When you see Paula Nykiel, Washington, on TV Tuesday evening, Feb. 14, judging the sporting group at the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, she’ll be wearing black. She didn’t have to think twice about it.
“My motto when you go to New York is, ‘If it isn’t black, put it back.’ Black is New York,” Nykiel said.
Selecting what to wear to judge a dog show on national television can be tricky, she said. You want something that is comfortable and easy to move in, but that also passes the bend-over test.
“You have to make sure the skirt is not too short, so I always do a front and back bend-over test,” said Nykiel, who has judged in shows across America and around the world — Australia, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom.
That’s especially important for a show like Westminster, which is televised live.
That makes the judging work a little more nerve-wracking, but also more exciting,” Nykiel said, especially when it comes to the animals, who have been known to do unexpected things, like relieve themselves in the judging ring.
As a judge, Nykiel said she doesn’t hold such things against the handler.
“We just laugh and try to make the handler not feel so bad,” she said, smiling.
Nykiel can relate to the experience of the handlers, since she was one herself for so many years before becoming a judge.
In dog shows, there are two kinds of handlers — the owner-handlers and the professional handlers, who get paid to show dogs in the ring.
“That is unique to our sport, to have professionals and amateurs compete side-by-side,” said Nykiel. “And I think it’s really important for myself, as a judge, to level the playing field by virtue of my knowledge of the breeds, my integrity, to put up what I feel is the best exhibit, no matter who is showing it. To me that’s really important.”
Professional handlers are especially skilled at things that enable them “to get the very, very best out of each dog,” said Nykiel. “But there are owner-handlers who are every bit as polished as the professionals.”
‘First-Generation Dog Person’
As surprising as it sounds, Nykiel didn’t grow up around dogs. In fact, she describes herself as a “first-generation dog person.”
Her father had been bitten by a dog as a child and had to receive the painful series of rabies shots, so he did not allow the family to have a dog, Nykiel explained.
Instead, she grew up around just about every other type of animal and had a love for horses from a young age. She showed in halter classes and western riding from age 13.
It wasn’t until Nykiel was married and in her 20s that she got her first dog, a Springer spaniel, and attended her first dog show.
That was the beginning of Nykiel’s more than 40-year involvement with the sport of purebred dogs.
From Breeder and Owner-Handler to Judge
In the mid-’70s, Nykiel fell in love with pointers after watching how they moved in the ring at a show in Knoxville.
She began as a breeder-owner-handler of pointers and went on to breed over 50 champions under the Sydmar banner, including the breed’s all-time top producer, Ch. Sydmar the Heartless Wench.
“That’s quite an honor,” Nykiel remarked of the dog. “She is the mother of 32 champions. She was an excellent producer. She produced more champions in the pointer breed than any other pointer female.”
Nykiel owner-handled her pointers to No. 1 rankings in 1978, 1979, and 1982, scoring 15 all-breed Bests in Show, over 50 group firsts, and Best of Breed at the American Pointer Club national specialty.
When Nykiel started judging in 1990, she left breeding and showing behind. She is approved to judge the sporting and working groups, eight hound breeds and German shepherd dogs.
Nykiel considers among her most important assignments 14 sporting breed and five working breed national specialties.
In 2001, she judged the Vizsla National.
“I still have very fond memories of not only the show, but observing the field trial from horseback the following day,” said Nykiel.
Nykiel is a lifetime member of the American Pointer Club and former director and Futurity/Maturity chairman of the American Pointer Club. She was a founding member and officer of the Missouri Rhineland Kennel Club and the Gateway Sporting Dog Association, and is a member of the Three Rivers Kennel Club.
As a dog lover, Nykiel enjoys serving as a judge for dog shows. In fact, the worst part of the job has nothing to do with the animals, she said. It’s the travel.
“Flying just isn’t fun anymore. It’s been a number of years now since I’ve gone out of the country. I just don’t want to do the long flights,” said Nykiel, noting she used to get requests to judge shows in China, but she has turned them down.
The dogs, seeing the best of the best, are what make it all worthwhile.
“The best part is you get to get your hands on all of these wonderful dogs, see what people’s breeding programs are doing, you get to meet a lot of interesting people and you get to go to a lot of interesting places,” said Nykiel.
“You get goosebumps when you see a really great one. That’s really fun.”
‘A Big Elimination Contest’
Being asked to judge at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is a huge honor, said Nykiel. It may not be the biggest show, but it is the most prestigious.
“Everybody really wants to win their breed at Westminster,” Nykiel remarked, noting what she loves about Westminster is its long history of tradition.
“It is the longest, continuous sporting event, only second by one year to the Kentucky Derby. I think that’s what makes it so prestigious,” said Nykiel. “That’s what I like about it — the history and prestige of it.”
Before the work of the show gets underway, there will be parties to attend Saturday night and a judges’ dinner on Sunday evening at the New York Yacht Club.
The TV broadcast schedule begins Sunday night with the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster Finals airing on FS1 from 7 to 9 p.m. CST.
Monday, Feb. 13, there will be select coverage of breed judging and Masters Obedience Championship at Westminster competition broadcast live from the Piers on Nat Geo WILD from 1 to 3 p.m. CST. Nykiel will serve as a broadcast analyst.
“I’ll be talking about what’s going on, explaining it to viewers, talking about the dogs,” she said.
Monday evening, the dog show group competitions at Madison Square Garden will be broadcast live on FS1 from 7 to 10 p.m. CST.
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, breed judging and the Junior Showmanship Preliminaries will be held again at the Piers and aired live on Nat Geo WILD, 1-3 p.m. CST.
Nykiel’s work won’t begin until 8 p.m., when the top pick of each breed from judging at the Piers will be at Madison Square Garden for the group judging. The competition and the famed Best in Show will be broadcast live on FS1 from 7 to 10 p.m. CST.
“It’s a big elimination contest,” Nykiel remarked. “You finally get down to the seven group winners, and then you have Best in Show between those seven dogs.”
Two Minutes Per Dog
Judges are not given a lot of time to make their decision on which dog is No. 1.
When Nykiel judges the sporting group (pointers, setters, retrievers and spaniels) at Westminster, she’ll narrow down 32 dogs — which had each been selected as the best of their breeds during judging at the Piers — to the top four.
“They give you about two minutes per dog to judge, so it’s intense,” said Nykiel. “You have to size them up pretty quickly.
“Usually your first instinct is the best, your first impression. I think if you look too long and try too hard you can talk yourself into a bad decision,” she said. “If you really know your breeds, you can spot the winner pretty quickly.”
The sporting dog that Nykiel selects for first place will go on to compete for Best in Show.
There have been times when the group winner she selected went on to win that top title, which is always very exciting.
Slowing Down for Grandchildren
After more than 40 years in the sport, Nykiel said she is slowing down a bit in her work as a judge, opting to spend more time with her family, especially as more grandchildren are born.
Nykiel, who once owned and operated South Point Kennel at Highway 100 and South Point Road, now lives with her husband, Frank, in a circa 1860s historic building in Downtown Washington. They have only one dog, a Jack Russell Terrier rescue.