'Coco' comes up short at Westminster

Despite the backing and cheers of her adoring fans in the stands at Madison Square Garden, Coco the Cardigan Welsh corgi came up short in her bid Tuesday to become the first corgi to win Best in Show at the 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Dina Manship Planche, Coco’s owner, was upbeat following the loss, focusing on the journey to get to that point, rather than the outcome.

“She showed great, she did great, she moved out beautiful,” said Planche, 58, of Baton Rouge.

Planche pointed out how Coco finished ahead of about 2,845 other dogs entered into the show.

Sky, the wire fox terrier considered the top dog in the show by some prognosticators, emerged victorious and the standard poodle finished as Reserve Best in Show.

The other finalists were a bloodhound, an Irish water spaniel, Portuguese water dog and miniature pinscher.

Four of the seven dogs had won more than 100 Best in Shows during their show careers.

After being introduced for the Best in Show round, Coco took a leisurely stroll with handler Lois DeMers around the arena as the crowd cheered her on.

When judge Betty Regina Leininger walked up to inspect Coco, the crowd again cheered her on, and yelled her name as Leininger surveyed the dogs one last time before announcing her decision.

“I think this is going to be the launching point for her to have a fabulous 2014,” Planche said. “She is a rock steady dog.”

“That is such an honor,” she added.

Coco advanced to Tuesday’s final after besting more than 25 Cardigans to win best in breed Monday morning, then dazzling judge Walter Sommerfelt enough to come out ahead of 24 other best of breed winners in the herding group later that night.

At Westminster, dogs are not competing against each other, but against a written set of standards of what the perfect dog in that breed would look like.

The dog that wins is the one that comes closest to meeting those standards.

Respected dog show blogger Billy Wheeler called Coco’s win Monday “the most dramatic moment of the night” when she came out on top ahead of some pre-show favorites, a puli, a German shepherd and an Old English sheepdog that finished second, third and fourth respectively in the group.

Her victory was the first time a Cardigan had ever came out on top in the group stage in the nearly 80 years the diminutive dogs have competed at Westminster.

The previous best finish for a Cardigan in the group competition was fourth in 2007, which at the time was the only top four finish for the breed at what is hailed as the Super Bowl of the dog show world.

The win was bittersweet for Planche, who has entered dogs into Westminster since 2007 but was unable to make the trip for the first time because she underwent back surgery Monday to fix a ruptured disk.

She watched the competition from her hospital room Monday, then again from the comfort of her home Tuesday after she left the hospital.

“I watched the replay of the group this morning and I cried again,” Planche said Tuesday afternoon.

One admirer of Coco who was glued to the television Monday and Tuesday was Keith Bonin, owner of Cajun Cardigans Kennel in Pineville.

He has bred Cardigans for about 14 years and is very familiar with Coco and DeMers from competing against them in shows in Alexandria, Texas and Arkansas.

“She’s a beautiful dog, very good structure, a very good example of the breed,” Bonin said of Coco. “She has this presence about her when she’s in the ring. She’s got beautiful, excellent movement.”

Bonin said despite how well he thought Coco did in the group stage Monday, he was genuinely surprised she won the herding group at Westminster.

“It was actually a shock,” Bonin said. “It’s just not something the Cardigans have won at.”

Coco lives in Conroe, Texas, with DeMers and other show dogs, a fact that Bonin said gives them an edge during competition time.

“She knows if a dog’s mood is down and she knows how to bring out the best in the dog in the ring,” Bonin said of DeMers.

One benefit of being a Cardigan breeder after the first Cardigan ever wins best in group at Westminster is the increase in demand for the diminutive dogs.

“I’m expecting a flood of calls,” he said Tuesday afternoon, adding it will be worse if she wins Best in Show.

He estimated that a dog of Coco’s caliber would put someone back about $50,000 to $100,000, not counting the funds needed for traveling and competing.

Planche said she has no plans to sell her prize show dog, despite the big win, and declined to say how much she spends annually on the dog.

Lost in the shock of Monday’s win was the fact that Coco competed in Westminster last year and has won several Best in Shows at competitions across the South, so the win is not without merit.

Planche said Coco ranked 18th in the country in 2013 among all herding group dogs based on the intricate point system the American Kennel Club uses.

Planche is a member of the Manship family and she was one of the owners of The Advocate newspaper until it was sold to John Georges in May.

Planche is the primary owner of Coco, and Deb Shindle, Coco’s breeder, and Julie and Bill Divens are co-owners. Coco’s registered name is BIS GCH Riverside Telltail Coco Posh.

BIS GCH means “Best in Show, Grand Champion,” Riverside and Telltail were the kennels where her parents were from, and Posh is an ode to the Spice Girls.

Coco’s father, Dickens, also was a show dog and won several Best in Show competitions before retirement.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Feb. 12, 2014, to reflect the correct number of dogs, 2,845, that entered the Westminster show.