Berkshire resident to judge at Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

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Thomas Coen has structured his life around dog shows, but it wasn't a predictable path.

"I didn't come from a family that was interested in dogs," Coen said at his south Berkshire County home recently, facing a wall filled with award ribbons.

He became intrigued with the four-legged animals after picking up Dog World magazine from a store when he was about 11.

"I got really excited about it. So then, I started reading and studying," he said.

A more than 50-year career in the business that has included breeding, handling (training and showing dogs for other owners) and judging ensued. On Monday, however, Coen will be judging the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City for the first time. Coen will assess berger Picards, border collies, briards, Canaan dogs, collies (both varieties) and Shetland sheepdogs at the 142nd rendition of the annual event. According to the show's website, Coen is one of 39 judges hailing from around the U.S. and Canada who will oversee Best of Breed or Variety competitions held at Piers 92/94. The winners he chooses will move on to the herding group finals at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. He will first measure dogs against their breed standards.

"[It's] like a blueprint of how the dog should be built, what the expression would be like, what the head type would be like, what the movement [would be like]," Coen said.

He will also evaluate their temperaments and conditions, including their musculation and coat condition, or hair. Though it will be his first time in this position at the Westminster show (he has shown at the event before), Coen has been judging competitions around the world since 2000, when he received his license from the American Kennel Club.

"We've judged twice in China, three times in Japan, Denmark. [We] judged in Brazil last year," Coen said of him and his wife, Nioma.

The herding group is one of his specialties.

"I judge all the herding breeds, and I judge dachshunds. And for me, I think that's plenty to — I stay busy. I wouldn't want to judge other people's breeds and not do a good job in it, not do it well," he said.

After graduating from college, Coen accepted a position as an art teacher outside of Woodstock, N.Y.

"I was doing this dog business kind of on the side. And then I decided to do that full-time. And it was a good choice. It was a good choice," he said.

He and Nioma were soon piling themselves and about a dozen dogs from various clients into a van, heading for shows around the Northeast and beyond.

"We were on the road every weekend for 30 years," he said.

Coen retired from handling in 2000, but he and Nioma still keep busy with judging and their own kennel of Shetland sheepdogs ("Shelties"). Coen estimates that their stud dogs have produced about 700 champions. He acquired what became the breed's top sire, Peter Pumpkin, when he was in high school, he noted.

"Everybody in the dog world knows Peter Pumpkin," Coen said.

While breeding is opposed by some who attribute health problems in certain breeds to the practice, Coen adamantly defends preservation breeders, who are trying to keep the traits of their breed's original function, its conformation, temperament and the best possible health. The good, serious, purebred dog breeders are doing health testing on hips, eyes and other health issues, he said.

Despite what owners may want to believe, perfect dogs don't exist in competitions. Coen focuses on their strengths to determine winners.

"You're judging on the virtues. They all have some kind of faults or somewhere that they could be improved," he said.

The Great Barrington Kennel Club and The Big E are among the hubs for dog enthusiasts in this area. Coen feels that people show and breed dogs because, first and foremost, they love their dogs and their breeds, aiming to preserve their appearances, temperaments and health.

As a judge, what does he get out of it?

"The takeaway," he said, "is actually finding a great dog."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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