Feb 16, 2015 11:10 PM

Portuguese water dog is the pooch to watch at Westminster

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) True to his breed, Matisse the Portuguese water dog likes to play in the koi fish pond. He enjoys going on long bicycle runs, chewing Benny Bully's liver treats and falling asleep on his back.

Pretty standard stuff for a lot of pooches.

Oh, he also got a holiday card from the White House.

So perhaps it was only fitting Monday that when the Westminster Kennel Club dog show started on Presidents Day, the Portie who's a cousin to Obama family pet Sunny was the early favorite.

"He's a real dog. He likes to play, he likes to get dirty," co-owner Milan Lint said. "He just cleans up really well."

At 3 1/2 years old, Matisse indeed has cleaned up. This is the 400th event he's entered he's won best in show 238 times, among the most in canine history.

"Spectacular dog," praised popular Westminster television host David Frei.

On a frigid day in New York, Matisse got to rest as many of the 2,711 dogs in 192 breeds and varieties stepped into the judging ring at Piers 92 and 94, the exhibition space stretching into the icy Hudson River.

A shih tzu called Rocket co-owned by famed and infamous heiress Patty Hearst won the toy group Monday night at Madison Square Garden. Swagger the old English sheepdog, who finished second at Westminster in 2013, took the herding group.

Crowd-pleasing beagle Miss P was the best hound and Flame the standard poodle won in the nonsporting category.

Matisse is in the working group, which he's won the past two years at Westminster. The sporting, working and terrier winners will be selected Tuesday night, with retired California trial-court judge David Merriam choosing the best in show right before 11 p.m.

"At this point, we're just focused on getting him to the ring healthy and happy," Lint said. "The results are the results."

Matisse definitely knows his way around the ring. The nation's top-winning show dog in 2014 likes to entertain his fans. He often gets into the "downward dog" yoga position, stretching his back, as he approaches the judge.

He has that "hard to identify quality, that je ne sais quoi," Lint said.

Lint also was one of the breeders for Sunny, who in 2013 joined another Portie named Bo as a pet for President Barack Obama and his family.

Sunny and Matisse have never met. Not yet, anyway. But who knows? A few months after Uno the beagle won Westminster in 2008, he visited President George W. Bush at the White House.

With a black, curly coat and a spirited temperament, Matisse mirrors the standards for an ideal Portuguese water dog. His hair is done in a traditional lion clip for the breed, with the muzzle and hindquarters trimmed close.

Officially, he's GCh grand champion, in dog parlance Claircreek Impression De Mattise. Co-owner Donna Gottdenker, an art lover, named him for famed French artist Henri Matisse. Peggy Helming is the third co-owner, having co-owned 2004 Westminster winner Josh the Newfoundland.

Even though the No. 1-rated show dog wins less than half the time at the Garden, the math for Matisse is formidable.

Lint, who works in the financial world, keeps a spreadsheet that documents Matisse's previous 399 career shows: 396 wins in the breed round, 332 victories in the group competition.

"There are certainly characteristics of the individual exhibit that have driven him to this degree of winning," Lint said. "It doesn't defy the imagination or explanation, but those are very impressive totals."

Living in Chesapeake City, Maryland, and guided by expert handler Michael Scott, Matisse could easily break the best in show record of 275 wins by Mystique, a German shepherd that competed into the mid-1990s.

Lint, however, said that's not going to happen. After Tuesday, the plans are to enter Matisse in just a few more shows before retiring.

"We're not striving to meet or break that record," he said. "I'm a firm believer you leave a party before a party leaves you."


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