Belle, the English Setter from Pine Island, made Westminster show history

·3 min read

Jun. 28—PINE ISLAND, Minn. — Last week, Belle, an English setter from Pine Island, became the first-ever female of her breed to win the best Sporting Group category at the Westminster American Kennel Club show in New York City.

This week, she's taking some time off.

As Belle napped in the kitchen of her Pine Island home, her owners Van Jacobsen and Lee Afdahl, handler Amanda Ciaravino and groomer Vito Ciaravino recalled their reactions when they realized she had won.

Jacobsen pulls up video on his cell phone. Belle is seen leaping in Amanda Ciaravino's arms after one last victory lap for show. No other female English setter has ever won that honor in 146 years of Westminster shows.

Five days after the win, hearing the recording of the moment still moves the four to tears. Belle has won her share of awards for a 4-year-old setter. She has won best of show in multiple state, regional and national shows. Nonetheless, the four knew the odds were steep for qualifying for the finals in her group let alone winning. She was among 3,088 dogs from 211 breeds at the show.

"It was really a once in a lifetime event," Amanda Ciaravino said.

The Ciaravinos, who live in Illinois, have a combined nearly 50 years of experience working with and showing dogs.

A show dog and handler could retire from what would be called a successful career without winning such an honor, she added. Amanda was surprised she said what she was thinking out loud on camera for a post-show interview.

"Is this real life?" she asks.

"That's not something you even think is going to happen," Jacobsen said.

Just winning the chance to represent her breed from among 588 dogs entered in the Sporting Group was an honor, he added.

"My whole day was made," he said.

"Typically, it's a pipe dream for most handlers," Amanda said.

Other English setter owners and breeders have reached out to Jacobsen and Afdahl following the win.

"They're so excited for what she's done for the breed," he said.

Jacobsen had grown up with English setters. He shows and judges horses and knew he wanted well-bred English setters to show. The couple's first, acquired in 2016, was Douglas. He has had some success as a show dog. Belle, on the other hand, had something special, Amanda said.

Her physical attributes are exemplary of her breed, Amanda said.

That makes her movements smooth and efficient, Vito added.

"She covers a lot of ground so effortlessly," he said.

It's on a stage under the eyes of judges and a crowd where she seems to shine, the couple added.

"She has a presence about her," Amanda said.

As the crowd gets more excited and the stakes of shows go up, Belle seems to perform even better, Amanda said.

So where do you go after winning a high honor at the biggest show event in the country at 4 (human) years of age? That's up in the air.

Even before the win, Amanda knew the Westminster show would likely be her last with Belle. She had accepted a position with the American Kennel Club before the show. Does the win change things?

It's too early to say, they said.

"We're just kind of waiting and seeing," Jacobsen said.

Amanda said she does want to breed Belle but is bracing herself for saying goodbye for a while.

"I don't want to be here for that goodbye," Jacobsen said.

As she prepares to return to her Illinois home, Amanda Ciaravino takes comfort that Belle leads an easy life at her Pine Island home with her family.

"As hard as goodbyes are going to be, she's got a good life here," Amanda said. "And she's earned a very well-deserved vacation."