Spaniel honored at Westminster

Monday, February 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Debi Bell and her prized show dog, Willie, share a peanut butter parfait at Dairy Queen each time he wins a Best in Show ribbon. Willie, an 8-year-old English toy spaniel, has eaten plenty of ice cream during his career because he’s been in the top five of his breed for five years running.

Willie recently added his second Best of Breed award at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Inside Bell’s home, northeast of Columbia, a wall of framed ribbons and pictures honors Willie’s achievements. The red, white and blue ribbons are

2 ½ feet long, much larger than his 15-pound body. Trophies, crystal vases and silver bowls that Willie has won decorate the other rooms.

“He’s the most special of the dogs at my house,” Bell said. “But don’t tell the others.”

Bell’s 30-acre property is home to 10 dogs, including Willie; Rusty, a Dalmatian; and Christopher, a cocker spaniel.

Last week, Bell carried Willie in a tote bag on board a plane to New York to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Willie has been shown there four times. For breeders and dog owners, Westminster has embodied all that is prestigious about showing since 1877. More than 2,000 top dogs are invited each year to compete for Best in Show.

Twenty-eight dogs from Missouri strutted around the arena at Madison Square Garden this year, including two from Columbia.

“There we were, showing on that beautiful green carpet with the bright lights and the cameras and the crowd,” Bell said. “It’s cool, because usually we show at a fairground.”

Bell balances dog showing with her job at the MU Department of Psychological Sciences, where she is an associate professor and director of clinical training.

At the show, her husband, Bob Ekle, stood ringside, watching with about 50 cheering friends and relatives.

“My heart stopped beating for at least three minutes,” Ekle said. “He’s such a neat little dog, and the dog he beat was also a Best in Show winner. Willie and his friends had a good day.”

Bell and Ekle married in August 2004 after meeting at a dog show in California. Bell had three Best in Show awards for Willie, and Ekle had three for his dog, Rusty.

“Now she has more Best in Shows than I do,” Ekle said, laughing.

Willie’s breeders, Frank and Karen Pouder, gathered at a pizza place in East Moline, Ill., with members of their kennel club to watch the show on television. Karen Pouder said Willie often has trouble looking at the judge and acting personable.

“I was really proud of Willie, because he looked right at the judge and even took a step closer to him,” she said. “When you get to the level of Westminster, all of those dogs are champions.”

Judges specifically look at the shape of English toy spaniels’ heads, Pouder said. Smoothness of gait is also considered.

“They judge of how that dog conforms to the breed standard,” she said. “They look at the head, set of the eye and ears, and how their nose is placed.”

Columbia resident Liz Hansen and her schnauzer, Seaser, also won Best of Breed at the show for the second straight time. Hansen and Bell are planning a Columbia Kennel Club Dog Show on March 12 and 13.

“I think it is fairly unique for two dogs from Columbia to show at the Garden,” said Susan Sczepanski, the president of the Columbia Kennel Club. “What is even more unique is for two people that own and handle their own dogs to go.”

The caliber of dogs in Columbia varies greatly.

“You have people who do this as a hobby, people who enjoy their breed and want to better it and people who are competing at a national ranking,” she said. “There are also professional dog handlers.”

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