Lenoir City man, judging at Westminster 'an incredible honor'
Lenoir City resident Walter Sommerfelt is one of 32 judges in the 141st annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Feb. 13-14 in New York. It’s the third Westminster assignment for Sommerfelt, a dog owner, breeder, exhibitor and handler in “the sport of dogs” for more than four decades.
“To be selected to do this is just an incredible honor,” Sommerfelt said recently.
Begun in 1877, Westminster is America’s oldest organization dedicated to the sport of purebred dogs. Its dog show is billed as the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country. Only the Kentucky Derby is older, by one year.
This year, 2,798 dogs of more than 200 breeds compete. They begin in breed contests with other dogs like them. The largest breed contests are Golden Retrievers with 65 dogs, Labrador Retrievers and French Bulldogs with 46 dogs each, and Whippets with 45.
At Westminster, “as a judge, you know you are going to see the best of the best,” Sommerfelt says.
He'll judge competitions for 20 breeds. Some, like the Australian Cattle Dogs, Belgian Malinois and Old English Sheepdogs he’ll examine Monday, are well known. Others aren’t. Only two Boerboels, also called South African mastiffs, are registered in their contest. He’ll see just four Swedish Vallhunds, a Spitz-like dog recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2007.
Other breeds he judges Monday include Belgian Sheepdogs, Belgian Tervuren, Bergamascos, Berger Picards, Entlebucher Mountain Dogs, Finnish Lapphunds, Icelandic Sheepdogs, Miniature American Shepherds, Norwegian Buhunds, Pyrenean Shepherds and Spanish Water Dogs. On Tuesday, he’ll examine the Boerboels as well as German Pinschers, Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs, Tibetan Mastiffs and a native French breed called Dogues de Bordeaux. Five breeds he’ll judge – those two Boerboels, the Berger Picards, Miniature American Shepherds, Spanish Water Dogs and Dogues de Bordeaux – were recognized by the AKC in 2015.
Winners he picks Monday will compete in the evening herding group. Tuesday's picks compete in that evening’s working group contest. Altogether he’ll see an expected 206 dogs, examining them based on each breed’s “standard.” That written description sets an animal’s general appearance, temperament and movement as well as traits from height and weight to ear shape and placement. Judges memorize those standards.
“You don’t judge one dog against the other,” Sommerfelt says. “You judge them against the standard. It’s how you interpret that standard. You judge them on that day. Don’t judge them on the past; judge them on how they stand, how they look in front of you at that particular moment.”
Sommerfelt’s been judging dogs since 1985. He’s judged at Westminster in 2012 and 2014; he evaluated the herding group in 2014. He's approved to judge all the sporting, working and herding breeds and groups as well as the Junior Showmanship and Best in Show categories. He’s judged in Asia, Europe, North America and South America.
“The best thing about judging in foreign countries is wherever we go we are with people who share a common bond and common interest. The sport of dogs is a sport that is filled with people from all walks of life. … We have people from 5 to 95 who are showing their dogs and sharing a common bond and common goal. If someone had told me when I showed my first puppy that some 40 years later I would be traveling around the world judging dog shows and meeting all these people and doing all this, I would have said, ‘My God, that’s amazing.’"
Canines have been part of Sommerfelt's life since 1972 when he bought his first dog, an Old English Sheepdog named Ginger. He met his wife, Carol, who's also an approved dog show judge, because of their interest in Vizslas. She bred and owned the slick, golden-rust animals; he was her dogs’ professional handler.
But growing up, Sommerfelt never had a dog. His mother was allergic, so canines weren’t allowed. But he always thought those big, hairy canines in Disney’s “Shaggy Dog” films were “kind of cool looking. I thought, ‘Someday I’d like to have one of those dogs.’"
When he graduated high school and was on his own, his first act was to buy Ginger. When he was asked to bring her to a puppy show, he found an avocation. "I didn’t intend on showing her until someone introduced me to it. I had a really good time, and I met a lot of fun people. It blossomed from there.”
Ginger earned an obedience title but she wasn’t a “great show dog,” he says. His next dogs were much-easier-to-groom pointers. When he met Carol, the Vizslas she loved became a constant part of their home. As they raised their two children, their family over the years also included papillons, bearded collies, Tibetan terriers and American foxhounds. “You see a breed and you see cool dogs and you say, ‘I wonder what they are like to live with,’" he says.
Married 33 years, the Sommerfelts have owned, bred and shown Vizslas and other breeds, breeding more than 75 champions in different competitions and categories. But their animals aren't just for show.
“Just because they’re show dogs doesn’t mean they’re not pets first," he says. “They are always pets first and foremost. My philosophy is that your dog is your best friend.”
The Sommerfelts moved to Lenoir City in 2003 from the Memphis area; he’s also a financial planner and agent for Nationwide Insurance. They now show their Vizslas – they currently own five – in 20 to 30 shows across the country.
Sommerfelt says becoming a dog show judge was a natural progression. “You develop a passion for dogs. The next logical step in the process from an exhibitor to a breeder is to judge.” Qualifications include breeding and showing dogs at least 10 years and having produced champions. People who apply must pass interviews and written tests. A judge begins examining the breed he's most familiar with and gradually becomes qualified to judge others.
Among the beautiful, well-trained canine "athletes" Sommerfelt judges he sometimes finds an animal with something “special.”
“They have that personality, that pizzazz, that showmanship. There’s nothing more exciting than discovering the next great dog. There are those moments when you put your hands on it and go, ‘Wow, this is what’s been in my mind of what this dog should look like.’ That’s what you are always looking for.”
Sommerfelt believes the public would be amazed at the “time, effort, expense, love and care that go into a dog before it ever walks in the ring. I think the average person would not understand how much a win at Westminster is cherished by people. The wonderful thing is there can be only one winner in each breed, and there is an enormous amount of great sportsmanship among the exhibitors congratulating and being happy for the person who won. And maybe they come back next year and win it.”