beside a trauma patient and when to be animated with children, and a show dog who loved applause.
“There are times when we can talk about him and times we can’t,” she said.
She recalled bringing James from their Virginia home to the Ronald McDonald House in Manhattan, where he eased some of the pain of one teenager.
“He didn’t make it,” Patton said, “and within days I got a copy of the memorial church bulletin with a picture of James and this young man. It just levels you to tears. You’re in the moment when you do that, and you’re happy to do this with your dog, but I had no clue what kind of impact his visits had.”
She added, “James wasn’t the only one, but it makes it personal with your dog.”
James’s last few months were difficult. He had a ruptured tumor on his spleen that was found in early 2011, prompting the removal of the spleen and the mass. Tests found that he had an aggressive lymphosarcoma. James now had cancer, like some of those he soothed in his therapy work. “His sweet children,” Patton said.
James died that May.
Rufus, with a football-shaped head, won Westminster in 2006 without the Cat in the Hat outfit he wore for therapy work. He was the first of his breed to win Westminster , a “100-year dog,” said Barbara Bishop, his co-owner.
“He loved the social life, and he loved being the center of attention,” Bishop added. “The more people made a fuss of him, the more they clapped and made noise, the more he liked it.”
Rufus, a heavy, awkward dog, nonetheless had charisma and a light touch. Like other therapy dogs, he had a sixth sense about how to temper his behavior.
“When we went to Walter Reed, he was with a freshly wounded warrior just in from Afghanistan, and he adjusted to him,” she said. “With children, they climbed all over him. He just basked in the attention.”
Bishop didn’t think Rufus would die as soon as he did, although Frei said that he had been slowing down, finding it tougher to get his footing on slippery surfaces.
“I thought we would have a little more time with him,” Bishop said. He was 12.
A month before Rufus’s death, one of his grandsons, Jefferson, came to live with her and her husband, Tom, in Holmdel, N.J.
“I think Rufus was ready to pass the torch,” she said. “He’s fun and entertaining and makes me laugh.”
~ Courtesy of The New York Times