Lifestyle

Heel! A ruff guide to Japan’s top dogs

Examining the nation’s deluxe dog show industry

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

On Feb. 16, a borzoi called Lucy entertained crowds with a graceful performance in the final round of the 140th Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Lucy, the first Japan-bred dog to reach the “best in show” round of the event, was competing against six other hounds in the final segment of the competition. The 4-year-old purebred was among 2,751 other entries in 199 breeds and varieties competing for the top prize.

To reach the final round, each dog has to be named best in their breed, then work their way to the top of one of seven groups: hound, toy, nonsporting, herding, sporting, working and terrier. Lucy qualified for the final round by winning the hound group.

A German short-haired pointer named CJ won the overall competition but Lucy took second place — a result that was a dream come true for both the dog’s breeder, Kyoko Ozeki, and her handler, Shota Hirai.

“It was like winning an Olympic gold medal,” Ozeki says. “Westminster is seen as the classiest dog show in the world. It’s the dog show everyone wants to win.”

Lucy had already won dog shows in Japan, but she had to prove her credentials from scratch in order to compete in New York.

Ozeki entered Lucy in competitions in the United States in July last year, winning half a dozen or so awards, and earning the right to join the fabled Westminster competition.

“I knew Lucy was going to be special from the minute she was born,” Ozeki recalls. “She’s an extraordinary beauty. Six of her seven puppies are also champions.”

A dog’s life

The Westminster competition and Crufts, which is run by The Kennel Club in England, attract participants from all over the world.

According to Japan Kennel Club, the world’s inaugural dog show was held in Newcastle, England, in 1859.

However, the fledgling competitions lacked clear rules and regulations, something that was clarified by the establishment of The Kennel Club in 1873. Across the Atlantic, the first Westminster dog show was hosted in 1877.

Japan’s love affair with dog shows, however, is a more recent development. Hounds were increasingly imported from abroad after the 1886 Meiji Restoration, but a dog-show culture didn’t develop in the country until around the 1950s, according to Japan Kennel Club.

In 2015, 301,605 purebreds of 134 varieties were registered with Japan Kennel Club.

More than 300 dog shows are currently held nationwide every year. The biggest domestic competition is the annual FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale) Japan International Dog Show, which is hosted by Japan Kennel Club.

The competition this year was held on April 2 and 3 at Tokyo Big Sight, with 2,252 dogs in 127 breeds and varieties duking it out for the top prize.

Tokyo Big Sight’s 17,000-square-meter exhibition space was packed with people and their dogs at the beginning of April. A number of dog varieties were on display, ranging from popular household pets such as poodles and chihuahuas to large breeds such as Newfoundlands and Great Danes.

The animals were divided into 10 groups according to different kinds of breed and judged in nine rings set up inside the venue.

The judges first selected the best dog of specific breeds before choosing the best animal within each group. The judges then selected an overall “king” and “queen” from these 10 finalists, one of which was awarded top prize.

Puppies were also judged separately in the same way.

The FCI Japan International Dog Show also featured two grooming competitions, where 123 professionals and 123 trainees were given two hours to showcase their skills.

Ireland’s Michael Forte, the chief judge of this year’s show, was impressed with the quality of dogs on display at the show.

“I knew beforehand the high quality of dogs in Japan — that they are very, very good — and so I was really looking forward to seeing them,” says Forte, who was visiting Japan for the first time. “I was not disappointed. There were some fantastic dogs, most of them very good-natured, very well cared for and in excellent condition.”

The dogs in the competition were divided into groups in accordance with FCI rules.

Group 1, for example, contained sheepdogs and cattle dogs, including border collies and Cardigan Welsh corgis. Group 10, meanwhile, contained sighthounds such as whippets and borzois.

Animals presented in dog shows are not judged solely on their physical appearance. The FCI rules lay out certain criteria that make up the “perfect” specimen of a particular breed and the animal that appears to be closest to that standard is usually named the winner.

Judges carefully examine each dog, assessing the characteristics of its skull, teeth, bone structure, eyes and hair color. The judges also examine the way in which an animal runs, among other variables.

Forte says judging at the competition can sometimes appear to be a little subjective.

“No dog is perfect and the difference in judging is what a judge is prepared to forgive,” Forte says. “When (the judges) go into the ring, they will forgive something a dog has … or what they don’t forgive, I don’t mind because I want something else. That’s why you get a variety of dogs winning.”

Forte, a 40-year veteran who is licensed to judge all dog breeds, found it difficult to remember all the criteria at the start of his career. Now, however, his experience enables him to compare the animal in front of him to the best example he has seen in the past.

This year, Forte selected a golden retriever as the best puppy in show. For the top prize, however, Forte selected a gorgeous white Great Pyrenees.

“It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen (a Great Pyrenees) that good,” he says. “(The winner) has wonderful bone (structure). He is a very natural dog … wonderful topline, wonderful substance, excellent pigmentation and he has the most beautiful typical nature for this breed, which is very important. You know he is just so gentle and that’s why I fell in love with him.”

Paws for thought

The 2016 Japan Kennel Club show attracted about 55,000 people, with participants ranging from professional breeders such as Ozeki — Lucy won the top prize in 2015 before heading overseas — to amateurs such as Akiko Ujiie, who entered the competition with her two Yorkshire terriers, Big and Rider. Ujiie has a full-time office job during the week but has been spending the weekends and her days off participating in dog shows.

“The dog-show world is fascinating and I’ve come to learn that it builds a strong bond between you and your dogs,” Ujiie says. “I have begun to feel a sense of fulfillment that I’ve never felt before. And if they are lucky enough to win an award, it makes me happier than if I had won it myself.”

Ujiie has a full-time job and is therefore unable to accompany her dogs to shows that are held throughout Japan and the world. To get around this, she employs professional handlers that she trusts to help her dogs become champions. At home, however, she takes care of her dogs herself, even going to grooming school for three years to learn how to maintain her Yorkshire terriers’ hair.

Ujiie typically wraps her terriers’ hair in paper to protect it from getting damaged. She also makes her dogs wear a jacket to prevent them from getting dirty. She currently has seven dogs at her home in Chiba Prefecture.

Finding the right breeder is important, Ujiie says. Two of Ujiie’s dogs carried genetic defects, but her breeder at the time didn’t appear to show much interest in her animals.

A few years later, Ujiie traveled to the U.S. to attend a dog show, and was introduced to a Yorkshire terrier breeder that completely changed her perspective of the industry.

For the next eight years or so, Ujiie visited the breeder in the state of Georgia just to play with the dogs. During that time, she was able to build a trusting relationship with her breeder and obtained one of her Yorkshire terrier puppies in 2010.

“I really hope that more people in Japan will actively seek out good breeders if they are looking for purebreds instead of buying dogs at pet shops,” Ujiie says. “It’s important to see what kind of parents a dog has, as well as the environment it has been raised in.”

Mating is a very important part of the breeding process. Veteran dog show judge Sumiyo Tomatsu says breeders carefully plan the process by looking at the shape of a dog’s head, the color of its hair, its bone structure and so on.

“Each breeder must judge the magic DNA that each dog possesses,” Tomatsu says. “No matter how good an intention is, you cannot create a dog in the same way as you can create an object. At the same time, however, it is a challenge for us humans to use our creativity to maintain purebred dogs.”

Several breeding methods are used to produce dogs that are as close to the perfect specimen of their breed as possible.

The most common method is “line breeding,” a technique in which two dogs whose lineage can each be traced to have crossed at least three generations back are mated with one another.

Breeders sometimes use “outbreeding,” or pairing animals with no common familial heritage, to increase genetic diversity.

“Inbreeding,” or mating animals of the same direct bloodline, is also an option but breeders generally don’t recommend it.

“Line breeding is more stable because of the laws of inheritance derived by (Gregor) Mendel,” Tomatsu says, referring to the work of a 19th-century Austrian monk who founded the modern science of genetics. “You can predict the outcome in about 60 percent of cases. With outbreeding, however, the results could come as a surprise.”

Dog lovers such as Tomatsu, Ujiie and Ozeki express concern over the country’s entrenched pet shop culture. Locked in tiny glass cages, pet shops sell puppies as young as 2 months old for hundreds of thousands of yen.

Tomatsu, who has known Ozeki for a long time, describes her as a “lifetime coordinator” of dogs because of her dedication to them.

Ozeki opposes selling puppies at a young age, adding that she is also appalled at the prices at which they are sold.

In fact, she says, breeders should take time to talk to potential new customers in order to make sure that they can provide a good home for the animals — and, in turn, should reject customers they feel are unsuitable as owners.

“A good breeder basically coordinates the living environment for the dogs he or she breeds,” Tomatsu says. “From nutrition to even the mental health of the owner, a good breeder takes responsibility over the life of a dog like a child — at least until it is ready to become a young adult.”

Ozeki has been breeding borzois and whippets for 30 years, and also has prior experience breeding Jack Russell terriers and papillons.

She manages eight dog runs on her 20,000-square-meter Dog Resort Narita in Chiba Prefecture, providing plenty of space for her dogs to roam freely. She also manages a dog hotel at the same location.

She has won Japan Kennel Club’s outstanding breeder award for borzois a number of times, and was introduced into the newly established Hall of Fame award this year.

“Dogs are like my babies who are in some ways closer to my heart than my own children because they always stay close,” Ozeki says. “On the other hand, children grow up and become independent, which is naturally how it should be.”

Ozeki’s love for dogs goes beyond breeding. She is on call 24 hours a day to provide information to customers seeking advice. She also takes in dogs that people abandon because they can no longer take care of them and even helps secure adoption.

Ozeki also wakes up every two hours at night, patrolling the outskirts of her property to make sure that no one has abandoned a dog in the neighborhood. If she finds one, she will try to find a new home for the abandoned pooch.

The breeder has never sent an abandoned dog to an animal shelter to be euthanized. As a result, she looks after about 100 dogs on her property.

Ozeki employs a few live-in staff to help her but, since her husband’s death in 2010, she has been maintaining the dog resort on her own.

At 67, she has considered giving it all up but, for now, wishes to continue.

“It’s my job to protect these dogs,” Ozeki says. “As a breeder, I have been entrusted with the lives of these dogs … and I am prepared to do whatever I can for them until the end.”