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Debbie Kirk was surprised when she found herself entering the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show once again.

“I thought after 50 years of breeding I was winding down my big dog-show career,” she said.

Kirk, of York City, bred English springer spaniel Connor, "the most accomplished No. 1 show springer in the history of the breed," she told The York Dispatch in 2016. Connor received 195 best of breed awards throughout his show career.

More:Accomplished York springer spaniel passes away

Kirk is returning this year to the 2018 WKC show, which takes place Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 12-13, in New York City, to show one of Connor’s relatives, Carson.

Carson lives in Dover Township with Neal Henderson, who co-owns him with Kirk.

“I gave him the pick of the litter,” she said. “He insisted that we co-own it so we could do this together as friends. He’s my ‘BFF' around town for dog shows.”

Carson is a descendant of Connor’s full sister, Rosie, who was the No. 1 English springer spaniel in the country in 2003. Connor and Rosie’s father, Robert, won best in show at the WKC show in 1993.

“This dog comes from an incredible heritage,” Kirk said.

Competition: Residents from throughout the county entered the  competition this year, with seven teams of owners representing their dogs. Some have returning champions, and some are just honored for their dogs to be included in one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.

The Westminster Kennel Club is an organization where contestants pay their dues, Kirk said.

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The judges typically look for dogs that have national acclaim and some Westminster history, too. For Carson, it will be his first appearance on a national stage.

“This is his debutante ball,” Kirk said.

"There’s an electricity that goes with this show," said the Rev. Ruthann Seibert, whose Keeshond, Melody, is competing. 

"This is 'the' show."

Melody was the No. 1 Keeshond in the country for 2017, and she was named Select Bitch at the WKC show last year. She also achieved the Keeshond hall of fame — the only female in the breed to hold the No. 1 honor in both Canada and the United States.

"The breed is generally a male-dominant breed," Seibert said, so a female being named No. 1 Keeshond was a great accomplishment.  

Seibert, of Dover Township and a pastor at Salem United Church of Christ, bred Melody with co-breeder Suzette Lefebvre and co-owns Melody with Lynne Hewitt, of Saskatchewan, Canada. 

Enjoying the show: It will be the second year for bearded collie Captain, who's just happy to be at Westminster.

"People think that dogs that are show dogs don’t enjoy themselves," Robin Lord said, but bearded collies love it.  

Lord, of North Hopewell Township, co-owns Captain with breeder Leslie Papa and says her dog loves seeing others from his own breed and getting into the spirit of competition.

"He just loves to be in the limelight," she said. 

Captain, a grand champion, does not show regularly but is well-rounded in  other sports and activities, including herding, agility, 100-yard dashes, barn hunting and especially dock diving.

He was the only bearded collie entered in the dock diving competition this past December at the American Kennel Club dock-diving nationals, and he placed sixth overall for the whole country.

Rebecca Kirzner, of Penn Township, has entered dogs in the WKC show since 1999, but it will be the first year for both of her contestants this year — Drake, a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, and Vanish, a border collie.  

More: Delta girl woos Westminster crowd with her big dog

Kirzner says competition this year will be tough, with the show reaching its 2,800 cap on breed conformation contestants, but she expects it to be a learning experience for both of her dogs.

"We always cross our fingers and hope for the best because there are surprises at Westminster," she said.

But winning runs in Vanish's family — his name was inspired by his grandfather, Merlin, who won the WKC's herding group competition in 2005. Kirzner wanted Vanish to have a magical name, too.

Training the dogs: Kirk said entering a dog in the competition is not unlike training an athlete. Carson prepares over his lifetime for the proper muscle tone, correct weight, diet and coat.

“You don’t go to the Olympics with one week of training,” she said.

Lord said Captain swims laps to keep him in proper condition, and the coat on the bearded collie requires regular upkeep — a full bath once a week, blow dry, whitening and conditioning.

Seibert said competition requires a lot of preparation. Training must start when dogs are very young, and regular upkeep for Keeshond Melody includes three-hour grooming sessions.

Why show dogs: For Kirzner and Lord, showing animals was all in the family.

When Kirzner's mother was a teenager, she showed dogs, and Lord's husband showed horses for years.

Kirzner started showing dogs when she was 8 years old. She and her brother entered into a junior showmanship competition for kids ages 8-18 where they were judged on how they handled the dogs versus judging the dogs on reaching a breed standard.

"It helps you grow as a person," she said. "It does teach you responsibility."

Kirk also grew up around dog shows.

“As a child, I always liked dogs better than I did people — and I probably still do," Kirk said. “Dogs can love more."

She went to her first WKC dog show before the age of 10 and started breeding dogs with her sister, Kathy Kirk.

What she really loves about showing dogs is the bond — dogs win in part because of the strong symbiotic relationship between them and their handlers, she said.

Seibert, a 10-year breeder, knows showing dogs is a part of being a responsible breeder — to prove their worth.

She wanted to become a breeder after she got her first Keeshond. Now she's a bronze level breeder of merit, meaning she's bred 10 champions.

"It’s a lot of work but it’s very gratifying," Lord said.

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York fans: "I find a lot of support in the York area," Seibert said.

Many people come out to support the five-day Celtic Classic Dog Show in March every year at the York Expo Center, she said, and Lord has  found great support there.

“Every town gets excited and adopts one national sport,” Kirk said. “York County has adopted Westminster Kennel Club as part of their history.”

The fans in the county are wonderful, she said, and always have a dog they’re going to clap for at the show. She recalls thousands coming to greet Rufus, a colored bull terrier that her sister Kathy showed, after he won Best of Show at Westminster.

“I’m very fortunate that I’m not just driving up (to the WKC show) alone,” Kirk said. “I feel like I have a whole community behind me. That means a lot.”

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will air  2-4:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, on Fox, 1-4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 12-13, on Nat Geo Wild, and 8-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on Fox Sports One. 

Events are also available to stream online at westminsterkennelclub.org and foxsportsgo.com. For a full streaming and TV schedule for 2018, visit the WKC website under Plan Your Visit.

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