Striker Will Never Know He Wasn’t Best in Show

TORONTO — No one watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last year could have missed Striker the Samoyed, a blindingly white confection of fluff and enthusiasm who stole the show with his goofy joie de vivre. Sadly for his fans, Striker lost in the final round, defeated by a lugubriously dignified bloodhound and a perky little French bulldog.

But has he spent the past year moping dejectedly around the house, whining about what might have been?

“Hell, no,” said Judi Elford, Striker’s breeder and, with Marc Ralsky and Correen Pacht, his co-owner. “Does he care that he did not win best in show at Westminster? As long as he gets attention, no — he does not.”

An old dog at 6 by the harsh standards of the showing world, Striker retired last year and won’t be returning to Westminster for this year’s competition, which started Saturday and concludes Tuesday night. But he is still a champion, and he is still busy — playing, romping, posing and shedding at the home he shares with Pacht and Ralsky in north Toronto.

Samoyeds are an unusually chill breed, his owners say, and Striker is an unusually chill dog. “He wakes up happy and he’s like, ‘Let’s go!’” Ralsky said. “He never has a bad day. Whatever you want to do — ‘Let’s go for a drive in the car. Let’s sit on the couch. Let’s watch a movie. Let’s get an ice cream cone’ — he’s up for it.”

Striker has a special friend, a winsome Siberian husky bitch who also shares the Pacht-Ralsky home. “She’s awesome,” Pacht said when introducing her recently. It turns out that she is, literally, Awesome — it is her name, bestowed by her breeder — but she is also a bit of a handful. “Siberians are put on this earth to make people alcoholics,” Ralsky said.

If Awesome is queen of the household in the eyes of Striker, who slavishly follows her around in case she wants to play with him, she is happy to cede the celebrity spotlight. Striker is a natural ham who believes that he is, or should be, the center of attention at all times.

“He’s always scanning the room to see who’s looking at him,” Elford said. Meeting other people while out walking, he stops to “stack,” dog show lingo for posing. “He’ll think, ‘Why is everyone walking around if not for me?’” Ralsky said.

Indeed, when a photographer and her assistant arrived, Striker clambered onto a box on the patio and stood there in perfect show-dog configuration, his fur wafting in the breeze, basking like Norma Desmond in the full attention of six humans and a lot of camera equipment.

Elford, who raised Striker (full name: Ch. Vanderbilt ’N Printemp’s Lucky Strike) from puppyhood, always knew there was something special about him. It wasn’t just that he conforms to the breed standard, with his wedge-shaped head, almond eyes, powerful build and double-textured coat; it was the addition of a certain ineffable quality.

“He’s always had that X factor,” Elford said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s next-level.”

Elford met Ralsky on the dog show circuit a few years back, when, the alphabet being what it is, her Samoyed was positioned in the ring in front of his Siberian husky. Unnerved by her dog’s dazzling whiteness, Ralsky joked that he had “a can of black paint in the car, and he was going to use it,” Elford said.

From that inauspicious beginning, a friendship was born, and later the three humans agreed to share the ownership and cost of Striker. Although they might get some money for breeding Striker, it has been mostly a money-losing proposition.

“It’s like having a kid that plays hockey or gymnastics or some other elite sport,” Ralsky said. “We’d be flying here or flying there and getting up at God knows what time. The money is the same, and so is the stress — the emotional ups and downs, the wins and losses.”

The pandemic upended the normal dog show schedule, especially for Canadians when the U.S.-Canada border was closed. Striker lived with his handler in the United States for much of 2020 and 2021, though Elford slipped across the border a couple of times using various ingenious methods — once she rented a helicopter — when restrictions loosened.

Throughout 2021, Elford said, Striker was the top-ranked dog in the United States, despite some tough competition. “There were dogs breathing down his neck,” she said, “a Lagatto Romagnolo and a boxer bitch named Wilma.” That year, with Elford secretly watching while concealing her identity behind a pair of sunglasses so as not to over-excite the dog, Striker lost Westminster to a Pekingese named Wasabi.

In 2022, he got a second chance.

First, he defeated all the other Samoyeds. Then, for the second year in a row, he won the working group — prevailing over dogs like Doberman pinschers and Great Danes. (“Working dogs” were bred to do things like herd, guard, rescue, haul and hunt, although it is fair to say that modern show dogs do not do these things.)

Going into the best in show competition, Ralsky and Pacht were nervous wrecks.

“I had a couple of Aperol spritzes,” said Ralsky.

“I had quite a few,” said Pacht.

“It’s like getting to the final of the U.S. Open,” said Ralsky.

When Striker came out, the crowd went wild for his cloudlike majesty and for the amusing way his tongue stuck out as he romped around the ring. He looked happy to be there, which is more than you can say for some dogs. “Everyone was screaming and cheering,” said Ralsky. “He was perfection.”

“Everyone loves a Sammy,” Pacht said.

The best in show judge in 2022, Donald G. Sturz, said in an interview that he successfully insulated himself from the crowd’s noise as he considered the dogs before him. Though he found Striker to be “gorgeous,” he said that the eventual winner, a majestically wrinkled bloodhound named Trumpet, “gave me goose bumps.”

“He stepped out and planted his feet and stood there proudly and looked at me as if to say, ‘There you go,’” said Sturz, who is now the Westminster Kennel Club president. “And I thought, That’s my winner.”

Striker returned to Canada a celebrity, the subject of newspaper and television profiles. A local company presented him with some purple and black custom-made doggy boots. He became a brand ambassador for a dog-vitamin firm, pulling in perhaps $2,000, Ralsky said. Another deal — with a grooming-products company — fell through when the brand reneged on its promise of free shampoo.

The most exciting moment came, perhaps, when his photo appeared on “Jeopardy!” and the host, Ken Jennings, gave him a shout-out. “Seen here is Striker,” Jennings said, “a type of this Russian-named dog that won Westminster’s title in 2022 for best working-group dog.”

Nobody got the right answer. “What is a Bolshoi?” one contestant guessed. (Wrong! Among other things, that is not a breed of dog.)

His owners fully admit that Striker is spoiled rotten, with constant access to a full complement of magnificent stuffed toys, including plush versions of things like Cheez Doodles and bottles of rosé. (“It’s very weird, though,” Pacht said. “He only likes small little baby toys, like he’s a baby.”)

He gets a bath every other week, a serious, multiple-hour undertaking that requires a dizzying concoction of products and “a mega-force hot air dryer,” his owners say. To protect his coat from bad weather, they make him wear a raincoat.

He gets two gummy bears as an evening snack and spends the night on and off his owners’ bed, pawing at them for attention.

He may be the most successful Samoyed in dog show history, Ralsky said, “but at the end of the day, he sleeps with us.”

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