How would you like to wake up every morning and see that special character in your life smiling at you and saying this is going to be a great day? It doesn't get any better than that, does it?
For Scott Sommers, a Houston professional dog handler, that's been the scenario ever since JR, a 15-pound bichon frise, moved into his house about two years ago. But the story gets better!
JR, who goes by the name Champion Special Times Just Right!, was top dog at the world's most prestigious dog fest, the Westminster Kennel Club show in Madison Square Garden in New York, where the three-year-old bichon frise won the coveted best-in-show title.
When the judge named JR the winner for 2001, the bichon ran around the garden waving to the crowd. "When he's happy, that's just one of the things he likes to do," Sommer said.
JR's achievement marked the first best-in-show victory for his breed.
Six of the seven finalists in the competition represented breeds that had never won at Westminster: a Kerry Blue terrier, a shih tzu, a flat-coated retriever, a Pembroke Welsh corgi and a bloodhound, in addition to the bichon.
The competition was fierce. Five of the seven dogs were ranked in the top 10 in the country in 2000 by Dog News, an industry publication.
Depending on which points standings you read, JR, the nation's No. 1 showdog, piled up approximately 124,000 points last year, compared to the 78,000-plus of runner-up Champion Charing Cross Ragtime Cowboy's, a shih tzu.
"I've had many good dogs," says Sommers, 37, "but none like JR. He's always happy and I try to let it rub off on me. He's one of those dogs a professional handler dreams about. Not only is he a great representative of his breed, he loves to show, too. He thrives on the atmosphere, is a super traveler and loves being around people." (JR travels in a small crate beneath Sommers' seat on airflights.)
JR Like a Normal House Pet
Outside the ring, JR is just like any other house pet, Sommers says. He sleeps on his handler's bed, he loves treats, he plays with his many toys and other animals, too.
As a show dog, the 3-year-old white puffball must be bathed before each event. One of his little idiosyncrasies is leaping onto the hotel bed and sitting atop the pillow when it's bath time.
"It's a game with him," laughs Sommers. "I wonder if he thinks I won't find him because he and the pillow are both all white? I don't think so."
Attitude and endurance go paw-in-paw on the long show circuit. And seldom has JR's trademark funny face been missing. "He's always upbeat and a consistent performer," says Sommers. "He's everything you could want in a show dog, plus he has charisma."
JR the Crowd Favorite
JR has been a crowd favorite at virtually every show stop. "While he wins the crowd over," adds Sommers, "good judges don't let that affect their decision. They are judging the animal against the standard."
During JR's incredible run last year, he became the top winning bichon of all time. His bests-in-show total is 96. In 2000, he won an incredible 158 non-sporting group competitions of 167 entered and moved on to take best-in-show 77 times.
He hasn't let up this year, either. In his first dozen outings, he won the non-sporting group title each time and walked away with best-in-show on six occasions.
Many handlers would opt to rest a No. 1 dog like JR before showing at pressure-packed Westminster. But JR responds better to being campaigned steadily. "He's tireless," says Sommers. "If I kept him home for two or three weeks before the Garden, he'd become restless and wondering, what's up."
The Hype of Westminster
While Sommers was attempting to put aside the hype and pressure of Westminster, he admits, it's an intoxicating blend of tension and passion.
"It's a special place and carries with it an incredible amount of prestige," Sommers says.
JR is owned by Cecilia Ruggles of Ridgefield, Conn.; the breeder Eleanor McDonald of Scarsdale, N.Y.; and Flavio Werneck of Argentina.