When a Madeira Beach woman became a canine connoisseur, she never dreamed her avocation would lead to an honored spot at the world's most prestigious dog show.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001
MADEIRA BEACH -- Sandra Goose Allen went to the mailbox outside her waterfront home two years ago, opened a letter and got the most exciting news of her life. There was only one problem: She was not allowed to tell a soul.
Not her family. Not her best friends. Nobody except her beloved Skye terrier, Bentley, who would have appreciated the news if he had understood it.
What Allen could not say until several months ago was this: She had been chosen to judge an entire group of canines at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"Can you imagine a woman being told to keep a secret like that for so long?" she says, as Bentley and two Scotty sisters, Babe and Abigail, curl up nearby on the floor. 'I mean, I was at the mailbox and I almost died when I saw Westminster Kennel Club on the envelope. My heart was beating so hard. I couldn't even open it at first. Then, I did, and it was like I'd won the Super Bowl or been inducted to Cooperstown!"
Allen's selection to evaluate 26 breeds of terriers at Westminster tonight and Tuesday evening (televised by the USA Network) is among the highest honors a dog aficionado can receive. It's not easy for a dog to get to Westminster, either: About 2,500 champion canines were entered, and the spots in the show were filled in less than one hour on Dec. 8.
The show, in its 125th year, ranks second only to the Kentucky Derby as the country's oldest sporting event.
"You can't apply to be a judge," Allen says. "You can't solicit in any way, shape or form. So anything you get is on your own merits, whether you do one breed or all breeds."
And if you let the secret slip, you can lose the assignment. In keeping with the venerable Westminster tradition, organizers conceal the identity of the show's judges until the final months to heighten the drama. In most cases, judging an entire canine group is a once-in-a-lifetime job.
"Dog people are a really tight-knit bunch, and always on the computer nowadays, so any and all news travels fast," she says. "If I died right now, the dog community around the world would know in 10 minutes."
Allen made a trip to Westminster in 1994, but her role was limited to rating only five breeds. This new honor certifies her as one of the world's leading authorities on all terriers, something she has been unofficially for decades.
Allen knows every aspect of every terrier group, including less-than-household names such as Sealyham terriers, soft-coated wheaten terriers and Dandie Dinmont terriers. She also judges all the toys and non-sporting breeds.
Her published works include The Complete Skye Terrier, The Terrier Lover's Cookbook -- an array of recipes named for different breeds (not made of them) -- and A Study of the Scottish Terrier, for which she won the dog world's version of the Oscar, the coveted Maxwell Award.
Each decision she makes will be scrutinized by thousands of spectators and countless pooch owners, not to mention 10-million or so viewers watching the Dog Bowl on TV. Allen's mission: to select the top four terriers and send the best one to the "Best in Show" ring Tuesday night, where the event's No. 1 judge, Dorothy McDonald of Carmel Valley, Calif., will decide the overall winner.
"I saw Dorothy at a dog show two weeks ago in San Francisco, and I said, 'Dorothy, are you as nervous as I am?' And she said yes, and I said, 'I'm not used to wearing heels. What if I trip?' " Allen says. "I mean, these are the things you think about. I was so nervous when I judged at the Garden the last time. But you know, the moment I walked out onto that green carpet, I forgot about my nerves, and I was doing what I love."
Allen has loved dogs since she had pet dachshunds as a child in Brookline, Mass. Her brother, sister and parents didn't share her fondness for her four-legged friends. "When I went to college, my dad said, 'You're going to school -- take your dogs with you,' " she says with a chuckle.
She married a man named Ralph Allen, a successful New York florist and a lover of basset hounds. The newlyweds settled on Skye terriers because they possess all the traits the couple liked: long, low to the ground, affable. They brought home a scruffy one from a pet store and before long were raising as many as 15 at a time. They bred the Skyes and produced champions at dog shows around the country.
Meanwhile, the Allens' florist business flourished. Jackie Onassis shopped at their store on 71st Street in Manhattan. They did all the arrangements at a party of Broadway star Mary Martin, as well as for magazines such as Vogue and McCall's. A Ladies' Home Journal showcased one of their flower arrangements on the cover and wrote about the shop.
Crowded New York City may have been great for flowers, but it was not an ideal place to raise dogs. So the Allens moved in the '70s to St. Louis, where they opened another flower shop and Skyes became an even bigger part of their lives. A Canadian woman Allen had befriended owned 65 of the bouncy terriers with the long, flowing hair. When she died, she left Allen seven of them. Soon, Allen shifted from owning champion dogs to judging them.
"Life was so good for Ralph and me in St. Louis," she says. "We didn't have kids, but that was fine. We had our dogs and a wonderful business."
Business was so good that many members of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals became regular customers. "We got to know them all, Darrell Porter, Keith Hernandez, Lonnie Smith, Whitey Herzog -- those were wonderful days," Allen says.
She even did a Christmas card one year with one of her Skyes posing on the pitching mound at Busch Stadium. The Allens were regulars at Cardinals games and always came to St. Petersburg to watch the team train in the '70s and '80s. Finally, they bought a small place on Sunset Beach as a second home. But they had little time to share it together. Ralph Allen was ill with cancer.
"We decided to sell the shop and move down here to spend the time we had left together in the warmth," she says. "Ralph knew that was the end of St. Louis for me, because I hated the cold. And I love it here. To me, this is heaven."
After her husband's death, judging helped ease Allen's pain and connected her to a vast network of friends in the dog world. She continues to judge dog shows from Taiwan to South America to Australia.
Today, she lives in a pleasant Madeira Beach home surrounded by all things canine. There are paintings and photos of terriers on the walls, trophies, a scrapbook of vintage postcards of old Hollywood stars and their dogs, and letter after letter thanking Allen for her gentle touch as a judge.
"I like to talk to all the dogs, and one of my greatest attributes, I suppose, is that I'm very kind in the ring," she says. "I really try to help the novice. They're nervous. I mean, you only have 2 1/2 minutes to show a dog. So I spend some time making people feel comfortable. I used to be overweight, and I was very insecure in the ring. So I'm very conscious of how people feel. I want them to feel good in the ring, whether it's their first time or their 100th. I always tell them, 'Relax, it'll be okay.' "
That is how she feels about her own life as well: Despite the loss of her husband, despite the stress and fatigue that come from traveling alone to judge one show after the next, Allen is feeling good.
"I'm very grateful for my life," she says. "I've had some hardships, but I'm happy." She looks across the floor at Bentley, who lifts his head, as if ready for a treat or for his daily combing on the dock.
"I don't know what my life would be without him," she says. "Without my husband, and without any children, well, he and the Scotties are my children. This is the path that I've chosen and the path that's really good for me. Everything I've ever done in my life has led me to where I am now, and there's no place else I'd rather be."