Meet the dogs of Westminster: Leo the Irish terrier

Holly Bailey

One in a series on show dogs and their owners.

NEW YORK—Denise Sutton had been showing her dog, Leo, a 3-year-old Irish terrier, in regional shows near her home in Chicago when her dog's handler gave her surprising news last fall.

Leo, who had won several Best of Breed and other titles throughout 2012, was now ranked in the top five of all Irish terriers in the country, the handler said—and would likely get an invitation to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

“I was really stunned,” Sutton recalled. “I had always watched Westminster on television, and I thought maybe at the back of my mind of going someday, but I was just, wow.”

Sutton is a newbie to the award show circuit. She said she had always been a “dog person” and had watched competitions on TV. It wasn't until three years ago that she got into the game with Leo, whom she has been showing since he was 9 months old.

“We kind of hit the jackpot with him,” she said. “Even when he was a puppy, I knew he had the moxie for this. He loves to be out there. He loves the attention.”

Showing Leo has been mainly a hobby for Sutton, who has a corporate job in Chicago. She said going to shows on the weekends has been “quite an education” for her, admitting there are “definitely some crazy people” in the dog show world.

“It can be a little bit like high school,” Sutton admitted. But, she insisted, most people are there because they love dogs and they love the sport.

“You become friends with the people you are competing with,” she said. “I’ve seen rifts develop, but, for the most part, people are there because they love dogs and they love the sport. You are learning together.”