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Watertown man noting 12th year as chairman of Westminster dog show

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The shiba inu was a pleasure to view.

Thomas H. Bradley III came across the dog breed a few weeks ago at Thompson Park. He saw the animal, bred for hunting in the dense undergrowth of Japan’s mountainous areas, following buoyantly in its owner’s snowshoe tracks. He stopped his car and began talking to the dog’s owner.

“‘What a perfect breed for a day like this!’” Mr. Bradley said he told the man.

The dog’s owner was taken aback.

“He said, ‘You know what this is?’” Mr. Bradley said.

When Mr. Bradley correctly named the breed and pronounced it accurately — shee-bah ee-noo — the dog’s owner was even more surprised.

“He said, ‘How do you know that!?’” Mr. Bradley, said, laughing.

Dogs are the Sherman Street resident’s life. He is chairman of the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He became a member of Westminster in 1975 and its show chairman in 2002. He was approved by the American Kennel Club in 1975 to judge all of the sporting breeds and best in show.

The 137th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will be held Monday and Tuesday in New York City. The 2,721 canine entries this year make it the largest in 15 years. For the first time, the dog show will take place in two venues.

A suite in the Agricultural Insurance Co. building at 215 Washington St. is where Mr. Bradley can be found in his dogged pursuits. Besides keeping tabs on the Westminster show, it’s the main office of Take the Lead, a nonprofit foundation he co-founded that assists terminally ill people who are involved in the sport of showing dogs.

Upon entering the suite, one is merrily met by Flirt, a 7-year-old border terrier, a former “junior earthdog champion.” She gladly shares her squeaky chew toys and balls scattered around the office. A dog gate at the entrance of Mr. Bradley’s office reminds Flirt of her limits.

There, before discussing the Westminster show, the chairman is asked what he enjoys about training dogs in general. He now has only Flirt, but when Mr. Bradley lived on East Gotham Street Road, his kennel contained up two dozen dogs at times.

“It’s been such a major part of my life,” Mr. Bradley said. “The thing I enjoy most is watching a dog and seeing its reaction to its job, or reason for being. Sometimes it comes to them earlier in life and some of them, a little later in life.”

Behind his desk, there’s a painting of a dog doing its job — a pointer, nobly signaling a quarry for its owner.

Mr. Bradley, 73, travels the country extensively to judge dog shows. In that duty, he compares dogs to their breed’s standard, or a description of what characteristics the epitome of a breed would have. For example, he wouldn’t judge a Great Dane against a Chihuahua.

A question he asks himself when judging is if the dog “can do its job.”

For example, terriers are bred to hunt vermin. “That’s what they’re supposed to do,” Mr. Bradley said. “If they’re too deep-chested, they are going to go down a tunnel and they’re going to get stuck. Their bottom line should be flat so they can fit in the hole. It’s watching those kind of reactions and things individual breeds do that I find really interesting.”

This year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show features 187 breeds, including two newly recognized by the American Kennel Club: treeing Walker coonhounds and Russell terriers, commonly referred to as the Jack Russell terrier.

Because of the number of dogs entered, Mr. Bradley said that for the first time, judging will take place at two venues. During the day it will be held at Piers 92/94 at West 55th Street, mainly for preliminary rounds. Judging at night will be held at the show’s traditional spot six blocks away in Madison Square Garden.

Westminster, one of three well-known annual dog shows in the U.S., is regarded as the nation’s most prestigious. The other two shows are the National Dog Show in Philadelphia and the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, which has been held in Florida the past few years.

Mr. Bradley said the Westminster show has been held at each of the four versions of Madison Square Garden. He often crosses paths with professional basketball and hockey players who also call “the Garden” home. He also worked with movie director Christopher Guest for the 2000 film, “Best in Show.”

“He came to Westminster and spent two days with us,” Mr. Bradley said.

The Monday and Tuesday Westminster competitions will be televised live from 8 to 11 each night, on CNBC on Monday and USA Network on Tuesday.

Part of Mr. Bradley’s job as chairman is organizing the movement of contestants, dogs and judges between the two locations. In the past few months, he has spent two or three days a week in New York City.

“It’s been a major change for us,” he said of the two locations. “We’ll see how this progresses. We’ve been working on this for about 18 months.”

dog days for all

The Westminster show, Mr. Bradley said, is one of the few “bench” shows in the country.

“That means the dogs are on display all day long,” Mr. Bradley said. “In other shows, they come and go.”

It provides a marvelous opportunity for the public, he said.

“We get huge crowds that come in during the day to look at the dogs,” Mr. Bradley said. “A lot of that is based on the fact that the kids want a dog, and mom and dad say, ‘Let’s think about it.’”

He said the family could then take time to research different breeds.

But Mr. Bradley said looking at a breed in person is “something entirely different.”

“They can come in and talk to major breeders around the country and learn about the dogs, whether they are good with children, good for an apartment, that kind of thing,” he said.

Last year, a Pekingese won best of show — the first time the breed has been top dog since 1982. Mr. Bradley said there’s no particular trend of one breed having a winning streak.

“Terriers have done very well historically through the years at Westminster, for no particular reason that anybody is aware of,” Mr. Bradley said. “It’s just that they are very popular and make great show dogs.”

Scottish terriers have captured the top award at Westminster eight times, wire fox terriers 13 times.

The show chairman was asked what he enjoys most: being a show judge, an exhibitor/breeder or Westminster’s chairman.

“If I had to give up two, I would stay an exhibitor,” he said. “I like being a breeder/exhibitor. But each job has great challenges. I love judging. You never know when you walk into a rink what you’re going to see.”

For example, when judging a show in Romulus, Seneca County, last fall, Mr. Bradley was awed by a “nonchampion” Labrador, a dog that had never won a show.

“It was one of the best Labradors I’ve ever judged,” he said. “I took him right through to best of breed. There’s always those surprises, whether it’s a 300-dog show or a 3,000-dog show.”

Dog owners and handlers also can surprise judges, Mr. Bradley said.

“In today’s shows, anybody can be competitive,” he said. “The sport has professional handlers. The dogs go to live with them and are shown throughout their career. But the individual dog owner can be as successful as the best professional handler, because they have one dog to concentrate on, where a professional might have 30 dogs.”

Mr. Bradley got into the show dog world as a teenager when his parents, who had a couple of dogs, went to Rochester to purchase his first show dog, a German short-haired pointer named Hans.

“I had never seen one,” Mr. Bradley said. “They were uncommon up here. With a little diligent effort and a lot of time, it did become a champion.”

Mr. Bradley attended preparatory school at Williston Academy in Easthampton, Mass. He would later earn a business degree from the University of Pennsylvania before beginning a long career in his family’s hardware business.

After Hans, Mr. Bradley would go on to win with many other dogs. He had an award-winning entrant, Bees, who was named best of breed (pointer) at the Westminster show in 1990.

In later years, friends would ask his father, Thomas H. Bradley Jr., why his son was so interested in dogs.

“He said it was his fault, that I really wanted a horse,” Mr. Bradley said, laughing. “This (a dog) was an easier answer.”

Take the lead

Mr. Bradley is a co-founder and chief operating officer of Take the Lead, which is observing its 20th year. The nonprofit organization provides funds and support for people involved in the sport of purebred dogs who suffer from life-threatening or terminal illnesses. Its first event was a benefit cocktail party during the 1993 Westchester, N.J., Kennel Club Show. Since then, dog-related clubs across the country have hosted events to raise funds for Take the Lead. It has distributed more than $3 million to qualified members of the sport who need assistance.

Take the Lead has paid insurance premiums, transportation costs, funeral expenses and nonmedical bills related to illnesses.

“Even though we’re 20 years old, you would be surprised about the people in the sport who have never heard of us,” Mr. Bradley said. “But a lot of that is because they are newer to the sport than we are.”

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