In world of show judges, Santa Fe woman is top dog

December 23, 2018

When Sharon Newcomb isn’t wearing tie-dyed T-shirts and grooming pups in the back of Top Dog Pet Resort in Santa Fe, she can be found in a tuxedo, judging some of the world’s most prestigious dog shows.

Among them is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show — the second-oldest sporting event in the country and one of the most renowned dog shows in the world.

Newcomb, who said she’s competed in or watched the event too many times to count, was selected to return to New York as a judge for the third time in February.

While Newcomb, 80, has a five-decade résumé in breeding and training dogs, she credits her behind-the-scenes efforts as a groomer and animal caregiver for instilling in her a better understanding of how to judge the posh canines.

While trimming a tangled mane on a Tibetan terrier named Jessie this week, Newcomb couldn’t help but admire its build and stature.

“That’s a beautiful dog,” she said, pressing its sides and lifting its chin. “You see it or you don’t, and I see it … I treat every dog like they’re my very best top show dog.”

Growing up, Newcomb, said, she was always around dogs: Her dad, Edward Herring, a bird hunter, was constantly bringing home pointers and Irish setters, and her German shepherd dog and toy fox terriers felt like siblings.

“I was always a dog nut,” she said with a laugh.

When Newcomb was in her early 20s, she got a Weimaraner named Hamburg. The dog was out of control, she said, and she decided to take him to obedience school. By the end of the two-month session, Hamburg was dubbed the most improved and best behaved of the class.

At 25, Newcomb attended her first dog show, in Nashville, as a curious spectator. Upon arrival, she said, she knew nothing about that kind of event. She showed up early in the morning to help set up chairs and ended up staying until the last person left.

“It’s like an alcoholic’s first drink,” she said. “I was hooked.”

Since then, Newcomb said, she’s competed in and judged thousands of shows — in cities such as Houston, San Diego, Philadelphia and countries like China, Australia and South Korea. Starting in 2012, she said, she won the breed group at Crufts, a London-based show — and arguably the world’s most famous — for three years in a row with a papillon named Dave.

Newcomb said she first started attending Westminster in the late 1960s and won the toy group competition in 1971 with a Pomeranian named Champion Duke’s Lil Red Baron of O’Kala. That dog, she said, went on to win 16 best-of-show competitions around the country.

At Westminster — “the cream of the crop of dog shows,” she said — she will judge that same group, which includes small dogs such as pugs, Maltese and toy poodles.

The opportunity, she said, is a a huge honor; only seven individuals from around the globe are selected to judge groups.

When she’s judged Westminster in the past, Newcomb said, she’s assessed individual breeds. Winners from each breed category are then judged in broader groups, including herding, non-sporting and toy. To now be judging a group, she said, is an opportunity she’s earned through a natural progression.

“It takes a long time to build up a résumé and get group status,” she added.

Her role, she explained, will help work toward selecting the overall best-of-show dog.

Of about 3,000 canines, “In the end, you have one dog. That dog will have defeated all the others,” she said.

When assessing a canine, judges are looking at its coat, gait, temperament and a variety of other qualities related to aesthetic and movement, Newcomb said.

It’s the kind of knowledge and expertise that takes time, said Newcomb’s oldest daughter, Kim Griffin, who runs the family’s Naples Pet Salon in Naples, Fla.

“She has been a lifetime student of dogs,” said Griffin. “Over 50 years, she has tasked herself with learning all of these individual breeds.”

Griffin, who said she remembers attending obedience schools with her mom as a young girl and training her first poodle at age 8, said what sets her mom’s work apart is her second-nature instincts and unique way of communicating with the animals.

“I’ve learned so much from her by osmosis — just being around it on a daily basis,” said Griffin. “She’s so instinctively good at” working with dogs.

Newcomb said she found out she was selected to judge Westminster about two years ago, but that Westminster Kennel Club requires its appointed judges to keep the news secret until about six months before the assignment.

“Once you become a judge, you hope for the plum, the prestigious assignments … When you open your mailbox and there’s a letter with Westminster on the return address, it’s a big rush,” she said. “It’s the one everyone wants to win, and it’s the one everyone wants to judge.”

Despite being a high-intensity event, Newcomb said she’s calm and confident.

“My only pressure is getting the right dress for national television,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not worried about [judging] the competition. There will be plenty of great dogs there.”

The best-of-show victor at Westminster gets a silver Revere bowl and a rosette ribbon. They may seem like small awards for such a famed event, but it’s passion — not money — that keeps people in the game, explained Newcomb.

It’s a long way from Westminster to the southwest side of Santa Fe, but Newcomb’s love for dogs is consistent. She opened Top Dog Resort last year, and it keeps her plenty busy. She’s up to her eyeballs in Tibetan terriers and Pomeranians. For a dog-lover, it’s the best way to live.

“I’ve never worked a day in my life,” she said. “I just wake up and do what I love.”

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