Legend has it that Afghan hounds were the dogs chosen by Noah to board his ark. But despite the breed's aura of antiquity, plus an appearance both elegant and exotic, no Westminster judge has ever followed Noah's example by choosing an Afghan as best-in-show. Several times, however, within this decade the breed has come almost close enough to see its reflection in the coveted silver bowl. Mrs. Sunny Shay back in 1950 was only the third person to bring an Afghan into the Westminster best-in-show ring, but her white-footed, black Ch. Turkuman Nissim's Laurel was passed over. Five years later Kay Finch's fawn, Ch. Taejon of Crown Crest (SI, March 12, 1956), an Afghan with a formidable best-in-show record, was the hound group winner and a "best" contender. But, again, another got the nod. Last week, finally and triumphantly, an Afghan made it. Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur, a young blue-roan dog owned by Mrs. Sunny Shay and Dorothy Chenade, and a dog that had never won a best in an all-breed show, was the surprise winner of the biggest best of all.
But before the 17 short minutes which culminated in canine immortality for Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur and understandable jubilation for Breeder-Handler Shay, the well-oiled wheels of the Westminster turned out winners for two days in 107 breed events. Here the judging, as is usual in dog shows, produced some upsets, including that of a judge, who backed into a sign and was briefly floored.
Again as usual, the dog which often delighted the spectator did not necessarily engender the same sensation in the judge. An English bulldog, for instance, obviously without a clue to the gravity of the situation, kept trying to roll on his back and play, and an Old English sheep dog, waddling down the center of the green tarpaulin, was awarded a sympathetic ovation.
"Sheep dogs," commented one middle-aged lady ruefully, "always get a big hand from the women. When they see that wide backside they feel an instinctive rapport."
Humor waned and tension mounted after the class and group winners had been decided, leaving the ring free for the best-in-show judging.
Mrs. Beatrice Godsol, a California sheep-breeder, the second woman ever assigned to the task of selecting Westminster bests, started with the teams of four. Two quartets in particular seemed to catch her eye: Dr. and Mrs. Vincenzo Calvaresi's perky Maltese, their topknots decorated with blue ribbons, and Mrs. Howe Low's well-matched Norwich terriers. Mrs. Godsol gathered her skirts and stooped to examine the terriers; they jumped at her affectionately. She then examined the Maltese, and they yipped aggressively. Dr. Calvaresi, a language teacher from Massachusetts, fixed them firmly with his eye and barked like a dog. They snapped to attention. He handled them with the ease and showmanship of a driver of an eight-horse hitch of Clydesdales, and was ultimately awarded, for the third time, the special best-team-in-show rosette.
The best brace title went to a pair of English setters, owned and shown by Mrs. Earl Zamarchi, probably the best-mannered pair to grace the canvas in many a Westminster. Asked to pose them for the battery of photographers, Mrs. Zamarchi whipped off the collars, lined them up, and there they stayed, motionless, through all the noises and flashes that go with stardom.
Meanwhile, below stairs, in the Garden basement, last-minute preparations were being made for the six best-in-show finalists.
Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur, group winner in the afternoon, napped in a corner of his bench, looking as unprepossessing as a pile of dirty laundry, until an hour before the event. Then Kennel Manager and Co-owner Dorothy Chenade, who had received a part of the dog as a birthday present, began the task of combing and dressing the fine, silken coat.
"I've never seen another Afghan with a coat this color," said Dorothy. "It's unique—a mixture of gray, silver, black and white."
The Dalmatian, Mrs. S. K. Allman Jr.'s nonsporting group winner Ch. Roadcoach Roadster, dozed on a bench, huddled in a white terry-cloth coat.
Jane Kamp, handling the working group winner, boxer Ch. Barrage of Quality Hill, acknowledged a superstition by not cleaning the white lead on which Barrage had won five straight best-in-shows. Mrs. Jouett Shouse, his owner, decided to ignore another superstition by being present (SI, Feb. 11).
Three other eligibles, the sporting group winner Ch. Gail's Ebony Don D (owned by Mrs. and Mrs. Roy O. Nelson), a black cocker spaniel from California with a big record; the imported toy group winner Pekingese Ch. Chik T'Sun of Caversham (owned by Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Venable); and terrier group winner Westhay Fiona of Harham (owned by Harold M. Florsheim), an imported Airedale bitch, were also ready and waiting when the climactic event was finally called.
The boxer, the Dalmatian, the black cocker, the Peke, the Airedale and the Afghan circled the big ring, top dogs all. The boxer and the Dalmatian were the experts' favorites. All six were in fine shape and all were shown well, but Sunny Shay, gaiting Shirkhan, was exuberant as she raced on tiptoe alongside the dog. Even two stumbles on the edges of the tarpaulin strips did not deter woman or dog. Mrs. Godsol examined all dogs with care, turned, took a last sweeping look and walked to mark the book. Here at last was a judge with an affinity for Afghans, or at least for this particular Afghan, whom she had judged in California when he won the Specialty Show, his only other major win. (It is traditional in dog shows to leave the judging to a single expert.) A few lines with a pencil transformed the Afghan hound from Hicksville, Long Island into Dog of the Year.
This, feels Mrs. Shay, is well-merited attention long overdue the breed. "Dogs have been my life," she explains. "I started with them when I was 9 years old. At one time I had to choose between being a professional dancer and dogs, and I chose dogs—the then unknown Afghan. Now my life has been fulfilled. But we're not stopping here—we're going to mail our entries into the Boston show, and beat them all again, I hope!" (But a tired Shirkhan was defeated in his group at Hartford, Conn. less than a week after his Westminster win.)
And how does the dog feel about showing? "He's beginning to like it," explained Mrs. Shay, who has 60 dogs. "He is the house pet too, and even though he is a big dog he sleeps with me. Afghans are so flexible, you know—they sort of curl and cuddle.... The morning after the show, he knew; he jumped out of bed and pranced around with that look in his eye—'Haven't I done something nice?' "