Woman's pup makes it to Westminster Dog Show

By Thomas Wilson

   While watching the popular Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on television several years ago, a breed caught Judy Grindstaff's eye.
   A Greater Swiss Mountain dog trotted through the show ring and into Grindstaff's heart.
   "When I saw them in Westminster, I told my husband 'that's the dog I want,'" said Grindstaff. "I didn't know anything about showing, but I learned."
   Little did she know the decision to begin raising the breed as a show dog would bring her back to Westminster, this time as a dog owner.
   Grindstaff began her Blue Mist Kennels six years ago to breed the Greater Swiss, often called the "Swissy", six years ago starting with a female named Melody who has produced three litters of puppies. Six of Melody's pups have gone on to become American Kennel Club champions.
   "I just really want the dog to be my dog; I didn't want to show her," said Grindstaff, who works as administrative assistant at First United Methodist Church in Elizabethton. "I didn't expect to show her."
   Grindstaff said she was encouraged to take Melody to the show ring by other dog owners while taking Melody to training classes. She ended up enjoying the experience so much she later opened Blue Mist Kennels dedicated to dog breeding.
   Today, the Grindstaff household is home to three adult "Swissies" as they are often called named Melody, Misty and Maddie, and one rather stout six-month-old pup named Sassy.
   The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is as rare in its native Switzerland as it is in the United States with extremely low birth rates -- just over 100 puppies are born each year. Only three of Melody's last litter of 12 puppies survived.
   Families from as far as Colorado and California have adopted Melody's puppies and put many in the show competitions. Six of those pups have gone on to become American Kennel Club champions.
   Grindstaff's Swissy family hit the big time this year when Melody's pup Emmie competed against other Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs in the 128th annual Westminster show held in New York City earlier this month. A couple from upstate New York purchased Emmie shortly after she was born two years ago and began grooming her for the show ring.
   "I told them when they got her if she went to Westminster I was going," said Grindstaff. When Emmie got her championship points she and Grindstaff were on their way to New York. Grindstaff got to see firsthand the rigorous competition dogs are put through from competition among breeds to each group.
   Regarded as the Super Bowl of the show dog world, this year's 128th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show drew more than 2,500 canine competitors from 162 breeds and seven groups. A Newfoundland named Josh won the Working Group and took the top prize as Best in Show.
   The American Kennel Club registers breeds and sets forth rigorous standards required of each breed. Judges examine the dogs, then give awards according to how closely each dog compares to the judge's mental image of the "perfect" dog described in the breed's official standard. A dog earns show dog status by earning points through AKC competitions. The more competitions a dog wins, the higher its national rank among a breed.
   "You dog is judged to the standard of that particular breed," Grindstaff said.
   Swissy markings are jet black over most of the body with a fringe color of rich brown around their undercarriage and white fur over their legs. The dog must meet breed standards of height, weight, coloring and temperament.
   As evidenced by Melody, Misty and Sassy, the Swissy is 110 pounds of unbridled energy and enthusiasm. However, their active nature carries a potential risk to home furnishings sliding coffee tables and chairs over the wood floors purely with their movement.
   "They want to be right where you are," said Grindstaff.
   The Greater Swiss is one of the earliest descendants of the large Mastiff-type dogs introduced to the Alpine region by the ancient Romans. Developed in the remote and isolated areas of Switzerland, the Swissy was adapted to general farm use as a herding dog, guard dog, and utilitarian draft dog. Grindstaff's dogs have earned designations.
   While growth of interest in Swissy breed has been slow, it has been steady. In 1968, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America was formed for the express purpose of obtaining AKC recognition. The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog was given Working Group designation by AKC and became eligible for full recognition status on July 1, 1995.
   The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog was instrumental in the early development of both the Saint Bernard and the Rottweiler, according to the AKC's breed history. The Swissy has traditionally been associated with the farmers and tradesmen of small Swiss villages. In keeping with the breed's reputation as a renowned draft dog, Grindstaff's dog participate in performance competitions in which the dogs pull wagons carrying hundreds of pounds of weight.
   The Swissy is more than a pretty face. The breed also competes in drafting competitions that demonstrate the breed's brawn. In a national drafting competition held three years ago, Melody pulled 680 pounds in a two-wheeled wagon. After six years in the show ring and the competition events, Grindstaff said Melody effectively retired after her last litter.
   "She's had all these champions and I didn't want to put her through anything else," said Grindstaff.
   Animal breeding was not entirely new to Grindstaff. As the owners of Little Stoney Stables in Stoney Creek, she and her husband, A.B. Grindstaff, have raised show horses for years. As most breeders know, Grindstaff said it became nearly impossible not to keep at least one puppy from each litter.
   Like most breeds, the Swissy also has its share of health problems peculiar to each breed. Life expectancy is roughly 10 years with the cancer being the number one cause of death for the breed. Grindstaff said the breed's health problems make her value her time with the dogs even more.
   "I've always loved dogs all my life," she said, "but I've never had anything like these versatile dogs."