It’s a dog’s world

When people think of dog shows a certain image comes to mind: prim pure-bred dogs prancing around a ring, led by stuffy old men and women. Senior Kelli Denton broke that mold when she took Best in Breed for her Keeshond, Journey, at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show this year.

Denton has been showing dogs for nearly half her life — starting with a 2003 dog show in Salina, Kan. — and winning numerous awards for her showing skills and exemplary dogs for almost as long. In Dec. 2011 she won Best of Breed at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, one of the most prestigious dog shows in the country. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 she won the Central Region’s Top Junior Handler, which is an invitational show held each spring where 9-year-olds through 18-year-olds from across the country compete for college scholarships. Denton was the first person ever to win the award more than once.

“Last fall I finished the qualifications to put my dog Journey in the Keeshond Hall of Fame,” Denton said. “ like the Baseball Hall of Fame; there are criteria to be met, and it takes several years to accomplish.”

The “criteria to be met” is set by parent clubs that come up with a standard for each breed, detailing what the ideal dog should exemplify. According to, for Keeshonden (the plural of Keeshond), the breed standard is extremely detailed. For instance, the height must be 18 inches for males and 17 inches for females, the eyes should be almond shaped, they should have a “strong” chest, the tail should be tightly curled over the back and the neck should have a “mane.” Another important factor for judges is whether or not the Keeshond has “spectacles” (markings/shading going from outer eye corners to ears) on their face. Along with having the right look, the dog must be lively, intelligent and affectionate — beauty pageant requirements have nothing on dog shows.

“At each show, the judge critiques the dogs based on how close they are to the standard, or how closely they resemble the ‘perfect’ dog of that breed,” Denton said. “The judges don’t necessarily tell you why you win, so I assume they chose Journey because he was the best representation of the breed.”

Denton has been showing Journey, born April 19, 2008, for three years. Her mother chose to own Keeshonden after playing with some during a visit to the Kansas City dog show. Denton’s family has always been interested in the dog show world, which is one of the main reasons she got into competing.

“Growing up my family watched the Westminster Dog Show and went to the local Kansas City dog show as spectators every year,” Denton said. “When I was 8 I saw the kids showing in Junior Showmanship and I told my parents that I would like to get involved in this.”

After showing an interest, Denton’s parents decided to support her dog show dream. For her ninth birthday she received a retired show dog and began showing through the Johnson County 4-H dog club.

“I enjoyed competing and was successful, so after my tenth birthday I started showing in AKC (the American Kennel Club),” Denton said.

The path to the AKC Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, though, is difficult and a bit confusing. The top five dogs of each breed are invited to compete, otherwise any dog who has won the breed Championship (called conformation) may enter. The way to earn this distinction consists of dogs competing in several dog shows, compiling enough points, and then going to a Conformation Dog Show. It’s an extremely complex process for those not involved in dog shows to grasp. Once a dog reaches the Westminster Dog Show winning becomes less complicated.

“The competition runs similar to a bracket. Within each breed people compete with their dog to win Best of Breed, is what I won with Journey. From there, each breed winner moves on to compete in their group (i.e. Non-Sporting) in the evening,” Denton said. “The groups are televised. Then from the groups there are four winners chosen, though only the first place of each group moves on to Best in Show.”

At Westminster Denton competed with about 15 other Keeshonden, but this year she had an edge, as last year Journey was ranked No. 4 in the United States. Rankings are based on the number of dogs defeated. To prepare for competition with these dogs, Denton goes through a specific procedure.

“In order to prepare for a show, during the week I condition Journey. I groom and brush him a few times a week, and occasionally I will take him to a friend’s training class in Lenexa,” Denton said. “The day of the show I probably spend about two hours grooming Journey — I mostly use a special pin brush, water and a little hair spray. As far as preparing myself, I just have to get dressed — a blazer, a knee length skirt, pantyhose and dress shoes that I can run in.”

Denton has competed in Westminster before in the Junior Competition so she knows what to expect. Nonetheless, the experience is still staggering.

“Every time is just as exciting as the first; the atmosphere of Madison Square Garden is a little intimidating,” Denton said. “There is so much history and prestige at this show that it is always an honor to compete there.”

This year Denton and Journey won their most awe-inspiring and prestigious award yet, the Best in Breed at Westminster. However, prepared as she was, Denton wasn’t expecting such an honor.

“Journey had actually been misbehaving in the ring while we were showing, so I almost didn’t believe that we won when the judge pointed to us,” Denton said. “I think I bent down and gave Journey a treat and hugged some of the competitors around me.”
And despite competing against these ‘stuffy old men and women’ who have years and years of experience, Denton definitely proved herself.

“Many times I find that people do not take me seriously  — they think I am ‘just another junior’ — and they underestimate my potential,” Denton said. “I think in the past few years, my success with Journey has helped me gain the respect from other competitors. One of my goals with Journey is to eventually win a Best in Show. Other than that, my plans are undecided since I will probably not show dogs while I am in college.”

by Hayley Battenberg

Research by Ashlee Crane and Paige Waltman