When it comes to the Westminster Kennel Club, only a handful of fanciers have had as many roles at that vaunted New York City show as Dr. Donald Sturz of Brooklyn, New York.
Sturz started off on Madison Square Garden’s iconic green carpet as a wide-eyed 10-year-old showing his family’s Golden Retriever in Junior Showmanship – and he hasn’t missed a single show since. In 1998, he came full circle, pinning on his judge’s badge to adjudicate that breed, and returned to judge the Hound Group in 2006 and the Sporting Group in 2010.
Five years ago, Sturz donned a headset and took on a commentator role during the show’s daytime breed judging, where his in-depth knowledge of purebred-dog history and function was appreciated by livestream viewers around the world. Only a handful of years later, he was literally ready for prime time, ascending to the broadcast booth in the shadow of the Jumbotron, where he and his co-hosts provide hours of non-stop commentary during the high-pressure live evening broadcast.
Next week, however, Sturz won’t have a producer’s voice in his ear set buzzing about his Papillon patter or Mastiff musings. On the night of Best in Show, the only voice that will matter will be the confident, quiet one in his head, as Sturz examines and assesses the seven group winners, until he crowns Westminster’s top winner.
This Best in Show assignment comes at a milestone year for Sturz: This year’s show will be his 50th year attending Westminster and his tenth time judging at it.
Sturz grew up on Long Island, where he works today as a school superintendent, the culmination of a long academic career with an emphasis on special education. With a doctorate in clinical psychology, he focused on working with children and adolescents – those vulnerable youngsters who are struggling to find their place in a world that oftentimes does not understand them. On a certain level, Sturz can relate: For him, dog shows have always been more than just the objective assessment of breeding stock, though that is certainly an aspect that he approaches with great reverence. As a youngster who found himself bullied by his grammar-school classmates, dog shows were a sort of alternate universe – a safe, accepting place where he could be himself and indulge his fascination with these four-leggers and their uncanny alchemy – the ability to take the attention and love given to them and return it umpteenfold.
Several months before he donned his tuxedo and adjusted his bowtie, Sturz talked with Dog News’ Denise Flaim about his history in the sport and the impending assignment of a lifetime.
You’ve been associated with a number of different breeds. Let’s talk about the first one.
Golden Retrievers are my family’s original breed. I always go back to that as my foundation because it’s where everything began for me – where I learned about dog shows, how to raise puppies, care for dogs, and handle, groom and breed them.
My parents decided to get a Golden Retriever because my sister Janet was afraid of dogs. Our neighbors had one, and they put my parents in touch with their breeder.
I was eight years old when we got our new puppy, and soon after the breeder invited us to a match show. I went in the ring with him, and we didn’t win, but another Golden breeder encouraged me to continue showing him. After joining the local Golden Retriever club, my parents realized that our dog was not going to be competitive in the show ring. But I continued to show him in Juniors and also did obedience with him.
We got a second Golden, and the kennel grew from there. My mom was the driving force, as she saw the passion in me and saw the value in the experience. I was responsible for the daily care, training, grooming and conditioning of puppies and dogs right from the start.
My entire family was involved and shared this as a family hobby for many years. When my nieces Jillian and Jayme began showing dogs, that marked the third generation of our family’s involvement.
First show dog, Ch. Copper Kettle Glory’s Gobbler CD WC.
First time showing at Westminster.
So that first dog ignited something in you?
For me, it was a singular focus – I really didn’t have any other hobbies. I got completely immersed in that. It was something that was my escape. I had a lot of problems with being bullied in school. That’s how I started and ended my day – with the dogs. They got groomed to death, handled to death.
When I was around 10, I started playing pretend dog show. I had my own space in the basement playroom, and started pulling pictures out of Kennel Review magazine of dogs that were beautiful to me. I’d make lists of great Best in Show lineups – I want this Golden Retriever in the Sporting Group, this Standard Poodle in Non-Sporting – and then I picked the best one. This would take hours.
It sounds like you had very supportive parents.
My parents knew dogs were so important to me, in so many ways. They knew that at least on weekends I was happy and had friends and was being respected and valued. Anything that could be done in service of that, they were on board with. I wasn’t spoiled, but I was definitely supported. I did all the work.
Ch. Golden Glo’s Valentine, first homebred champion.
When did you start working for professional handlers?
Around that same time. By then I was hot and heavy into Junior Showmanship, and had a few Golden Retrievers. Pretty much every weekend I would go with my parents to the Northeast cycle of shows, and assist different professional handlers, including Ted Young, Joy Brewster and Wendell Sammet. It was a great experience to engage with different breeds of dogs at that age.
I’d be around those conversations when the great owners and breeders were hanging around the crates talking about their breed and dogs in general. While I was in it, I didn’t realize how important it was to have that opportunity very early on. I had a very diverse interest and experience. Although I did breed Best in Show and specialty-winning dogs across a variety of breeds, I went a different route – more of a deep dive into dogs in general as opposed to breed specific. It was a different way of getting to where I was going.
I had the opportunity to co-own and show lots of different dogs in Junior Showmanship. I got my hands on a lot of animals, and it was an incredible opportunity. That’s where my interest in Sighthounds began.
First group assignment at Westminster, judging Hounds in 2006.
Tell us a bit about that.
I was very friendly with the Butt family early on. I became very, very aware of and interested in Whippets. I would go to their home and there would be lots of Whippets there. When we played dog show, it was a dog show. Debbie also had Scottish Deerhounds, and I loved the whole concept of curves and shape – that was something very different.
Now I was not only looking at Sighthounds but understanding them – why do they have that shape? Having gone to watch the dogs course, it’s a big deal when you understand why they work the way they do.
Over the years I owned a Whippet, a Borzoi, a Deerhound, and co-owned a couple of Salukis that we did some nice winning with. When you live with a breed, it’s very different from reading about them or going to a seminar. Having a dog from puppy to veteran, you see how the breed develops. You don’t get that unless you live it.
Exhibiting MBIS Ch. Dassin Madiselle.
When did Poodles come in?
I got my first Standard when was 13, but the process started at least a year before that. I was completely entranced with that photo of Frank Sabella on the beach leaping with Command Performance. I really wanted a white Standard like him.
Mike and Doug Scott were in Junior Showmanship with me, and their parents had a white Standard Poodle bitch. I got to handle her, and that was my first contact with the breed. She was bred to – guess who – Command Performance. That son was my first Poodle.
Poodles are a world unto themselves, and they became another cultural experience for me. The Poodle standard says the breed has “an air about it” and “a dignity peculiar to itself.” That’s evident in its outline, its carriage and its demeanor. As a kid with a Golden Retriever, seeing Poodles with all that presence was a different experience. The essence of a Golden is evident in its moderation and its calm, reassuring demeanor, whereas a Poodle generates a different kind of excitement to me. It’s stunning and artistic, and like no other breed in how it looks and acts.
From the point of view of a kid, you felt like there was sort of this secret society with Poodles. I was entering this breed that not everybody could go into, and most of all it looked intimidating because of the grooming and presentation. I was motivated by that. I wanted to do that really, really well, and really, really badly.
Judging Poodle Club of America with best friend Pattie Proctor as his steward.
Who was your most important mentor in Poodles?
I met Pattie Proctor when I was a kid through the Owner Handler Association’s local handling classes. She was my first Poodle contact. Now I’m getting this puppy, and I don’t know how to groom. She taught me to clip, wrap, bathe and keep a dog in oil.
When she decided to become a professional handler, I began to work for her solely as her assistant. I would get to her house on Friday after high school, and we would leave to go to the dog show. She was handling Poodles exclusively, and started branching out later on. That’s when things got in depth for me with Poodles. I’d learned a lot by dabbling, but that was where it got intense. I was doing a lot of topknots and scissoring!
But the larger element had to do with ethics and integrity. The way in which I approach the sport has a lot to do with Pattie. Out of everything, that was the most important contribution she made to me. And we became very, very close friends. Though we were about 10 years apart in age, she was really my first best friend as a teenager. We had a lot of incredible experiences. We laughed a lot – she taught me the importance of being able to laugh at oneself. That notion of taking the job seriously but not taking yourself too seriously – that came from her. And I use that in every aspect of my life.
First judging assignment at Westminster, examining a Heronsway Pembroke bred and exhibited by Anne Bowes.
How about judging mentors?
I was really fortunate to come through at a time with some of the most iconic judges like Edd Bivin, Anne Rogers Clark and Michele Billings. I had access to them, I hung out with and talked to them.
Whenever she judged Bulldogs, Mrs. Clark always kept the illustrated standard on the table because she said it was one of the breeds she found challenging, so looking at that before she started judging was a way to get those visual images back in her brain. I was talking to her about how I was feeling – I found some breeds easier and others more challenging – and that was her way of saying that’s normal. For someone I really admired and respected to allow one the grace to acknowledge that some breeds are more challenging than others made a huge impact. It’s all about doing the best you can and constantly seeking to expand your knowledge.
I remember waiting for a flight with Mrs. Billings and her saying to me, “I was thinking about this class of setters.” She thought she may have been too hard on this one dog, and probably should have done it the other way around. So many judges walk out of the ring and feel compelled to pontificate, as opposed to saying to someone knowledgeable in that breed, “I’d love to have a chat because that was a struggle for me” or “Maybe I banged that one too hard – what do you think?”
One year I was observing Michele Billings in the Gordon ring at the shows held at Nassau Coliseum. I vividly remember walking in the middle of the ring with her and looking at the eight or nine dogs in front of us. She said – and I hear her voice every time I walk in the ring – “I walk out here and I take a look and see what we’ve got, and then they will sort themselves out.” She was saying if you just let it organically move forward – instead of trying to get an answer at first glance or to sort the class immediately – the right dogs will start to make themselves known.
And the dogs do sort themselves out, for the most part – if you have good dogs, that is. It’s a visceral reaction. I know for certain that when I am out there doing Best in Show at Westminster, the level of quality of the dogs is going to make the mental exercise of evaluation more challenging because there will be such an abundance of virtue, and it will be splitting hairs. But at the end of the day, some dog is going to make the hair on my arms stand up.
Yes, at the end of the day, we want to speak about breed-specific features. But something is going to strike me – a dog is going to give me something that conveys the essence of that breed. And I don’t mean “the dog was asking for it.” No, it’s something that moves you. And that’s all it is.
Ch. Golden Glo’s Come by Chance, 1984.
You’re talking about the difference between generic glamour and true breed type.
There are animals that will fool you, especially if you are a person who has an affinity for pretty and glamorous. Coming from Goldens, I know that breed like the back of my hand, and I often consciously have to pull away, because while a certain dog might be adorable in a plush, stuffed-toy kind of way, it’s not correct.
In the 30 years I’ve been judging, many breeds have gone through stages and evolved over time, and I think you have to be aware of that: What’s going on in those breeds? What are the trends, challenges, fads? What are the things that are good about the fact that this breed went in this direction: Change isn’t always bad, but there is a difference between a breed evolving as opposed to a passing fad. The only way you learn the difference is to talk to people in the breed.
There is a difference between someone who is an expert and one who has expertise. Someone can be an expert in a particular breed, and be knowledgeable about it, but not have the ability to apply it in an active judging situation. People can have different levels of expertise with different breeds, and not everyone has the same capacity to develop expertise. We’d all love to be Olympic figure skaters, but not everyone is going to reach that level of expertise, and dog judging is no different. That’s something some dog people don’t like to hear.
MBIS Ch. Courtlyn Chagal.
In your three decades of judging, you only have two full groups. Why didn’t you go for more?
I think I always pulled back because I always want to be able to have very breed-specific conversations.
There was a point some years back when the judging process had created a committee that was given the opportunity to offer groups and advance people. I had been contacted and offered the opportunity to pursue a group. At that time, I did Sporting, Hound, Poodles and Pembroke Welsh Corgis. That was my background, my hands-on experience.
I chose not to proceed beyond that. My position was I felt some people were moving too far, too fast, and were judging beyond their expertise. I was taking a personal stand – I’m going to judge what I know. So when they reached out, I responded that I would apply for one breed.
I was doing it to make a point: I learn a breed one at a time. That’s what I did with them at eight years old, and that’s what I still do.
That single, solitary breed was the Bull Terrier. Why?
It was serendipity. I was going to lunch at a show one day, and I saw a large entry of white Bull Terriers that Desi Murphy was judging. They were so striking, I stopped to peek. I never ended up making it to lunch.
I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I was completely fascinated by this breed – the unique head and body shape, the clownish character and the easygoing breed culture of the ring … just the vibe. I spoke with Desi afterward, to try to understand them. Jimmy Mitchell said, “I have some books I can loan you.” I went to specialties, to Silverwood, and I joined the Bull Terrier Club of America. Recently I was honored by the club by being designated as one of the few non-breeder Register of Merit judges, who judge at AKC specialties that are designated by the club as ROM events.
So I was immersed in Bull Terriers and judging them for years before we got Lola. She’s three now. This breed can be a challenge for some. She’s incredibly loyal and affectionate, and they’re all like that. She loves to cuddle and snuggle – they’re that kind of dog. And their antics: They are thick, muscled dogs but they’re incredibly agile, and will flip and spin and roll in very tight spaces, which you don’t expect. They also can be challenging and stubborn, but we did not have that experience. We somehow got the perfect princess.
With husband Sean and the "kids" Lola and Emmitt.
Back to this idea of having great depth in the breeds one judges: Doesn’t that run contrary to the idea of judging Best, where no one can have the same depth, or even interest, in each breed that might walk in?
When I started in dogs, we went to shows and stayed to the end – that’s how you went to a dog show. Even though I have more intense, hands-on experience with Sporting and Hound breeds, I showed and prepared breeds across all groups. I’ve watched a lot of groups, large entries for many breeds. I think I’ve always been a student.
When it comes to judging Best in Show, under typical circumstances by the time you walk into that ring, you’ve seen the winners be selected, and have time to look at a standard. Westminster is different because you’re sequestered. But I think at that point you have seven excellent animals. With a wide range of experience across a large number of breeds, most people are going to have a sense of quality.
For me, the way I approached dogs actually better prepared me for something like that than the traditional path: Someone owns just one breed, and starts off by pursuing judging of that breed. It’s a very different approach.
Reading a standard is one thing, but I want to know what my reaction should be when I’m looking at a dog. Is this dog conveying to me the essence of its breed? A global experience, a global eye – that’s what floats my boat.
Why did you start judging?
When judges are asked that, some say, “Well, it was the next natural step” or “I wanted to give back.” But it wasn’t that for me – I was selfish. I enjoy looking at animals. I love horses as well. I see them as living art, and it brings me a lot of personal pleasure when I see a beautiful representative of a breed. I enjoy the process, the assessment, the internal exercise of assessing and sorting. I love the interactions with the dogs. There are certain dogs in certain moments that you get a vibe from and connect with.
The standard to me is just the first step. It’s the blueprint of the house – but you have to flesh that out with trimmings and trappings. You can’t understand any breed statically. You need to see it in motion, and you need to see it from different vantage points. I love that process. It’s what attracted me to the sport from the very beginning.
Second group assignment at Westminster.
You were the nation’s number-one Junior Handler for three consecutive years. Do you enjoy judging Juniors?
My experience with Juniors was really positive, and I do enjoy judging it. I’d like to think I’m very aware of what it means to these kids. I love the kids who have a challenging dog and deal with it well – that goes to the front of the line.
While I think Junior Showmanship is an important part of the sport, I also think it’s really important that they get themselves into the conformation ring. I had that benefit: From the time I was 11, I was also in the breed ring with all the grownups. It helps develop your skill in how you conduct yourself.
Finally, having responsibility for the care at home – feeding, cleaning, grooming – develops a sense of commitment and work ethic, and the ability to handle victories and defeats, which life throws at everybody.
Over the last few years, you’ve gotten used to being on camera at Westminster, albeit from a different vantage point than the middle of the ring. What has that been like?
I did the Westminster daytime commentary for two years, and the nighttime for three. It’s a lot of fun. Daytime is much more relaxed, kind of as you go. The producers decide on certain breeds they want to feature, and you can take the conversation wherever you want.
The evening, however, is fast paced: You only have a minute per dog, and there’s information that needs to get put forward. We have three people in the booth playing off each other – “I’ll take this one, let’s split that one,” and also you have the producers in your ear giving feedback. They will count you out on each dog – ten, nine, eight, seven – and you’re still talking.
With nighttime, the first year was a challenge. There was a steep learning curve. The next year was better, because I knew what to expect, and felt a little bit more confident giving some input. And the following year, last year, it felt like I had even more of a part and control in it.
It’s very exciting: You’re on air for four hours, which is a very long time to stay on air and be upbeat. My role is to offer the perspective of the judge, and knowledge of the breed. You don’t want to sound like a broken record every year, so you try to find something interesting and quirky – a fun fact, or something about the handler or judge that personalizes it. And when you’re live, you don’t get do-overs. If you say something horrible or stupid, it’s already out there.
Co-hosting the live telecast of Westminster with Chris Myers and Gail Miller Bisher.
But this year, instead of making the commentary, you’ll be the object of it.
I obviously think about it a lot. I play it over in my head. I rewatched some previous shows to remind me of the routine and traditions. Different people have approached that differently. I can’t help but be aware of the television aspect of the event. I know what makes for good TV and what doesn’t.
I think it’s something that’s like a dream of everyone, and not everyone will have that dream come true. I feel incredibly lucky and honored that that dream is coming true for me. I know how much this means: Westminster is the dog show – there’s no way around that.
No other show has that many significant memories, or means that much, to people in our sport. To be a part of that is pretty awesome. I’ve been reading books and looking at Westminster history – including Bill Stifel’s book. And when you think about this in terms of those who came before, and now I’m part of that story, that’s pretty cool.
This assignment must be a bit bittersweet because one of the most important people in your life won’t be around to see it.
My mom was always my biggest fan. She was an incredibly intelligent, strong woman. When it came to dog shows, she knew how important they were to me, and there was never a no. Instead, it was “OK, if you’ll do the work, yes.” She was encouraging but had no expectations. There was never a feeling of “Oh, it’s a waste of a day because we didn’t win.” We went to have a good time, and if we did win, that was extra. That was key – making it available, making it accessible, but she had no personal investment. It was all for me.
Later in life, we were friends, and talked every day on the phone. My father and sister drifted away from the sport, but my mom always stayed connected with it.
MBIS Ch. Dassin Madiselle, co-owned with his mother, who is next to him in this photo, and Joseph Vergnetti. A special memory.
Did she know about you being entrusted with an assignment that for most is the considered the pinnacle of success in our sport?
Toward the end, she was aware I was invited to do Best in Show at Westminster. She had become pretty incapacitated, but she was insisting she’d find a way to be there. She passed away last May.
I have a very vivid memory about the first time I showed at Westminster as a 10-year-old Junior. Somehow I made it into the finals, and that photo was in a little frame at home. When I got my first judging assignment at Westminster, I brought that to the show with me, and before I started judging Golden Retrievers, I walked up to the seats and gave her that photo.
So I’ll be thinking about that before Best in Show. I won’t have the opportunity to do that again, but she’ll be very much present in my mind and heart. She’d be incredibly proud.