On Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Doyle auction house’s 10th Annual Dogs in Art Auction brunch on East 87th Street, Grinstead Lupine, a 4-year-old Sussex spaniel with a sausage-shaped belly and droopy eyes the color of maple syrup, parked himself between two antique sideboards, underneath a painting of Romans barreling through the Colosseum on snarling horses.
Two days before he was scheduled to compete against thousands of dogs for the top prize at the 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, Lupi, as he is known, was hamming it up for some of his canine competitors and their owners, who were looking at art, sipping at mimosas and nibbling on fruit muffins. He rolled on his back to receive a tummy rub from the coat-check attendant and posed on his haunches for pictures, looking like a sort of fluffy totem pole, with his paws hanging limp and relaxed from his brawny shoulders.
“He’s such a flirt today,” said Lupi’s owner, Patricia Petraglia, an auburn-haired, well-preserved 50-something wearing a simple knit dress and delicate gold necklaces. She tugged at Lupi’s leash when he lunged in lust after a golden-haired chow chow named Angel. Later, Lupi licked the pants of a young blond boy from Missouri who was in remission from leukemia. “He’s giving my pants kisses!” the boy squealed.
Ms. Petraglia and Lupi traveled just a few blocks from their Park Avenue co-op to attend the brunch, a private viewing of paintings held to benefit the Angel on a Leash program, a charity of the Westminster Kennel Club that brings dogs to provide therapeutic affection to the children’s hospital at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Lupi works as a therapy dog at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of Harvard’s teaching schools, in Boston, and the Newton-Wellesley Alzheimer’s Center outside of the city. Ms. Petraglia and her husband, Carl Yankowski, former CEO of Reebok Brand and president of Sony Electronics who now has his own technology consultancy, “divide their time,” as they say, between the New York apartment and a ranch in pastoral Dover, Mass., where Lupi can get exercise in a dog-friendly swimming pool and an obstacle course that includes weave poles, tunnels and a seasaw. Every Tuesday, he visits the ailing. “There’s a lot of ego-stroking if you’re a winner in the dog world,” Ms. Petraglia said. “If you’re just doing dog shows, spending all your time in crates and competing, there’s just no fun in it for the dog. Doing things like therapy is a way to give back.”
This would be Lupi’s second consecutive year competing in the Westminster Dog Show, the ne plus ultra in the grueling world of canine showmanship that was adroitly satirized in the 2000 Christopher Guest movie Best in Show. Last year, he didn’t make it past the first round.
The show is fiercely competitive: More than 2,500 of the nation’s top canines, from dinky Papillons to Goliath-size Mastiffs, compete, many under the ministrations of a professional handler. (Lupi’s is named Geoff Dawson.) Although it is often described as the “Super Bowl” of dog shows, Westminster is actually more like the Miss Universe beauty pageant: Looks and charm are the major weapons in the battle to win the top crown.
Dogs are judged based on written standards set by each breed’s “parent club,” describing the perfect specimen. These standards are usually based on the dog’s original purpose as sporting companions and include points on general appearance, movement and temperament, as well as physical traits. Sussex spaniels, named after the province from which they originally hailed, are bred for their long, low bodies, perfect for fetching a kill in the thick underbrush of the English countryside. They also have large heads, with a heavy, thoughtful brow. Their stubby little legs couldn’t keep pace with the other field dogs and their popularity diminished after World War II. In 1947, only 10 Sussex spaniels were registered in the English Kennel Club, and they are still considered one of the rarest breeds.
“I’m the patron saint of hopeless causes,” Ms. Petraglia said, explaining her Sussex obsession. “The judges don’t always understand Sussexes because they don’t see them often. They’re just so rare. It takes a lot of time and commitment to keep going every year, but we keep doing it because it’d be such a shame to watch this breed disappear.”
Sussexes were among the first breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, and their Spaniel forefathers were shown in the first Westminster dog show in 1877 at Gilmore’s Concert Garden, Madison Square Garden’s predecessor. Organized by a group of sporting gentlemen who met for drinks and cigars to brag about their most recent kills at the Westminster Hotel’s bar at Irving Place and 16th Street (now the Filmore New York), the first show included 1,201 dogs displaying their hunting and retrieving talents. The top prize was a pearl-handled pistol for the dog’s owner. The Westminster Kennel Club’s logo is still a dog on point, his sniff muzzle aimed at the hunter’s triumph. Over the years, sporting dogs were joined by other, less outdoorsy breeds (Chihuahuas, for example).