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Julie and Monty celebrate a day at 'The Garden'

Posted: February 15, 2009 12:43 a.m.
Updated: February 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Julie Musella with Monty at Westminster dog show. Julie Musella with Monty at Westminster dog show.
Julie Musella with Monty at Westminster dog show.

The tension mounts as we try to weave our way through a crowd thick with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder and moving into the stands with the speed of cold molasses. It must have taken us nearly 20 minutes just to get from the door to the area 40 feet away where we can hear the ring steward call out, "Enter in catalog order, please."

Monty looks up at me wagging his "otter tail" as if asking for permission to romp and play with the almost 50 other Labrador retriever dogs waiting to go into the show ring on Feb. 10 at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y.

Labrador retriever number 33 is my canine partner in this exciting event. Monty is also known as BISS Ch. Forestwood Gone Hollywood At Montview, WC.

I am a Santa Clarita Valley small and exotic animal veterinarian who trains Monty, cares for him, loves him and shows him. More than anything, we are a team - and together with my husband, our other dog, our three cats, our one-legged parrot and our California desert tortoise, we are a family. We travel together, play together, compete in various venues of the dog world together and "study" together. That is, Monty allows me to poke and prod him while studying what I've learned in my International Veterinary Acupuncture Society courses the past few months.

Monty has been with us since the day he turned 8 weeks old, when it became legal for him to fly out to meet us in Los Angeles.

This past week he returned to his birthplace, as we flew back across the country to visit his breeder and my mentor, Leslie Plank, of Forestwood Labradors in New York for our showing at "The Garden."

Monty's mother, Shelby, was also entered for her third and final year. Having grown up in a family that trained, showed and bred horses, I found that I really missed the competition of the show ring and the incredible relationship formed with a much-loved animal when learning and practicing for competition together.

I thought that getting into the purebred dog fancy would be a very similar experience, and ended up getting our first Labrador retriever, Liberty, in September of 2004.

Liberty ("Libby") turned out to be from a less-than-reputable breeder that did not do all of the proper health screening tests, leaving her with multiple heritable orthopedic diseases. The fact that she also isn't a good physical example of a Labrador retriever according to the written breed standard doesn't change how much we adore her, though.

Once it became quite evident that Libby wasn't going to be my "show dog," I started the long process of finding a truly reputable breeder. That involved attending shows and other competitions across southern California, getting involved in regional dog clubs including the High Desert Labrador Retriever Club and working hard to make contacts and do an incredible amount of research to find a reputable, ethical breeder who did everything possible to breed the healthiest puppies with the best temperaments possible.

That is where Leslie came into play. A mutual friend "introduced" us to one another online, and after she had done her research into me and our family, and I had done my research into her and her dogs, it turned out to be a match made in heaven. Monty had already been born when I first contacted Leslie, but he was only a couple of days old and one of a litter of eight puppies. It would be a first to have a Forestwood Labrador on the West Coast. Several weeks and multiple evaluations later, it was determined who would be making the long trip.

Monty has been nothing short of an absolute blessing to our family in general. He is an incredibly sweet and devoted dog, as well as a complete clown all wrapped up in a thick, light yellow double-coat characteristic of his breed. He has already, at the tender age of 3, far exceeded my expectations for my first official "show dog." Everything we have learned so far, we have learned together.

In addition to finishing his AKC Championship just after he turned 2 with three majors (depending on the numbers of dogs involved, a major win is equal to 3-5 points) including two specialty (a large all-labrador show) wins, he also has his first legs ("qualifying scores") toward his AKC Junior Hunter title (JH, retrieving) and Rally-Novice (obedience-related) titles. This all happened just around the time he also won his Best In Specialty Show (BISS) win against some very stiff competition this past November at a show in Palmdale.

And now, Monty is a competitor at the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden, the nation's oldest "all AKC Champion" dog show. We enter the ring and trot our way around the ring to our place in a lineup including the nation's top Labrador retrievers and top professional handlers hired to present them at their best. After the group of dogs was split into three different groups - one female group and two male groups - we compete in the second group of males.

Monty keeps all sitting ringside entertained by barking at me while furiously wagging his tail, sitting up to beg, trying to pull his leash out of my hands and pulling on my skirt with his teeth. After getting called back several times ("making the cut") into an ever-shrinking group of beautiful Labradors, Monty ends up in the final group. We didn't get chosen for the big prize, but as novices in this amazing sport, we were completely honored to be included as southern California's exclusive Labrador representative in the small group of those being considered for that prestigious Best Of Breed award.

Monty celebrated that night by devouring a tasty dinner at The Garden with friends and relatives nearby.

While still a bit "jet-lagged" and clueless about what an honor it was to be left in that amazing group for so long, he is back to his normal "house dog" routine of teasing our cats, eating crumbs dropped on the floor by our parrot and snoozing at our feet while we watch TV or check e-mail. We have changed for the better for having experienced the Westminster Kennel Club champion dog show - and I think that all who watched the Labrador retriever ring get judged have probably changed a little bit for having watched our boy Monty strut his stuff competing for that top award and wiggle his way into everyone's hearts with his clownish antics in the show ring.

Julie Musella, DVM is an SCV veterinarian. Monty is her first show dog. Musella, a novice, showed Monty personally at Westminster, the top dog show in the country.


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