“I realized that I was looking at an animated art form, and it made my heart skip a beat,” Chester Township resident Elliott B. Weiss said of his first experience with the Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
At the time, the now 77-year-old New York native was just 14 years old and living in the Catskill Mountains.
Mr. Weiss, who moved to Chester about four years ago, will be judging at the 144th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for the 12th time in his career. Previously, he judged the terrier, sporting and toy groups at the show and judged Best in Show in 2010.
During the three-day show, beginning Feb. 9, he will judge the Bouvier des Flandres, briards, Old English sheepdogs and pulik on that Sunday, and he will judge the pugs, toy poodles, miniature poodles and standard poodles on that Monday. According to the Westminster, Best of Breed winners that Mr. Weiss selects will move to the Monday evening competition for the herding, toy and non-sporting groups at Madison Square Garden.
“My mother thought I was a budding artist,” Mr. Weiss recollected on how he found his passion for dog shows. “I used to get on the subway and go to an art class in Manhattan every Saturday. I hated it.” He added that he would have rather spent the days outside playing stickball with friends.
It was because of this art class, however, that he ended up visiting the 1956 Westminster show at Madison Square Garden. He said his art teacher had suggested that he attend the show to practice sketching from life.
Just a few years later, he showed his aunt’s borzoi, or Russian wolfhound, in a non-championship dog show for puppies under the American Kennel Club. While it was not the Westminster, the show gave him experience and a start.
By the time Mr. Weiss was in his second year of college for his Bachelor of Business Administration, he said he realized he didn’t want to sit behind a desk for the rest of his life and decided to take a hiatus from school.
“I said to my parents, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but I’ve got to take a break,’” he said. And while at a dog show with his aunt, he found an ad in the American Kennel Club Gazette, the AKC monthly magazine, for an apprenticeship for the late handler Ted Young, Jr. “I had no idea at the time that Ted Young was one of the top handlers in the country,” he said.
He worked with Mr. Young for more than three years. “Then I struck out and became a licensed professional handler,” Mr. Weiss said, explaining how he became an AKC-licensed handler in 1969. Before then, he became an exhibitor in 1963.
Mr. Weiss said he showed dogs professionally until 1993 and started judging in 1994. In 1985, he was voted one of the top 10 handlers in the country by Dog Fancy magazine and a survey given by the Kennel Review Magazine.
After going back to school and earning his degree, Mr. Weiss also owned his own boarding kennel and grooming shop for some time before selling it when he moved to Idaho.
In 2018, Mr. Weiss said, he had the honor of judging Best in Show for the AKC National Championship in Orlando, Florida. He said this show is every December and is the biggest dog show in North America and one only judges Best in Show for the championship dog show once.
But Westminster is by far the most prestigious show in the world, he said.
“Like in horse races, there are bigger purses than the Kentucky Derby,” Mr. Weiss said, “but everyone wants to win the roses.”
He explained that a dog must already have won a championship to be eligible and that Westminster even sends out invitations to the top five dogs in each breed to assure their participation in the show if their handlers so choose.
Currently, Mr. Weiss said he does about 35 shows a year, but is trying to cut down and limit himself to about once a month in hopes of reducing travel woes.
“Traveling is just crazy,” he said.
When asked if he had a favorite breed, Mr. Weiss candidly remarked that this was no longer the case.
“Eighty-five percent of the dogs you wind up judging, you don’t even care for,” he said. “A little knowledge is dangerous,” he added, explaining that, “someone said when you become a connoisseur, your eyes are only attracted to the best.”
He broke down the remaining 15 percent of dogs he judges, noting that the remaining are all “at least good.
“I would say 5 percent are excellent,” he continued, noting that the rare few is what makes the hassle of traveling for different shows across the country worthwhile. “What keeps you coming back is every once in a while, you see that 1 percent that makes your heart beat fast.”
The 144th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show runs from Feb. 9-11 in New York City. Daytime preliminary breed and junior showmanship judging will be held at Pier 94 in Manhattan, and the Group, Best in Show and Junior Showmanship Finals will be held at Madison Square Garden in the evening.