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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Westminster Dog Show kicks off, Washington competition judge shares view from New York

Thruster, a border collie, competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in New York. (Mary Altaffer / AP)

It’s the second-oldest continuous sporting event in U.S. history, trailing only behind the Kentucky Derby, and it’s kicking off this week in New York City.

For the 142nd year running, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show convenes at The Piers and Madison Square Garden. Roughly 3,000 dogs will participate in showmanship and obedience events Monday and Tuesday, preceded by an agility contest Saturday.

Among the many judges participating in this year’s event is John Cox, a Shoreline, Washington, judge and trainer who has been presiding over dog show events for the past 40 years. Reached by phone in New York on Saturday, Cox said that, beyond its scale, there is something uniquely special about the Westminster competition.

“There’s just this tradition and heritage,” he said. “We have kennel clubs in Seattle and Spokane that date back to the ’30s, but Westminster’s history goes back to 1877.”

Cox said that, while he’s attended WKC dog shows in the past, this will be his first time there in the capacity of judge. That’s in part because the event only added a Masters of Obedience judging event – his forte – in 2016. The agility component of the completion is in its fifth year.

Mastery in the obedience category takes a great deal of work and patience, he said. More important, there’s a intangible element that all successful dog and handler pairs share – a kind of unspoken connection that links them in the moment of competition.

“You’ve got two teammates who have to communicate, and they don’t speak the same language,” he said. “So the focus has to be on teamwork, on the dog and human being willing to observe and listen to each other. There’s a kind of magic when the two develop that relationship of trust.”

Cox said he got his start in canine show business the same way a lot of the judges do – by taking a class. It was 1969, and Cox had purchased a St. Bernard. A breeder advised him that, given his pup would likely reach a weight of 175 pounds, he might want to teach it some basic manners.

After graduation, there were competitions, wins and a feeling of accomplishment, he said. One thing led to another, and by the late ’70s, he was the one sitting in the judge’s seat. He’s been presiding over dog shows since.

Even for those whose sights might not extend to podium fame in New York, Cox said dog owners who want to develop a strong foundation with their pet would do well to take a course from a professional.

“A good trainer can help you develop that bond,” he said. “And basic obedience is basically just good manners.”