With a little more than four days until the kickoff of the 141st annual Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Jeri El Dissi’s to-do list was nothing to shake a stick at.
What she’s doing may not be entirely unprecedented, but the days leading up to her journey were action-packed.
Because in the time before the kickoff of the Super Bowl of dog shows, Dissi had not just one dog to help prepare for the big event.
She had seven.
“Last week, I worked on the Portuguese Water Dog’s coat, and today I’m going to get the Beagles trimmed,” said Dissi, the morning of Feb. 6. “Thursday, I will be bathing the rest of the team before we hit the road on Friday.”
Dissi, a Sussex native who now lives in Waukesha, is the official handler for seven local dogs in what is arguably the most respected dog show of all time. She plans to drive to New York with the help of University of Wisconsin-Waukesha student Kevin Gasper of Oconomowoc.
“It’s certainly going to be a project, but I’m looking forward to it because Westminster is a whole other ballgame,” said Dissi. “Anyone who’s ever been would agree – this show is something pretty spectacular.”
And she would know from experience.
Following her initial junior showmanship qualification for Westminster, handling an Alaskan Malamute in 1971, Dissi has returned to the show almost a dozen times.
“Back then, there wasn’t anything like the Animal Planet, so to have Westminster be on TV was a really big thing,” she recalled. “Not only that but it was particularly nerve-wracking for me because I was handling a Malamute and had to go first so I couldn’t exactly look at the kid ahead of me to make sure I was doing everything right. I had to be the one to do it right the first time.”
More than 40 years later, the nerves are less of an issue for Dissi, though she admits to putting a lot of pressure on herself to do everything she can for the dogs to be as successful as possible.
“I’ve very serious about some things that others might deem kind of silly,” Dissi said. “I’m known for my wardrobe, so if I lose in an outfit, it may be a very, very long time, if ever, before I wear it again.”
Put on by America’s oldest organization dedicated to the sport of purebred dogs, Westminster takes place Monday, Feb. 13, and Tuesday, Feb. 14.
More than 2,500 dogs from the United States and abroad make the championship what it is, a show Dissi said really is “like no other.”
In some ways, Dissi compared the superstitions and other happenings behind the scenes to the popular movie “Best in Show.”
“You need to stick to a certain routine that can seem kind of silly at first but we still adhere to them because, one, you believe it yourself, and two, so do the dog owners,” she said. “Things like the dog’s favorite toy, favorite bed, favorite treat. Those are very real things you have to have with you.”
While none of the dogs are hers, Luka, the Alaskan Malamute from Japan, lives with her.
The following pups round out the local team:
Talvi, Finnish Lapphund, Brown Deer
Rosie and Chuck, Beagles, Wauwatosa
Jazmine, Berger Picard, Jefferson
Legend, Portuguese Water Dog, Delafield
Gem, Great Pyrenees, Kenosha