NEW YORK -- The benching area for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a lengthy concrete stretch in the bowels of Madison Square Garden where dogs are prepped, primped and primed for the highest-stakes arena in the sport, is not a petting zoo. And understandably so. The owners and handlers, many of whom resemble the high-strung, laser-focused profiles made canon in Best In Show, can be forgiven for discouraging photography or interaction with passers-by.
Not Swagger, the most unexpected of the seven finalists at America’s most prestigious dog show, the nation's oldest continuously held sporting event after the Kentucky Derby.
The Old English sheepdog, whose charmed run at Westminster ended Tuesday with an improbable runner-up finish, was already playing with house money after he was chosen the best of the herding breeds on Monday in a major upset. Ninety minutes before the best in show program was scheduled to start, handler and owner Colton Johnson of Colorado Springs, Colo., allowed onlookers to approach and snap camera-phone pics with him. Morale was high, the mood optimistic. At one point the 90-pound mass of fluff leaned over and planted a wet kiss on the cheek of a young girl.
He wouldn't be named best in show -- that honor went to a shiny black Affenpinscher named Banana Joe -- but there’s no question Swagger was the people’s champion, eliciting roars of applause and sporadic chants of "Pick the sheepdog!" from the typically docile crowd. Judge Michael Dougherty named him reserve best in show, an honor tantamount to second place that had been re-introduced for the first time since 1925.
It wasn’t Swagger’s breed that made him an underdog: Old English sheepdogs had taken the top prize in 1914 and 1975. Yet at a mere 20 months old with just three previous show appearances, he was among the least experienced of the 2,721 dogs from 187 breeds and varieties that entered.
He was only eligible due to a rule change permitting dogs that were not of “champion” status to compete, a classification that's earned through points accumulated at other events.
A half-hour after the competition, Doug Johnson, Colton’s father, excitedly scrolled through dozens of congratulatory text messages on a shuttle bus outside the Garden while as Swagger calmly stood by, his feet wrapped in green disposable rubber boots. A large, sharply dressed man with long silver hair, he described with enthusiasm how many onlookers recognized Swagger from his best in breed victory -- which had been nationally televised on Monday -- and expressly asked for photos with the dog they saw on TV.
While many of the top dogs are bankrolled by wealthy owners who mount major ad campaigns, Johnson runs two kennels in Colorado Springs for boarding, training and grooming show dogs and pets alongside his wife Michaelanne. They have raised Old English Sheepdogs and Bouvier Des Flandres for more than 30 years. All five of their children work for the relatively modest operation.
Yet finite resources haven't kept them from succeeding at the sport's highest level. And, he assures, the best is yet to come.
"This dog is only 20 months old, so imagine it like a teenager playing against the pros," he said. "Next year when he comes back to defend his title, he'll be the equivalent of an athlete in his mid-20s."
Given the prohibitive cost of transporting a dog by air -- more than $500 each way -- Swagger left with an assistant by car on Monday night for a show that starts Friday in Denver, where he can obtain the last points he needs to earn the champion classification he lacked this week.
The elder Johnson is a Denver Broncos' season-ticket holder. Though he's been to the Westminster dog show in the past -- 21 times in the past 22 years, including another best in show appearance as an owner in 2006 -- he described the same rush of electricity Tuesday as he felt in the stands during last month's playoff loss to the Ravens, agonizing as it was.
"It's the biggest stage out there," he said, "and the result was beyond all expectations."