Close X

My Shelter Dog Got Invited to Westminster!

Everyone thought Gabriel was a mutt, until a passerby identified him as a rare Kooikerhondje; soon, we were taking part in "Meet the Breeds."

Priscilla Eshelman  |  Feb 19th 2015


Some no doubt consider me a crazy dog lady, as I have built my adult life around making my canine companions happy. Dog-friendly vacations. A dog bed in every room, mostly unused as the dog lounges on the couch. Social invitations that usually include dogs. Planning my errands around the stores my dog likes to visit. As many walks and adventures as desired, play dates, agility — anything and everything to make my dog self-actualized. My dog’s raincoat is far more stylish than my own. I even channeled and self-published my beloved late dog Annabelle’s thoughts on life in New York City.

I have adopted four dogs in my life, three of them adults, and all, I thought, were mixed breeds. With each I have wondered about their history. How did they come to be in a shelter? How old are they? And most of all, who owned them?

My current canine pal, Gabriel Byrne (named by his rescue group), has been a real mystery. He doesn’t look like any one common breed; I’d thought him to be from a long line of randy mixed breeds (he, too, was unfortunately and irresponsibly “intact” when picked up as a stray). In fact, I’d had in the back of my mind as a party theme to “guess Gabriel’s DNA,” at which I’d reveal test results to acclaim and surprise.

He was listed on Petfinder as an Australian Shepherd mix. I immediately loved his hopeful, resilient expression. “It was a Match.com moment,” I’ve said. (At least he used a current photo.)

Someone loved Gabriel and trained him well. Although I didn’t ask him to so much as sit for the first year I had him, it became apparent in his first class that he was thoroughly trained, even with hand signals. How did he end up in a high-kill shelter? With his warm, loving personality, it’s not too surprising that three different rescue groups — Dog Bless, Pilots and Paws, and See Spot Rescued — as well as a loving foster mom worked together to make him one of the lucky ones to find a new home.

When a passerby recently stopped my dog walker to ask about Gabriel, it started a wondrous journey I couldn’t have foreseen or dared to dream. In one month, my goofball has morphed from estimated “West Virginia fence jumper” to likely Kooikerhondje, a rare Dutch dog of ancient lineage. The Kooikerhondje Club of the USA (KCUSA) has shown themselves to be remarkably open-minded and open-hearted; they bestowed upon us the high honor of joining the pack in their booth at Meet the Breeds at Westminster. Yes! “Gabriel was invited to Westminster,” I have exulted to both friends and strangers. “I can’t help but look at him differently,” a friend said.

Seeing him engage with other Kooikers has been the greatest joy of all. On our first walk with two others, he positively trumpeted, “We are here!” over and over again. Imagine the relief of being really understood after years of obscurity.

Meet the Breeds was held on a freezing cold New York day, but it felt as magical to me as a beach in St. Tropez. When we arrived at the venue, I beseeched Gabriel to pose nicely on a snow drift with the “Welcome to Westminster” signage behind him, but he was too anxious to get inside. He could already tell this would be a day like no other.

We excitedly walked through the great halls where dogs were showcased like gems. Gabriel could tell this was a place where dogs are exalted. When we got to the Kooikerhondje booth, he reacted like a kid at the gates of Disneyland. Where to go first?! He fondly greeted each fellow Kooiker and again started crowing, “This is my town, these are my people.” The other Kooiker owners greeted us warmly, and the KCUSA former president expertly apprised Gabriel from tip to tip, pronouncing, “If he’s not 100 percent, he’s darn close.”

As I watched Gabriel engage with the other dogs and later greet hundreds of people who came to our booth, I was as proud of him as if he’d toddled through Swan Lake. He thoroughly enjoyed his role as Kooikerhondje emissary, and was as happy as I’ve ever seen him. I felt immense satisfaction that I had made this extraordinary opportunity happen for him. (I have all the makings of a Stage Mother from Hell, I’m afraid.)

There is no DNA test that can prove Gabriel is pure Kooikerhondje, but his looks and behavior fit. He intently watches birds fly, and he has the enormous white tail Kooikers historically used to lure ducks. He grooms himself like a cat. He splays completely flat to relax. And he will hardly leave my side.

It’s all the more remarkable the KCUSA has embraced Gabriel because he seems to be a sort of “missing link.” Gabriel is not descended from the line of known Kooikerhondjes, a breed brought back from the brink of extinction after WWII. Did a Dutch war bride bring a breeding pair with her to America? Could West Virginia, with its large population of Dutch settlers, still house a Dutch colony, living in the traditional ways? His dashing asymmetrical facial markings are not the breed standard, but I’ve been told he has an Old Country look about him.

In an effort to tidy his appearance, I’d ignorantly cut long hair from his ears — these “earrings” are a distinguishing breed characteristic, and I’m now rather urgently brushing them in an effort to regrow (um, Dance Moms much?). He’s about five pounds heavier than the breed standard, and if that’s not a good reason to lose weight, I don’t know what is.

Animal shelters are filled with remarkable dogs, and there’s no shortage of purebreds. That alone doesn’t explain my deep pride. My delight comes from the unexpectedness of it all, and from his redemption. Don’t we all want that ourselves?

It seems to me Gabriel’s tale is intrinsically American. We love to see underdogs triumph, and certainly to be invited into the company of kings at Westminster is that.

Perseverance counts for a lot. We’re a nation of immigrants. Our vastness is wondrous and still holds secrets. My greatest hope remains finding his former owners and letting them know he lives on, happily.

Read more about the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club dog show:

About the author: Priscilla Eshelman finds dogs to be more admirable than people by virtually every measure (alas, our opposable thumbs give humans an edge); so unsurprisingly she’s been acting as a sort of dog valet her entire life. When not working to keep the Internet free with advertising, she can likely be found on marathon dog walks in Central Park. Read her book on Manhattan as seen through a dog’s eyes, When Annabelle Moved to the Big City, perhaps the first children’s book in which a dog goes to a liquor store for a biscuit.