David Williams

Backstage at the Westminster Dog Show

Mara Flood and her daughter Becca breed and show dogs together—and this week is what they, and three of their smooth collies, prepare for all year.

NEW YORK, N.Y.— On ordinary days, Mara Flood and her 18-year-old daughter, Becca Flood, interact like any other mother and daughter might, but on days like today, they’re more like colleagues—and rivals. The Floods, who breed and handle smooth collies together, have brought their dogs Cherry (whose full name is SugarNSpice Cherry On Top), Poe (Travler SugarNSpice Witches Do Come Blue), and Tiger (SugarNSpice Hear Me Roar) from Orange County, New York, to Manhattan to compete in Monday’s events at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Becca and Mara came to Pier 94, on the west side of the city, on Sunday afternoon to set up their dogs’ grooming tables and then have dinner out together in the city (their annual pre-Westminster tradition). Monday’s workday started at 5:30 a.m., when Mara began bathing the dogs and then woke up Becca to ask her to start blow-drying them. And then at noon, the two Floods faced off against each other (and seven other handlers, one of whom was showing Cherry) in the Best of Breed competition, five-year-old Tiger at the end of Mara’s lead and two-year-old Poe at the end of Becca’s.

Mara, whose female dog Gretel won Best of Breed in 2016 at Westminster, wanted to win it again. This time, though, she says, Poe was a little squirrelly in the ring, and Tiger faced stiff competition from the other females. In the end, Tiger and Poe took home the Best of Opposite Sex and Select Dog titles, respectively; in other words, they placed second and third behind the dog who eventually went on to compete in the Herding Group round at Madison Square Garden.

“You’re always hoping to win Best, and you never, until you walk into that ring and get a ribbon, know how it’s gonna go,” Mara said later. “But we’re thrilled with what we got. Our dogs went in there and they showed well, and you can’t ask for more than that.”

Owners and handlers groom their dogs in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show “benching area” at Pier 94 in Manhattan. A “benched” dog show is one in which each dog is required to be in its designated berth on the grounds for the entirety of the event unless it is showing, being groomed to show, or out for a brief walk, so that visitors and other exhibitors can stop by and observe them.
Two Old English sheepdogs relax in their section of the benching area. On a normal show day, it takes two hours to groom each one. Today, each dog requires four.
Becca and Mara’s dog-show tack box is divided into two sections—one for the humans’ grooming supplies, and one for the dogs’. Of course, when they’re in a hurry, Becca says, every now and again she and her dogs end up sharing hair mousse or a brush. “I just try to pull out all the dog hair I can before I use it,” she laughs.
On show days, the Floods bring along seasoned chicken, hot dogs, and steak to use as “bait,” or treats to reward their dogs’ good behavior—and hold their attention—in the ring.
Becca shares a piece of a pretzel (her “stress eating” snack between ring times, she says) with Tiger.
After changing into her suit, Becca puts on her armband, which helps judges and record-keepers identify her in the ring. Handlers often coordinate what they wear in the ring to complement and contrast with the coat color of the dog they’re showing; it’s important, Mara explains, that the silhouette of the dog always be distinct from the human’s as they run around the ring together.
Mara and Becca groom Tiger, taking special care to fluff up the fur around her neck. “It just gives the dogs more presence,” Becca says. Later, as the two waited for their dogs’ turn in the ring, they sprayed down the dogs’ backs with water to keep their fur from drying out and flattening under the hot indoor lights.
Left: Every year before they show their dogs at Westminster, the Floods get manicures together. Usually they do some variation on the official colors of Westminster, purple and gold. Right: A handler discreetly carries a brush into the ring to facilitate any necessary last-minute grooming.
Becca participates in her last-ever junior showmanship competition. In general, competitors age out of juniors when they turn 18, but Becca qualified for this year’s Westminster juniors event before her birthday.
Left: A rough collie—a longer-haired collie variety, so closely related to the smooth collie that sometimes rough and smooth collies are born in the same litter—gets groomed in the benching area. Right: A handler wears a collie tie clip.
A Neapolitan mastiff hangs out in the Westminster benching area.
A Pomeranian gets groomed in the benching area.
The Floods’ dogs—from left to right, Cherry, Poe, and Tiger—took home Winners Bitch, Select Dog, and Best of Opposite Sex titles within the smooth collie breed, respectively.