Best in Show
Escondido’s own Michael Dougherty is top dog at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Michael Dougherty and his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Jackie, at Vintana in Escondido. Right: At his own pet resort with two German Shepherds
Just shy of two years ago, Michael Dougherty received a letter in the mail that sent him to his knees. He handed it to his wife, saying, “Can you please read this, because I cannot believe what I am seeing here.” After 50 years in the world of dogs, he had been asked to judge Best in Show at the 137th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden on February 11 and 12, 2013.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t even dare to imagine, as it’s the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, and Miss America pageant rolled into one in the dog world. Having spent most of my life in dogs, this is an unparalleled invitation,” Dougherty says.
Dougherty’s family started raising purebreds back in 1961. “We had Whippets, Miniature Schnauzers, Smooth Fox Terriers, and Keeshonden. The whole family caught the dog show bug. My father, Jack, became a handler, and mom groomed the dogs; I started in Junior Showmanship at age nine. My father taught me how to keep the dogs relaxed and responsive; I loved being in the ring. So it was a family affair from the beginning.”
When the Doughertys found themselves with too many Schnauzers for their residential home, they bought a property in Lemon Grove that evolved into the third largest kennel in San Diego back in 1963. “We’d show our own dogs, but then others asked us to show their dogs, so my dad got licensed by the American Kennel Club and became an All Breed Handler. I was his apprentice,” Dougherty says.
Michael Dougherty at Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2011 with a winning Miniature Wirehaired Dachshund.
The family rose to great success traveling the country, often handling 18 to 20 dogs per show. As a runner who loved the racing breeds, Dougherty favored Whippets as his breed of choice. He put himself through college at USIU (now Alliant International University) in Scripps Ranch with funds from showing dogs professionally. After graduating, Dougherty landed in Los Angeles in literary public relations, working for the preeminent book publicist Jay Allen for 25 years, but continued to show dogs when he could. Even when his father retired from the ring and sold the kennel, Dougherty remained committed, though he shifted his sights from handling to judging.
In 1987, he got his first license to judge the Hound group, and now, 25 years later, he’s received the ultimate honor. On February 12, a tuxedo-clad Dougherty will enter the center ring at Madison Square Garden, where the final seven of some 3,200 dogs who have won their breed category will wait for him to decide their “Best in Show” fate before a sell-out crowd and three million television viewers.
During this prestigious dog show—the second oldest continuously running American sporting event after the Kentucky Derby—each of the 187 breeds and varieties is judged against its own standard of excellence. “We judge on form and function, gait, showmanship, charisma, grooming, and details like number of teeth, shape of the eyes, proportion, and texture of coat. It is so detailed.”
What follows after the pinnacle event of his career? “My wife, Michelle, and I have a family-run facility called The Windsong Resort for Pets on three acres in Escondido which keeps us very busy,” Dougherty says. “And I’ll keep judging. I’ve already got stops scheduled in Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul.”