Robert D. Ennis raised rabbits when he was growing up, and he really wanted a horse that he was planning to keep in the basement of his home.
But he absolutely "begged and begged" his parents for a dog, and in 1962, when he was 11, his parents made his dreams come true.
"On Christmas Day, my parents gave me a cocker spaniel puppy," he said.
Ennis' childhood infatuation with dogs grew into a lifelong love of dogs, spaniels in particular, that will continue next month as the Blasdell grandfather judges seven sporting breeds and six toy breeds in the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The iconic show, with several hundred breeds of dog, takes place Feb. 12 and 13 in New York City. It is the nation's second longest-running sporting event behind the Kentucky Derby.
Ennis, who has judged dog shows in nearly all 50 states, as well as Australia, Canada, Europe and New Zealand, will be one of about 30 judges examining 2,800 dogs in the show.
It's a place the kid from Kingston, N.Y., who would grow up to teach first grade in Lake Shore Central's Highland Elementary School, never dreamed he would be. But he should have.
Ennis took his first dog, Buff, to their first obedience show in 1964, where he saw conformation trials. He was interested, but Buff was not of "conformation quality."
"I did get an obedience title on him, and I had fun doing that," he said.
He begged for another dog that he could show in conformation trials, but his parents didn't bite. His mother told him he could own as many dogs as he wanted when he grew up. And he did. So many, in fact, he can't remember how many dogs he has owned through the years.
When he graduated from SUNY at Fredonia, he bought some cocker spaniels, and started showing and breeding dogs, mostly spaniels and Irish setters, from his kennel business in Derby. Although he never showed a dog at Westminster, he had more than 40 champions, including best puppy twice at Irish setter nationals, he said.
Today the dog judge and his wife, Clare, don't own any dogs. The couple said they travel too much.
"When I'm home for extended periods, I really miss having a dog," Ennis said, adding he gets his "dog fix" at the shows. If he stops doing shows, he told his wife, they have to get a dog.
Daytime sessions at Westminster, which is when Ennis is judging, take place at the Piers and evening sessions, including the best of show decision, are at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Reserved seats for the two-day event, sometimes called the Super Bowl of dog shows, can cost as much as $100.
It is one of the last "bench" shows, where dogs that are not being judged are on display for ticket holders to see up close. So in addition to seeing the dogs trot around the ring, the public can see them relaxing and ask their owners about them. Agility championships will be broadcast Feb. 11 on FOX-TV, with the conformation sessions on FOX Sports GO, Nat Geo WILD and FS1.
Ennis started judging dog shows 25 years ago, and is a life member of the American Spaniel Cub, serving as chairman of the standards committee. He doesn't know how many canines he has come across, but it's probably more than 15,000.
Judges need at least 15 years experience of breeding and exhibiting as well as working as the stewards who help judges at shows. To judge other breeds, they need to be mentored by experts on that breed, then pass written and oral exams.
"Every breed has its own standard. As a judge, you have to know every standard backward and forward," Ennis said. "Your job is to find the one that conforms to the standard the most."
Judges check the general appearance, head, silhouette, length, body shape, fore legs, hind legs, coat and color, as well as looking out for qualities that will disqualify a dog. And all that takes place in 2 1/2 minutes or less.
"It's a very quick exam. We have a very rigid time schedule we must keep," Ennis said.
They can judge as many as 25 dogs an hour, or or 175 in a day. There is no written rubric they mark, although if there are a lot of dogs, the judge may keep notes.
A starting judge usually earns a flat rate of $3 or $4 per dog and pays his own expenses, he said. Once a judge can review an entire group of dogs, such as hounds, or toys, the pay could be $150 to $200 a day, with expenses included. The more groups a judge can judge, the higher the pay, and those who are certified to judge all groups could make $500 to $600 a day.
Ennis, who is approved to judge sporting, toy and non-sporting groups, some working and hounds breeds, best in show and junior showmanship, will be judging about 230 dogs during daytime events at the kennel show.
"If you have dogs that are very similar in quality, it can be difficult," he said. "Most of the time after thoroughly examining and watching them move, usually the winner is evident."
This is Ennis' fifth judging stint at the Westminster show. Judges who have done a nice job take ownership of the ring, and are respected by the exhibitors, are asked to return, said show Chairman David A. Helman.
In 2009, Ennis picked Stump, a 10-year-old Sussex spaniel, as best in breed, and Stump, formally known as Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, won best in show that year, the oldest dog to win at Westminster.
"It's really fun when you're judging, and you find a great one that is just a marvelous example of the breed. That's what really strikes my fancy for judging," Ennis said.
When people ask him for tips on how to find a good dog, Ennis says to find an ethical breeder and meet the dog's mother, and if possible, the father, to check their temperament.
"You want a puppy that is happy, tail wagging, loves everybody," he said. "If the puppy is very quiet, sits back in the corner, I would not purchase that puppy. Because that's not a temperament you're going to want to live with."