Advice from a Westminster dog owner: Be chill

Holly Bailey

NEW YORK—Steven Sansone knows firsthand how nerve-wracking it can be to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Three years ago, he and his wife, Cynthia, competed for the first time with their giant schnauzer Baccus, who won an award of merit in his breed—a good showing for a rookie.

In the years since, Sansone, who describes himself as a rabid competitor, has settled on a Zen-like approach to the dog show experience. In short, he said, owners shouldn't take it all too seriously.

“Don’t apply logic to it. You have to do it strictly for the fun of it,” said Sansone, who is competing this week with Havannah, another giant schnauzer. (The Sansone's have a handler for the contest.) “To say you are going to win all the time, it just doesn’t happen. You are subjected to people’s opinions, and they vary. And your dog might be ‘on’ one day and ‘off’ on another. There might be better competitors at different shows. You just never know. A lot of it is out of your control.”

Sansone added, “You just have to go into it for the fun and sport, not to think you are going to achieve great success, accolades and money. In fact, I would probably put money at the bottom of the list.”

The toughest part of being the owner of a show dog, Sansone says, is that you have to be willing to be separated from your canine—especially at the height of the campaigning ahead of Westminster.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of owning a show dog is letting your dog be a dog—something Sansone advocates, even as he and his wife shell out big bucks to groom Havannah.

Between all the scissoring and clipper work, a giant schnauzer’s grooming demands are second only to poodles. But unlike some owners who treat their dogs like porcelain dolls, Sansone said, "at home, [Havannah] runs in the backyard and gets muddy and collects leaves in her coat."

Asked if that’s hard to watch, Sansone laughed.

“She’s a dog,” he replied. “We are the ones who make her a show dog. At the end of the day, she is a pet.”