“Little Viking Dogs” Premier at Westminster
Jonricker Moustaffa is an experienced champion. During his career, the 12-year-old Swedish Vallhund has won numerous titles from best of breed to others in agility, rally, obedience and herding. But at the 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show this week, “Moose,” the competition’s oldest dog, was considered one of the greenhorns.
Along with the Plott, the Tibetan Mastiff and the Beauceron, the Swedish Vallhunds were one of four breeds newly admitted to the most prestigious purebred dog show in the country. A total of 169 breeds and varieties competed at the Madison Square Garden; and while neither Moose nor any of the Swedish Vallhunds made the cut for the best in show finals, the native Scandinavians were among the biggest attention getters.
“The Vallhund entry is a big accomplishment for us,” said Kerstin Ottmar, Moose’s breeder and owner. “My mother has been working on this for over 20 years.”
Ottmar’s mother, Marilyn Thell, is credited for breeding the first litter of Swedish Vallhunds in North America in 1986. Thell discovered the “little Viking Dog” – as it is called for its original work as a rodent killer on Viking ships – at the Windsor Dog Show in England in the 1970s.
“When mother got off the bus at Windsor, she saw the Vallhunds and immediately fell in love with them,” said Ottmar, who speaks for her mother since she suffered a stroke three years ago.
Thell bought her first dog and three bitches from Ada West of the internationally known Starvon kennels in 1985 and bred the first American litter a year later. Two decades have passed, and hundreds of American families across the country now own Swedish Vallhunds. The dogs’ popularity is one of the requirements for a breed to be accepted at Westminster.
The 13-inch-tall Vallhunds weigh between 25 and 35 pounds and have a grayish brown, medium-long topcoat. Their muscular body and short, strong loins make them perfect cattle dogs.
“They are great dogs for an active lifestyle,” Ottmar said about the energetic dogs, which sell for $700 to $2,000. “But they are not for everybody. They need constant mental and physical stimulation.”
Educating the thousands of Westminster visitors about the breed was Ottmar’s priority on Monday and Tuesday. She and other owners answered countless questions about the dogs’ unique characters in the hectic holding area inside Madison Square Garden.
Like a professional, Moose wasn’t bothered by all the attention. Relaxing in his cage after his first and probably only performance at Westminster, he also seemed less disappointed than his owner about not winning a title.
“The award of merit was a prospect,” Ottmar said. “Of course we are disappointed. His heart is still in it and he definitely showed extremely well.”
But the competition among the nine Swedish Vallhunds was fierce. In the end, a decorated “foreigner” won the best of breed challenge. Ada West’s Starvon I’m The One became the first Swedish Vallhund to win the best of breed title in both major American and British competitions. “Bo,” as his American handler Cheryl Rolfe calls him, also won the breed at the Crufts Dog Show in Birmingham, England in 2007.
“This has been an exciting and historic day for us,” said Rolfe, who has handled the 5-year-old Bo for his British owner at U.S. shows for almost a year now. “There are so many good dogs here. Just to walk in the group ring is a huge honor.”
Rolfe said West danced around the house in England upon receiving the news of the victory. “This is something she had hoped for a long time.”
West’s kennel also produced Westminster’s first Vallhund award of merit winner. Starvon In The Limelight came from the same litter as Bo and is owned by Dorie and Gary Michehl, who have bred Vallhunds in Trenton, Fla. for over ten years. “It’s been a wonderful day. It’s just great to be able to be here,” Dorie Michehl said. “This is history in the making.”
Ottmar would have liked to see Moose become one of the first Swedish Vallhunds to win a title at Westminster. But even without that recognition Moose has long been a hero. He might have saved Marilyn Thell’s life when he alerted Ottmar that her mother had suffered a stroke in the bathroom. He has also worked as a therapy dog for disabled people and children with reading disabilities back home in Massachussets, where his contribution was awarded by the state senator.
After his mother Jonricker Lady Gretchen died three months ago, Ottmar said Moose went through some tough times. Now, a week after his 12th birthday Ottmar was hoping Moose could win one last big award; because of his age she is not planning on bringing him back next year. “He’s done enough,” Ottmar said. “Unless he wants to come back. He’ll let me know if he wants to do it again.”
Looking at Moose relaxing it his cage, perhaps he will leave it up to the real greenhorns next time.