When Rocket the Shih Tzu won the Toy group at Westminster, it caught the attention of national news stations that don’t usually cover dog shows. The attention wasn’t focused on Rocket, though, but one of the owners: Patricia Hearst Shaw, who some readers will recognize as the onetime infamous Patty Hearst. Most people in the dog show community already knew of Hearst’ controversial past, but it took a backseat to the dog.
Before you start forming a mental image of Hearst and Rocket sharing bon bons and long walks on the beach, you should know that big-winning dogs are just about as likely to live with their named owners as big-winning racehorses are. Instead, Hearst is one of several dog-loving people who sponsor, or back, show dogs who live with professional handlers. The dogs are “leased” by the backers for the term of their show careers, usually two or three years, and are then returned to their original owners when they retire. Hearst is best known for backing French Bulldogs, but the Rocket the Shih Tzu is her biggest winner.
Backers are the norm for dogs at the top level of competition. Campaigning a show dog to a top place in the standings is expensive. Handler fees and bonuses, travel to upward of 170 or so shows yearly, and advertising can run well over $100,000 a year, with some reports of up to $500,000. Advertising alone can run in the tens of thousands. The dogs’ pictures are featured all over the monthly and weekly glossy dog magazines that all judges receive free of charge, and the ads attempt to make judges feel they should join the crowd of other judges awarding such an obviously fine specimen. A front cover runs about $5,000 — not counting the photography.
Swagger, the Old English Sheepdog, is backed by one of the dog world’s better-known sponsors, Ron Scott. Scott started showing dogs himself, then found it was more rewarding to back top dogs. He narrowed his breed of choice to Poodles, as they have the highest-winning percentage, and Scott usually has a top one at Westminster. He branched out with Swagger. Swagger’s original owners and breeders are the Coultons, who still handle him, as they are also professional handlers. Nathan the Bloodhound is also shown by his breeders, who are also professional handlers. But his bills are paid by a backer.
No backer in the dog world compares to Victor Malzoni, though, who backs several top winners a year, including Charlie the Terrier group-winning Skye. Malzoni is a construction magnate in Brazil and has been called “the Donald Trump of South America.” He sponsored several other dogs in the Westminster show, explaining why so many dogs seemed to have come from South America. Unlike many backers, Malzoni has an active interest in breeding dogs and maintains his own kennel of show dogs in Brazil. He also backs dogs in Europe.
One of the more successful backers of recent years has been Sandra Middlebrooks, heiress to the Krispy Kreme doughnut dynasty. Despite being a fairly recent dog show participant, in less than a decade her backed dogs have won Best in Show at Westminster, the AKC Invitational, the World Show, Crufts, and Montgomery Terrier Show — in short, the shows considered the Holy Grails of dogdom.
Money and show dogs aren’t recent allies. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge (yes, the one whose Foundation you always hear about making possible NPR radio shows) maintained a kennel of hundreds of show dogs and even sponsored her own lavish dog show every year. But we expect even she would cringe at the sums spent on top winners these days.
What about Miss P the Beagle, who won Best in Show this year? She’s somewhat the exception. She’s owned by her breeders, two Beaglers from Canada, and another longtime Beagle breeder. No obscenely rich backer appears to be involved, making Miss P the financial underdog — and adding to the reason America loves her!
Read more about the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club dog show:
About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.