From Slate Mills to canine prime time

Karen Wilson has travelled all over the world. She’s not a professional athlete, politician, travel writer or spy. She’s a certified dog show judge – and this year she’ll be judging the sporting dog group at the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual dog show in New York, probably the best known show of them all.

The annual all-breed dog show is in its 137th year – but this will be the first time that Wilson will be doing her judging on live, prime-time television.

Wilson awards “Best in Show” to wire fox terrier Sky and her handler Gabriel Rangel at the National Dog Show in 2011. Courtesy photo.
Wilson awards “Best in Show” to wire fox terrier Sky and her handler Gabriel Rangel at the National Dog Show in 2011. Courtesy photo.

Wilson is serving as the sporting group judge this year. “Sporting dogs,” as Wilson points out, is the label applied to dogs most commonly thought of as hunting dogs, which includes around 27 different breeds, though new ones are added all the time. Group judging is what viewers who tune into USA Network Feb. 12-13 can see; the individual breed judging takes place earlier in the day.

Once again New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosts the Westminster show, which, according to the Nielsen ratings, attracted three million viewers last year, an all-time high for the show. Last year’s show was also the third most-watched show of the night, behind only MTV’s “Teen Mom 2” and the CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory.”

Wilson, a San Diego native and one of the “maybe 40 people in Slate Mills,” first got involved with dogs with Gary, her husband of 52 years whom she met in high school. “Both of us had dogs our entire lives,” Wilson said, adding that it was a natural step to start breeding and showing them.

They first started showing dogs at obedience schools in the Walnut Creek, Calif. area.

The two lived in California in 1966 and were active breeder/owner/handlers of Airedale and cairn terriers and Irish setters, eventually breeding a top-winning cairn terrier and an Irish setter in the ’70s named Klassic – full name, Champion Karen Gary’s Klassic. “Better known to us as Buster,” Wilson said with a laugh.

She and her husband moved to Virginia in 1969, spending time in Prince William County before moving out to Rappahannock 15 years ago.

Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

“We just loved the space,” Wilson said, asked why they chose Rappahannock. “We have 80 acres here, and it’s such a quiet, peaceful area . . . It’s wonderful to get away from all the noise and the hectic areas [of Washington, D.C.].”

Wilson and her husband continued showing dogs for years after their move. “At one point, we had 24 dogs, but that was when we lived in Manassas,” Wilson said. “When you’re constantly buying the best quality dogs, judging is a natural next step.”

Gary retired from showing when Wilson first began judging, worrying that it could be construed as a conflict of interest. Her two eldest daughters were involved in junior showing when they were younger, but Wilson said they are both busy with their lives and are no longer actively involved in it.

Wilson made the move from breeding to judging in 1991 at the request of the American Kennel Club (AKC), the registry of purebred dog pedigrees in the U.S. that serves as the governing body of the Westminster shows and other similar events.

“I’m licensed to judge all terriers, hounds and sporting dogs groups,” Wilson said. “I completed the terrier group before the sporting group, and the sporting group before the hound group. You usually move from judging individual breeds to groups. I guess if you do a good enough job [with breeds], they ask you to judge the groups!”

Since one of her specialties was terriers, Wilson first judged that group at a show 10 years ago, and while she says she is excited to judge a group at Westminster for the first time, the group showings and the final “best in show” groups are broadcast live – a first for her.

“All the others ones I’ve done were taped, so there was less to worry about if you messed up,” said Wilson, who is in the process of making her own silk gown to wear to the show. She says sewing, like cooking, is a longtime hobby.

The process for becoming an AKC-certified judge isn’t easy. According to the AKC website, there are multiple criteria judges have to meet, including exhibiting dogs in conformation shows for at least 12 years, breeding five litters in the breed for which they are applying to judge, and breeding four AKC champions in the designated breed.

“Everybody starts out judging their own breed,” Wilson pointed out. “People can progress from judging a single breed to judging a group if they get invited to.”

Since becoming a full-time judge, she has judged dog shows all over the world, including in Denmark, China, Brazil, Australia and the Philippines.

Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

“It keeps you pretty busy,” laughs Wilson, who, when not on prime-time television, is apparently an easygoing and down-to-earth soul. “And there are all sorts of rules for it,” she adds, “like you can’t judge two shows closer than 300 miles within 30 days of each other. And that’s just one of them.”

Westminster is the second longest-running continuously held sporting event in the country (behind only the Kentucky Derby), and Wilson’s first judging assignment came two years ago. Westminster, she said, avoids potential conflicts by booking judges years in advance – “I was asked three years ago,” she said – and forbidding its judges from judging the same groups they’ll judge at Westminster in other dog shows.

“You have to be asked; it’s not something you can just walk in and apply for,” Wilson points out. 

Judges also have a lengthy and specific set of guidelines to follow when judging a breed. The AKC develops lists of qualities top dogs are supposed to demonstrate and judges to notice. Some of the characteristics include movement, temperament, height, weight, coat, color, eyes, feet, tail and more.

Those qualities are also tailored to individual breeds, meaning terrier qualifications and hound qualifications are different, necessitating a very thorough grasp of what to look for in each group.

Wilson is also a past president and officer of the Cairn Terrier Club of America, secretary and board member of the Dog Judges Association of America, and a member of Charlottesville-Albemarle Kennel Club.

This isn’t the first time a Rappahannock resident has appeared on the Madison Square Garden arena floor at Westminster, however. The Best in Show award for 2011 went to Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, a Scottish Deerhound owned and bred by Flint Hill residents Scott and Ceil Dove. Hickory, now enjoying retirement in Flint Hill, was also trained by Angela Lloyd, who recently moved from Fauquier County to Rappahannock.

When not judging dog shows, Wilson spends her time volunteering at Culpeper Presbyterian Church and keeping up with her 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, most of whom have remained nearby (though one daughter does live in Alaska).

“This is just a hobby for me,” Wilson adds. “It’s exciting and it fills my time, but it’s ultimately just one of many hobbies.”