SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ - With the 140th Westminster Kennel Club opening this week, one of the local area's most knowledgeable experts on dog shows will be watching along with millions of other viewers at home.
Longtime Scotch Plains resident Ray Swidersky, has been judging toy dogs and non-sporting groups for decades. Swidersky, who serves as president of the Union County Kennel Club, has judged dog shows across the U.S. and as far away as Japan and Australia. He never has had the opportunity to judge at Westminster.
"Competition is rough," according to Swidersky, and Westminster is toughest of all.
He got into the sport as a breeder.
"With Yorkies, which I bred for a long time, there is the Yorkshire Terrier Club of America and of Greater New York. It is a challenge to win at the breed specialties," Swidersky said. "There could be over 100 dogs being showed that day. From a breeders standing."
Each breed has a standard: a description of the height, size of the eye, ear placement, tail set, type of hair or fur. The American Kennel Club prints a standard that is given to each.
"It takes a helluva long time to get a group judging assignment." explained Swidersky, who always had dogs. "It took me ten years. You have to attend seminars and workshops; it is not an overnight deal."
"I decided after college when I started to exhibit dogs myself. Then I decided that I wanted to become a judge," Swidersky said. "I've been doing it for 30 years, and also bred seven Yorkshire Terrier champions."
He stopped breeding 15 years ago because "it wasn't ethical to judge and then compete with exhibitors." The sport is expensive: hiring a handler costs $3,000-$5,000.
What's it like to be at Westminster?
"It is a zoo. People get there early and sit there all day. I stopped going 5-7 years ago," said Swidersky, who has judged top dogs in Australia and Japan, which remains his favorite place to judge. They roll out the red carpet."
Swidersky, a former school teacher in South Plainfield, has stopped breeding Yorkie, but currently has a Papillion named Lexi, who is 13 years old. He likes the Westminster show because it gives people a chance to see group judging at its best. Some of the entrants have won 50 shows -- or more.
The biggest change over the course of time is the role of the handler.
"Years ago, the top handlers dominated," Swidersky explained. "Now, advertising can influence judges -- especially young ones.
"I made a vow to judge the dog, not the person on the other end of the leash," Swidersky added. "I call it as I see it."
The 140th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show airs on CNBC on Monday, Feb. 15, from 8:00 -- 11:00 p.m., and starts with the judging of the Hound, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Herding groups. On Tuesday, USA Network will air the Sporting, Working, Terrier Groups, and the most prestigious honor, Best in Show.