BEAVERCREEK TOWNSHIP — Victoria Seiler-Cushman was 12 the first time she showed her mother’s Siberian Husky, Lobo, at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City. She recently returned — this time as a judge.
Seiler-Cushman, of Beavercreek Township, judged eight breeds and junior showmanship preliminary rounds during the prestigious competition Feb. 11-12, at Piers 92/94. This was her first assignment at Westminster.
But it all started with that day years ago in Madison Square Garden.
“I was so excited,” Seiler-Cushman said of her debut Westminster appearance, “and when I came into the ring, the crowd went crazy — I guess because, I didn’t think anything of it, but — little kids usually aren’t in the center of Madison Square Garden showing a dog, so it was kinda fun.”
The youngest in her class, she and Lobo walked away from the show with 4th place in the Working Group.
Seiler-Cushman trained as an apprentice and then became a professional handler, guiding top-winning dogs in all groups, and winning the Working Group at Westminster in 1990 with her Giant Schnauzer. During her career, she won more than 200 Best in Shows and earned the titles “Top New Professional Handler” and later, “Female Handler of the Year” from Kennel Review Magazine. After 35 years, she retired and became a judge.
Two years ago, she received a letter in the mail asking her to judge at the historic show. She kept it a secret, following protocol, for nearly a year.
Once her secret was out, her feelings mirrored the ones she described from that first day at Westminster.
“I am so excited,” she said, beaming, in her home, a couple weeks before the event. “Especially about Westminster because in our community of dog breeders, this is like the Super Bowl of dogdom … it is exciting for everyone across the world really.”
The Westminster Kennel Club held its first show in 1877, making it the second-longest running sporting event in history.
Seiler-Cushman said the history and prestige of the show makes the opportunity so special. But what also drives her is her constant love for the sport and for dogs, which began with her mother, Sylvia Jones.
“My mother showed dogs and this is the way our community is — it’s a family sport and a lot of families with children got into showing dogs as something to do to bring the family together,” she said.
Seiler-Cushman said Jones, who is a current member of the Dayton Kennel Club with her, still cheers her on. She said her husband would watch from the stands in the city and her two children, also dog-lovers, would watch her on TV.
The dog community extends beyond her immediate family, though, Seiler-Cushman said. She’s still friends with the then-kids she met when she first started showing.
“I have friends all over the world just because of this dog community, this dog family that we’re a part of,” she said. “We are a close family because a lot of these people have been on the same path that I have. When I travel and judge I’ll see friends throughout the year that I’ve known for 45 years.”
Seiler-Cushman called dog-lovers kind, passionate people.
“And people who love dogs tend to, I believe, gravitate to other people with the same interests,” she added.
Some of those friends judged at Westminster alongside her this year, where she judged Boston Terriers and Chinese Shar-Pei on Monday and the Akitas, Boxers, Great Danes, Rottweilers, Siberian Huskies, and Weimaraners on Tuesday. Each Best of Breed winner she selected then competed in the Non-Sporting Group finals on Monday evening and the Sporting and Working Group finals Tuesday evening.
It’s a transition, she explained, to switch mindsets from showing to judging.
“When I’m showing, all I’m thinking about is my dog: Is my dog happy that day? Is he healthy? Does his coat look beautiful? Is he feeling good so he can get out there and move?” she explained. “And when I’m judging, the breed standards are going through my head through the entire process. So by the end of the day, my head hurts from making a thousand decisions.”
Seiler-Cushman said she looks at every characteristic from dogs’ silhouettes to the way their feet fall as they run.
“My goal is to give every single dog a fair chance and to have the knowledge to find the best one that day,” she said. “I think I will be nervous before I get started, then once they begin to bring the dogs in I think I’ll just go into my dog-loving mode. It’ll just be natural. I’ll just be delighted.”
But some decisions prove even tougher — like picking out four of the eight finalists to move onto the Best Junior Handler Competition.
“That is such a tough competition because they are all so good and they try so hard,” she said of the Junior Showmanship contest, with children ages 10 to 17. “And being a mother, it’s so difficult to pick one over the other but I would like to find the junior handler with a natural talent for showing dogs. I like to see that they are not too robotic, and that they really care about the dog that they’re showing.”
And when it all came to an end, she may have thought back to that time a little girl brought Lobo to New York City.