When Michael Dougherty steps onto the floor of Madison Square Garden on the night of February 12, he’ll likely have a keepsake of his late father tucked away in his breast pocket. The Escondido, Calif., resident honored with choosing this year’s Best in Show winner at the famed Westminster Kennel Club dog show grew up in the sport working alongside his parents, Jack and Marion. The family shared many dog show moments together, so it’s only fitting that they should come together again as the younger Dougherty takes on the role of a lifetime. “I may carry a tie clip or something of my dad’s inside my jacket,” says Dougherty. “But he’ll be there regardless, he and my mom both.”
Showing Dogs Is a Family Affair
Mike Dougherty and his older brother Steve grew up in San Diego, Calif., in a house that always had a dog. “When I was growing up, we had a Boxer named Lady who had a stub of a tail,” says Dougherty. “She was a doll, and I learned to walk holding onto that tail.”
A black Miniature Poodle followed, but when epilepsy ended her short life, the boys’ mother told the family emphatically, “We need another dog.” So they researched the breeds, decided they really liked the bearded look of the Miniature Schnauzer, and got a puppy from a breeder in the San Diego area.
“The dog was pretty decent,” recalls Dougherty. “So we decided to try and show him. We found a local man to show the dog, but he didn’t really know Terriers.” After the dog had earned only a couple of points with 12 trips into the ring, the family considered a “plan B.” “We went to a local show, and my mom and dad – clever people that they were – looked around and thought, ‘It looks like a lot of work, but it doesn’t look that hard,’” Dougherty remembers. And with that declaration, life at the Dougherty household went to the dogs.
Showing dogs quickly became a family affair. “As it turned out, we ended up going back to that same breeder to get another male that did become our first champion.” According to Dougherty, “Mom did all the grooming. She studied and stole from all the pros including Ric Chashoudian, Daisy Austad, Ben Brown, Harry Sangster and Jimmy Butler.”
“Dad came in and was the handler,” says Dougherty who recalls the success the family had with its first show dog. “I think we finished that dog in two weekends in four shows with three 5-point majors and a 4-point major.” The dog’s breeder must have recognized something special in the novice handling team. “We took a couple of the breeder’s bitches out, and that same weekend we put majors on the bitches three of the four days,” recalls Dougherty. “We were bitten by the bug, to say the least, when my parents figured out that they could do it.”
In that era, professional handlers were required to hold a license from the American Kennel Club in order to accept payment for showing dogs. After continued success in the ring, the elder Dougherty received his limited handler’s license, and his son got an assistant handler’s license. “Dad eventually became fully licensed and, when I was old enough, I got my limited license and then an all-breed license.”
Father and son showed together for years in most of the Groups. “Dad won the Yorkie National and the Standard Schnauzer National three or four times,” says Dougherty. “My top dogs were a couple of Whippets and a Bichon Frise. I handled the very first North American champion Bichon, before they were even entered in the Miscellaneous class.”
Dougherty is quick to give credit where credit is due. “Mom was the mastermind of the operation. She kept Dad and me, the prima donnas, organized and made sure we were on the straight and narrow.”
’I Learned from Everybody’
Dougherty remembers going to watch the junior handlers and thinking he would like to do that. “My parents were always supportive – win, lose or draw,” he says, and they encouraged their son to compete. “In those days it was very casual. You showed up at ringside, you didn’t pre-enter, and you showed whatever dog was available to you.”
The juniors ring initially seemed a good fit for the young man and his Schnauzers. “I started with the Schnauzers first, and I did OK, but the problem was that I wasn’t good at scheduling,” admits Dougherty. “You have to kind of put Schnauzers together to get them in the ring, otherwise they look like an unmade bed.”
A short-coated breed seemed a better choice for an active and talented kid with time management issues. “I was always an athlete, and I became enamored with the Whippet,” he says. “There was a breeder and folk singer in San Diego named Paul Sykes, and he became my earliest mentor in Whippets.” Dougherty got a pet Whippet from the recording artist, and later he got a dog out of Chicago that the two co-owned. “I showed the dog for about year, and I got all these reserves to majors, so I gave him to Bob Hastings who finished him in five shows.”
His parents supported Dougherty’s efforts to compete in juniors. “They gave me the opportunity to instill in myself the values of what it means to compete,” he reflects. “You’re not going to win every show,” he realized. “It doesn’t matter who you are.”
With a determination to learn everything he could about showing dogs, the young Dougherty started working for handlers on the show circuits. He instinctively studied his mentors and says, “If I learned anything from one person, I learned from everybody because literally I ‘stole’ something from everybody.”
Dougherty’s experience as an assistant emphasized the importance of learning simply by watching. “If every exhibitor, every new person, every junior handler pays attention to the good handlers, you can steal their tricks. They won’t give you every secret, but if you watch them, you’ll learn.
The Value of a Win
“There was a time, even as a little kid, when I wanted to win, and if I didn’t win I’d get mad at all the wrong things,” Dougherty recalls with a laugh. His parents sat him down after one particular defeat and said, ‘You don’t ever have to do this again.’” Of course, he wanted to show again, but he began to understand that he needed to have the right frame of mind and work hard in order to get better.
Dougherty says he learned so much while competing as a junior that he always enjoys judging Junior Showmanship. “I love the process of giving back,” says Dougherty. “Juniors instilled in me the desire to compete, and it gave me an understanding of the value of a win.”
The winner of the first Harry Sangster Memorial Trophy has some advice for today’s junior competitors. “First and foremost, it’s about taking really good care of the dogs and making them your best friends. At that point you’re going to make a really wonderful team.”
Dougherty also has a message for juniors that could apply to participants in any sporting event: “Remember, it’s about the competition, not the win.”
“At the highest level of junior handling, the kids are talented, Dougherty exclaims. “I say to them, if you stick with it, and if you keep studying and watching the handlers in the ring, and learn under the good and talented and honorable handlers out there, then you too can really be an asset to the sport.”
Dougherty says he’s grateful for the encouragement he received from his family as a junior, and he has a few words of advice to share with parents today. “As a judge, I don’t talk to the stage parents. The child can come up and talk to me, and the parents can listen. They can’t interject, and they can’t applaud or berate their child. And if they come anywhere near berating me, we’ve got a serious problem,” he says, only half kidding.
“I will talk with the child as an adult, and I don’t care if they’re 8 or 16,” he says. “I will treat them just as I have in the ring, with the respect they deserve as competitors. However they’d better have some sort of content to their question as opposed to simply asking, ‘Why didn’t I win?’
“Talk, ask questions,” he implores handlers of all ages. “There’s an opportunity to learn every minute at a dog show, and that’s true for judges too. Just because we’re old, it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped learning. After all, the dumbest person in the room is the one who knows everything.”
You Are Your Reputation
For many years, the Doughertys participated in the sport as a family. “My brother Steve would stay home and watch the dogs while Mom, Dad and I went to the shows.” They did a good deal of traveling in those days, although the number of shows they attended pales in comparison to today’s totals. “In our biggest year, we probably attended about 75 shows,” he says.
While handling dogs, Dougherty put himself through college and competed in track at the varsity level. “I got my bachelor’s degree in marketing with a minor in economics,” he says. “Shortly after that, I got into the business world, and continued to show dogs.”
For many years, Dougherty showed dogs while building a successful career in public relations. “My very first client was Doris Day,” says the man whose career put him in contact with such celebrated authors as Maya Angelou, Dick Cavett, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Judith Krantz, Dick Morris, Sidney Sheldon, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and First Lady Nancy Reagan.
An early client who would become influential in the young graduate’s life in and out of dogs was Jay Allen, whose Schnauzers and Bostons were shown by the Dougherty family. “He was the king of literary PR, and had this hotshot business in Beverly Hills,” Dougherty says. “He was the most influential person in my business career, without a doubt.
“He taught me so many things about life, dealing with celebrities, dealing with the media and the press, who you talk to and who you don’t, and how to talk to people,” Dougherty says. One particularly valuable lesson he learned from Allen has been carried throughout his dog career: “You are your reputation.”
Another of Dougherty’s mentors in PR and publishing was Jeremy Tarcher, the man who helped to establish new age publishing in America. “He was so smart and so warm and focused on the values that were right,” he says of the man who introduced him to several iconic personalities of the era, including Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, and psychologist and drug advocate Timothy Leary.
On the subject of mentors, Dougherty saves a special place for his father. “My dad was a man of honor,” he says with pride. Although he may not have enjoyed the same education as the other men who influenced his life and career, Dougherty nonetheless acknowledges his father’s importance as a role model. “There were none greater.”
These Are the Best of Times
Dougherty says he does “very little” PR work these days. Together with his wife Michelle, an artist working in a variety of media from oils and bronze to water color and bonsai, he owns and operates the Windsong Resort…for Pets in Escondido. “That takes up an awful lot of our time, plus Michelle’s work career takes up a lot of energy as well.”
The couple occasionally manages to travel together to support the other’s passion. “Last June, I was judging for two days outside New York,” he recalls. “Afterwards we took the train up to Rochester, N.Y., to go to the Bonsai National where Michelle was competing.”
In April of this year, they will again be traveling together, this time a bit farther afield. Judging assignments and a bonsai convention will be taking the two to China, Japan and Korea. Dougherty describes these trips together as “the best of times.”
Despite having been born and raised in San Diego, and having traveled the world judging dogs, Dougherty has serious ties to New York City. “My parents went to kindergarten together in the Bronx,” he says. He’s also a lifelong Yankees fan.
He says he’s often asked how he’s feeling now that the hour of his Westminster Best in Show assignment draws near. “I’ve been excited ever since I received the letter that was to be held confidential for 20 months,” he laughs. “But I’ll be in my comfort zone. I’ve done enough national television appearances, so that’s not going to rattle me.”
The man who will determine the dog sport’s next living legend before millions of dog lovers around the world says he’s not worried about the decision he’s about to make. “I’m counting on seven really good judges to send me seven really good dogs.”