A few weeks ago Sue Condreras spotted her German shepherd named Rocket playing outside with some kind of animal. She couldn’t tell at first what kind.
As she walked outside, she realized it was a groundhog.
“I was always told [groundhogs] were aggressive,” she said. “I see [Rocket] out there, down on his front paws, he’s nudging it and playing with it and running around in circles. It’s like he made friends with a groundhog.”
Whether another dog, person or even a groundhog, Rocket tends to get along with anyone he meets.
“He’s 90 pounds of absolute love,” Ms. Condreras said.
Next month, Rocket will get a chance to show off his sparkling personality on the grandest stage there is — the 139th annual Westminster Dog Show.
The 4 1/2-year-old dog, owned by Ms. Condreras and her partner Pat Sondgeroth of Riverhead, has become an accomplished show dog, competing in shows since he was about six months old. By earning points at competitions and reaching the champion level, Rocket qualified for the prestigious competition. He finished his championship at a show hosted by the Riverhead Kennel Club last year.
“It was kind of neat to do it right in our own backyard,” Ms. Condreras said.
Rocket will still compete several times leading up to Westminster and could earn grand champion status by then, Ms. Condreras said.
The top five dogs in the country receive an invite to Westminster; other champions can apply. It was just a few days ago that the news came that Rocket had officially been selected.
“Just to get there is the reward in of itself,” Ms. Condreras said. “We’re pretty excited; we’re going to the big show.”
Rocket was born July 4, 2010, which is the inspiration behind his name. His official birth name is Rocket’s Red Glare. He’s earned Canine Good Citizen certification from the American Kennel Club. His calm temperament allows him to sometimes work as a therapy dog for other dogs.
“He’s very good like that,” Ms. Condreras said. “He gets along well with other people and dogs.”
At competitions, dogs compete against their breed and are judged against a standard, which is a written description of the ideal specimen for that breed.
At smaller competitions, Ms. Condreras will serve as the handler for Rocket. But the bigger competitions are turned over to Leslie Dancosse, a professional handler who’s been working extensively with the Rocket for the past two months.
The Westminster Dog Show is a two-day competition beginning Feb. 16. The daytime sessions take place at The Piers on the west side of Manhattan. The evening sessions takes place at Madison Square Garden and are aired live on TV (CNBC for Feb. 16 and USA for Feb. 17).
When Rocket isn’t training, he loves to lounge, Ms. Condreras said. His day begins early with a four or five mile walk with Ms. Sondgeroth along with their other dog Cali, who’s also a German shepherd. When Ms. Condrearas comes home from work, she’ll work with the dogs on various training, from obedience to agility.
“I keep them busy,” she said.
Both dogs also train in search and rescue. Ms. Condreras’ dog Jesse, another German shepherd, was awarded a top search and rescue dog by the American Kennel Club. Jesse died unexpectedly Christmas night in 2013.
Rocket originally was headed toward a similar path as a search and rescue dog, but found a calling as a show dog instead. Cali, an 18-month-old niece of Rocket, is on pace to follow Jesse as a search and rescue dog.
“Big paws to fill,” Ms. Condreras said.
For Ms. Condreras and Ms. Sondgeroth, their dogs are more than working or show dogs. They’re family. It makes seeing their success all the more special.
“They’re your children,” she said. “You take pride in their accomplishments.”