Feb. 12, 2012 -- The winner of the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show got one howling retirement gift.
Banana Joe, a 4-year-old grand champion Affenpinscher and a crowd favorite, was crowned Best in Show at the annual dog show in New York City. It was the toy dog's last show, and the first ever Westminster Best in Show win for the breed.
Affenpinschers are notable for their monkey-like faces -- "Affe" means monkey or ape in German, where the breed originated. After beating out almost 3,000 dogs tonight, Joe will fly back to his home in the Netherlands.
Judge Michael Dougherty awarded both the Best in Show crown and the Reserve Best in Show, the second place title, to another major underdog and crowd favorite -- Swagger, a 20-month-old Old English Sheepdog.
Swagger, who was a "class" dog, meaning he did not have enough points to qualify for champion, pulled an upset when he was chosen best of the herding group on Monday, earning him a spot on the Best in Show ring. While almost every other contender in the herding group was a nationally-ranked show champion, this was only Swagger's fourth show.
The crowds went wild chanting "pick the sheepdog" when Swagger pranced gracefully around the Best in Show ring. Westminster president Sean McCarthy had nicknamed the dog Rocky, a reference to the famous underdog boxer played by Sylvester Stallone.
"For a 20-month-old who hasn't shown that much to come and place second is just incredible," said Laura Caprara, a Bernese mountain dog breeder from Michigan. "It will impact the future of Westminster... This dog has a bright future."
Swagger's handler and owner, Colton Johnson of Colorado Springs, Colo., described him as a "cool dog" and said the group win came as a "total shock."
"He's not even a champion yet, so he came out of the classes to win the breed, which is a huge deal, but then to go and win the group is unbelievable, just mindblowing," Johnson said.
This was a year of firsts for Westminster. Usually staunch in tradition, this is the first year the dog show awarded a second place winner and the first time it allowed an "open competition," meaning it allowed dogs that were not of "champion" status to compete.
Every kennel club has its own requirements for dogs to qualify for a championship title. For the American Kennel Club, a dog becomes a "Champion of Record" after earning 15 points, including two "major" points -- a three, four or five, which is the maximum -- awarded by at least three different judges in other shows. A dog can become a "Grand Champion" after earning a total of 25 points with three major wins. Each dog competes for points toward its championship total.
Seven groups of dogs compete for the Best in Show title: sporting, non-sporting, hound, toy, working, terrier and herding.
Other Best in Show contenders included Jewel, a champion American Foxhound who won the hound group; Honor, a 4-year-old grand champion Bichons Frises who won the non-sporting group; Oakley, a grand champion German wirehaired pointer, who won the sporting group.
Matisse, a grand champion Portuguese water dog -- the same breed as President Obama's dog, Bo -- won the working group. Adam, a 5-year-old grand champion Smooth Fox terrier won the terrier group.
Of the 187 breeds and varieties, 2,721 dogs were registered to compete at the annual dog show, which was held at Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River in New York City -- a trek from Westminster's usual, longtime venue, Madison Square Garden.
Two breeds were welcomed to the competition for the first time this year, the treeing walker coonhound and the Russell terrier.
The event was seemingly smooth overall. During the Best in Show finals, a PETA protestor with a sign was removed from the stands and taken out of the arena, but did not seem to disrupt the showing.
Backstage before the show, there were rows of tables with owners and trainers pampering pooches of all shapes, sizes, breeds and hairstyles. Spaniels were combed, poodles were coiffed and Scottish deerhounds were brushed to show-level perfection.
Depending on the breed, coats can take between two to four hours to groom -- and hair spray is against the rules. Some owners, especially those who live in drier areas like Denver, feed their dogs fish oil capsules hidden in cheese to make the dog's coat soft and smooth.
Although the winner at Westminster does not receive any prize money, the prestige of a win at all levels is priceless.
A toy also won top dog at Westminster last year. Malachy, a Pekingese, took home the Best in Show title in 2012 -- the fourth time the breed took top prize and the 10th time for the toy group.
Sam, a 2-year-old Bullmastiff and a Westminster newbie, was riding high after winning best in breed earlier today. It was a bittersweet victory because his owner, Jean Robinson, died last June from a rare bile-duct cancer. There were cheers, hugs and tears in the crowd when Sam's name was announced.
"It's awesome. It's the best feeling in the world. We are going to Disney World," Janet Ekstrom, who co-owned the dog with Robinson, said after Sam won best in breed. "I know he had an angel on his shoulder today. I know she's watching and is so happy."