Virginia Murray, Island Lake dog show judge. (Karla Nagy photo)

Know Your Neighbors: Virginia Murray

Meet an Island Lake resident who puts her expertise to work at the nation’s oldest dog show.

Virginia Murray, Island Lake dog show judge. (Karla Nagy photo)
Virginia Murray, Island Lake dog show judge. (Karla Nagy photo)

The annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the longest-running, most prestigious show in the dog world. Virginia Murray of Island Lake has been to Westminster every year for the past 35, most of them as trainer/handler of award-winning show dogs of all breeds. Since retiring, she and husband Ken, also an award-winning trainer/handler, have focused on running their business, Dominoe Kennels, 4403 Roberts Road, as well as serving as judges in dog shows across the country. This year, Murray has been invited to judge at Westminster, where she’ll choose the Best of Breed for five breeds in the Sporting Group: Pointers, English Setters, Gordon Setters, Irish Setters and Irish Water Spaniels.

What does it mean to judge at Westminster?

It’s a great honor. This is my first time, but my husband judged in 2012. I’m really looking forward to seeing some really nice dogs, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to make the decision.

With dogs that look alike, what do you look for?

Oh, they don’t look the same to us. They all have different headpieces, different feet – you follow a standard, but everyone’s interpretation can be different. I think any sporting breed needs to move well and get their feet out of their own way and carry themselves well. You can’t have a dog in the field that’s clumsy. Comparing them to horses, most sporting breeds should move like a good hunter, flat-kneed, with a lot of reach and drive.

How does one become a judge?

You become certified through the American Kennel Club (AKC). You take written exams on the standards for each breed that you’re applying for. Then an AKC field rep interviews you on what you think are important characteristics regarding each breed, especially the disqualifications, and gives the findings to the AKC.

How did you become a handler and trainer?

In the mid-1970s, my family moved to Canada and I got an English Springer Spaniel. I decided to take him to a Toronto dog show, and he was a nice dog, but he wasn’t a show dog. I have a competitive nature, so I decided to train a show-worthy dog. With that first show, I learned how to be a good loser first. I moved to Chicago when I was 20, and because I wanted springers, I went to work for Chuck and Marilee Hendee, who raised springers and ran a boarding kennel in Barrington. I managed their kennel and started showing their springers and English cockers. So I’m basically self-taught.

How often have you handled a winning dog at Westminster?

Ken and I handled some of the top dogs in the country all of the time – always clients’ dogs, not our own. I did own one Portuguese Water Dog, named Sterling, who won the breed the year I took him to Westminster. We always had dogs in finals for something. We’ve never counted or kept track, except when Ken won the sporting group three years in a row, with a Gordon setter named Kirby, in ’97, ’98 and ’99.

What’s it like at Westminster?

I’m judging breeds, which takes place during the day, and then breed winners compete for best in group, which takes place at night and is shown on TV. All of the breed judging used to take place at Madison Square Garden. The rings were small, the crowds were tight, and where the dogs had to stay – the benching area – was very cramped. And the dogs have to be there all day long. Last year, breed judging was moved to The Piers in New York City. The rings are bigger, and they’re able to take more entries – 3,000 instead of just 2,000. There’s more room for grooming, benching and spectators.

Spectators are allowed in the grooming area?

All dog shows allow spectators in the grooming area, but at bench shows, all the breeds are separated. Spectators are encouraged to talk to the breeders and meet the dogs. At Westminster, that’s more difficult, because the handlers are trying to keep their dogs perfect for judging.

After the judging, it’s fine, but when you’re waiting to go on, you don’t want anyone to touch the dogs and you’re trying to keep everyone back. And the dogs are excited. They’re all seasoned show dogs. They know what’s going on. They’re anxious to go on, so there’s barking and whining –‘My turn, my turn!’

Groups like PETA say breeding and showing are inhumane. How do you respond?

As breeders and handlers, we’re working to improve breeds and make them the best they can be – not just the best show dogs, but the best pets. My Portuguese Water Dogs go through so many health tests, my vet jokes that they’re the healthiest dogs on the planet. When they first came to the U.S., a thing called storage disease would kill a dog by the time it was two years old.

Thanks to proper breeding and testing, and millions of dollars put into health registries, it’s been wiped out. Diseases for other breeds have been wiped out, too. That’s the goal of developing and breeding to certain standards.

And these dogs love this life. It means as much to them as it does to their owners and handlers. When we were showing, we traveled in a big custom box truck that was specially equipped for the dogs and held about 30 crates. As we’d be getting them ready to load, the dogs would all be going berserk. We could have let them all loose, and every one of them would have run straight to the truck and jumped in. That’s how much they love what they do.

This is their life. They’re getting pampered, they’re getting played with. It’s important to them. They love it.