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The very best of the very good dogs are at Westminster’s most overlooked event

Heart, a 5-year-old black Labrador and obedience champ, awaits her next command from owner Linda Brennan as they practice their routine for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. (Vincent Tullo for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — A bichon frise named Flynn won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday night, snagging what is essentially America’s top canine beauty prize. Over the weekend, a border collie called Fame leaped and wove her way to dominance in the show’s agility championship, a feat of canine athletics.

But in between those moments, past the cacophonous rows and rings of breed contenders, at the chilly end of a warehouse, a judge in a tuxedo awarded a third title to what could be considered the best of all of these very good dogs: the winner of the Masters Obedience Championship. It is Westminster’s newest and least-glitzy honor, but it is one that enthusiasts insist is central to the whole show dog world.

“It’s really the foundation of all performance events,” said this year’s judge, John Cox, a retired toy train collector and broker who has been judging obedience competitions for 40 years. “You’ve got these two species out there, and they’re communicating back and forth.”

The title in the obedience event, which is in its third year at Westminster, goes to the dog-handler team that best demonstrates the commands that many ordinary pet owners have aspired, and perhaps failed, to get their pooches to heed: sit, stay, heel, fetch. Yet it is far more complicated. Dogs must follow hand signals, dart away from their handlers, drop to the ground while running, soar over jumps to retrieve dumbbells and sit perfectly, perfectly straight. Westminster, unlike other obedience events, also features a six-minute “freestyle” routine; many are like skits and involve costumes. This year, in an odd coincidence, three of 23 teams chose a “Wizard of Oz” theme.

Although the freestyle session was added as a crowd-pleaser, it is still finding its audience. Only about 200 people watched Monday, and many were involved in the event.

There was no shortage of drama, however. Among the 23 contenders were Heart, a laser-focused black Labrador who won the previous two years, and Streak, a bouncy golden retriever who won the National Obedience Championship in 2016. Then there was the underdog: Sissy, a gray 9-pounder whose owner got her at a flea market. She was the competition’s first-ever mixed-breed, or what Westminster calls an “all-American” dog.

“She just looks like a scruffy little mutt that has bedhead hair every day. . . . I’m sure we’ll be totally out of place,” her owner, Donna Hartwig, said before the two left their house in Big Rock, Ill., for the Big Apple. Despite Sissy’s lack of pedigree, Hartwig expected the dog, age 5, would be up to the task. “She tries really hard to do what I ask her to do. That’s just her nature.”

Competitive obedience began in the United States nearly nine decades ago, when a well-to-do standard poodle breeder, Helen Whitehouse Walker, got tired of people assuming that her dogs were dimwitted, walking topiaries. She held an eight-dog trial at her father’s New York estate in 1933; it was won by a Lab from New Jersey. The next year, Walker lobbied for an official event in a letter to an American Kennel Club publication. “The judging of dogs in the breed classes is a mystery to many, but a series of tests displaying the dog’s brain is something they can actually see,” she wrote. The AKC added the event in 1936.

These days, many handlers on the circuit are professional trainers — and, participants say, almost all women. Among them is Heart’s owner, Linda Brennan, who works at an obedience school not far from her home in Columbia, N.J., and has been competing for three decades. But Heart — a 5-year-old purebred whose registered name is Rhumbline’s Once in a Blue Moon — is special, Brennan said. Tall and leggy, she is the daughter of a male obedience champ and loves to work.

“Obedience develops your relationship the most of any sport I’ve done with my dogs,” Brennan said. “In conformation, anybody can show my dog. In agility, most dogs can run for somebody else.”

That’s not the case in obedience, especially at Westminster, where the event is a sideshow, she noted. The surroundings are far louder than at most obedience trials, making hand signals — and a dog’s focus on its handler — critical. “You have to be more interesting than the environment.”

Participation in obedience has declined since the 1980s as new dog sports, such as the similar but less exacting rally, have been added to the circuit, Brennan said. Some participants Monday grumbled that Westminster doesn’t do enough to promote its event.

“We’re back here in the corner!” said Francene Andresen, the handler of a silky golden retriever named Athena, gesturing to a curtained-off area behind the bleachers where obedience dogs were “benched” when not competing. But Andresen added that she did not regret coming to Westminster, a dream of hers since childhood.

Several of this year’s entrants were goldens, like Athena, and there were a few Labs, as well. Each team started with 400 points — 200 each for the traditional and freestyle sessions — and was docked by Cox for any errors. Those include “forging,” when the dog goes ahead of the handler during heeling, and lying down without elbows fully on the ground.

“Sit your dogs,” Cox instructed during a short group event, when all teams were in the ring.

“Sit,” the handlers said in unison. All the dogs sat.

“Leave your dogs,” Cox said.

“Stay,” the handlers commanded before walking around the ring twice. The dogs sat still, the pictures of obedience.

Sissy fumbled one command in her morning session. But she gave a solid freestyle performance, retrieving a tiny cowboy hat and sitting still in a miniature wagon. Spectators gushed over her cuteness.

“She did really well for this environment,” said Hartwig, who, like Sissy, was in New York for the first time and relieved that the small-town pooch had found a tree with a patch of mulch outside their hotel by which to do her business. “It was good enough.”

Streak, the Chicago golden retriever, blazed his way through a recycling-themed routine, jauntily depositing plastic bottles in bins.

Heart sailed through her morning session so calmly that she yawned at one point. In a nod to her name, her freestyle routine had a “once in a blue moon” theme, featuring Brennan in a starry T-shirt and the Lab retrieving a blue, moon-shaped balloon. Heart didn’t land a jump through a ring overlaid with a flap of star fabric. But that was a trick, not a required element, so it did not cost her too many points.

If she nailed a three-peat, Brennan said before the event, Heart might get a special meal of rotisserie chicken. But the dog’s favorite reward in the previous two years was being petted by hundreds of spectators before the evening conformation session at Madison Square Garden, where the obedience champion is hailed during a commercial break.

“She’s such a Labrador retriever,” Brennan said. “She loves that.”

By midafternoon Monday, Cox had tallied the scores. In fourth place was one of the “Wizard of Oz” teams, this one with a golden retriever. In third were the border collie and its handler. In second, another “Wizard of Oz” team, with a black Lab.

And in first place, with 294.5 points: Heart.

Just as in the first U.S. obedience trials 85 years ago, the winner was a Lab from New Jersey.

Read more:

Things I learned covering the Westminster dog show

Dog treadmills and fake fire hydrants: How hotels host Westminster show dogs

2017: Rumor the German shepherd wins best in show at Westminster

How 3,000 very good golden retrievers could help all dogs live longer