A dog's life: One area pup’s tale of making it to Westminster

February 27, 2010 10:58:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


It''s been billed as the Super Bowl for pooches, the canine Academy Awards. Westminster is definitely the dog world''s big time. But, for Grace -- "Ch (champion) Glentom I Have No Commint"-- a brindle bull terrier from Louisville, "America''s dog show" was just another chance to earn a few more powdered doughnuts, her treat of choice. 


For Terri and Mike Cournoyer, Grace''s human family, earning an invitation to the elite 134th annual event at Madison Square Garden Feb. 15-16 held more impact. Back home in Winston County, the thrill is still fresh for the vivacious Terri. 


"We went over early to get our bearings, and I went up in the seats to watch a bit of group judging," she said Wednesday. "I just sat there for a few minutes and thought, oh, my gosh, I''m actually here! And better than that, I have a dog here at Westminster!" 


Four-year-old Grace, originally from breeder Glenna and Tom Wright''s Glentom Bull Terriers in Glenwood Ark., is a happy, exuberant dog. She secured an automatic invitation to the prestigious competition by winning 50 "Best of Breed" titles last year. She finished 2009 at No. 1 in her breed, colored bull terrier. The Westminster Kennel Club''s star-studded event features 2,500 dogs, representing 173 breeds and varieties. 




On the road again 


Grace is no stranger to travel. With shows in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania and all points between, she''s logged more miles than many a frequent flier. But this champion tours the country by motor home or van, in the care of the Cournoyers or her Westminster handler, Michelle Aguillard of Eunice, La. 


Mike acknowledged that Grace''s show career, which began more or less as a hobby, intensified as the championships racked up. 


"Grace just took off like a bullet, and we just got out of the way," he chuckled. "She became a very, very good dog, and it became a passion for Terri." 




New York, New York 


That Westminster is the second longest continuously held sporting event in this country (one year younger than the Kentucky Derby) didn''t impress Grace. 


"She''s so seasoned now, she didn''t act any different," Terri laughed. "She just wrapped up in her blanket and napped. She wasn''t concerned at all, even with all the people and all the dogs barking." 


Steeped in tradition, Westminster is one of the few bench competitions in the country. 


"I think it''s a very old practice," shared Terri. The show animals are each assigned a space bordered by low dividers on long "benches," where they hold court for the admiring public. 


"You''re required to have your dog (in crates) there, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.," Grace''s owner said. "People want to come and visit, and it''s a big educational thing. You can talk about your breed. We put together what was basically a little doggie resume, with show pictures and information on bull terriers." 


Westminster''s singular atmosphere and huge crowds can be daunting. 


"People warned me that if you''re claustrophobic, you don''t need to do this," Terri said. "It was overwhelming. But you can do almost anything for one day, and the fact that, yes, I have a dog entered, was enough to remind me I could stand it." 




Inglorious beginnings 


The Cournoyer''s laugh now about Grace''s ragged show ring debut, when she was about 15 months old. Nothing suggested that day the Mississippi pup would ever wind up at The Garden. 


"Grace failed miserably at her very first show, embarrassed me to death," chuckled Terri, who showed her and may have overestimated her pet''s readiness. "Believe me, walking up and down the sidewalk with your dog on a leash is nothing like walking into the dog show ring. We got about 10 paces, and Grace just collapsed, sprawled out on the floor like a frog. About 10 or 15 dogs were backed up behind us, and I couldn''t get this 50-pound dog to move! I told the others to ''play through.'' Eventually we had to lift up the gate and shove her under to get her out of the ring." 


But all''s well that ends well. Although she didn''t win at Westminster, Grace behaved beautifully and represented her state well. The champ is now officially retired and will soon undergo the required medical checks to become a mom herself. The family also wants Grace to earn her Canine Good Citizenship certificate, so she can be a frequent ambassador for her breed at schools, clubs and nursing homes. 




Dog people 


Dog people are committed, Terri and Mike agree.  


"These people love their animals, and they''re very conscious of the fact to make sure they protect their breeds," said Mike, who enjoys the camaraderie of other animal lovers. 


"And it''s good to be with other people who have the same thing going on," Terri added. "People who get together and can say, my dog dug this up, or chewed this up, or knocked over the Christmas Tree -- you know you''re not alone."  


Terri was a dedicated volunteer and board member of the humane society in her former home, Huntsville, Ala. The Cournoyers are currently involved in the Louisville Friends of the Animals, raising funds for the city-run shelter. 




Why bull terriers? 


Terri laughs, "Anybody that''s had bull terriers will basically tell you they''re a kid in a dog suit." For Grace, Dewey and Maeve, the Cournoyer''s three terriers, life sounds like a ball.  


"They do what they call a hucklebutt, unbelievable running and banking off the walls, charging through the house. I''ve had them run in and slide across the kitchen floor into the cabinets ... They''re comical and extremely loving animals; they have an almost gleeful look on their face, like, ''Yoo hoo, this is really fun!''" 


The family''s dogs live indoors. "When they''re out of their crates, I''m a wherever-they-want-to-be person," said Terri. "The bed, the sofa ... " 


The younger Dewey and Maeve have big pawprints to fill, following Grace. Maeve is currently showing and doing well enough that Terri isn''t ruling out a repeat trip to Madison Square Garden, if they should be so fortunate. 


"I can''t say going to Westminster was a dream come true, because it never would have even occurred to me that it could ever be possible to go," Terri admitted, still reliving the excitement of the venerable show. "But, now that I know it can be done ..." 


Showing or not, the dogs are like family for both Terri and Mike. 


"This is fun for me because I love this breed of dog so much," Terri grinned. "Sometimes they just look at you with that face, and you think, ''Oh, my gosh ... there''s a human in there somewhere." 


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.