Puppy Love: Westminster Dog at the Heart of a Human Romance

Clear the Shelters

Vinny, a colored bull terrier, poses after winning his breed at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Jennifer Peltz)

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It’s a love story that all starts with Spuds MacKenzie.

And this tale of puppy love — and human romance — gets a new chapter under the TV lights at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show Tuesday night. It’s the first time there for a bull terrier named Vinny with owner Grace Thomas handling him.

“I guess when you’re passionate about it, it works,” said Thomas, who’s among a minority of people showing their own dogs at Westminster who haven’t made a career of dog handling.

The gregarious Vinny was chosen Monday as best colored bull terrier (all-white ones show separately), an award he also won last year with a professional handler. He gets to try Tuesday night for top terrier, and if he succeeds, he’ll have a shot at the best in show crown.

The story goes like this: Thomas fell for bull terriers after seeing Spuds, the party animal of late-1980s Bud Light ads, but it was some time before she acquired one. When she eventually did, in 2001, the breeder pressed her to show the pup.

Thomas didn’t know what showing would entail, but she was game to try. So she watched, asked questions, learned the ropes.

“People think it’s all fun. It’s a lot of work,” said Thomas, of Napa, California. She said it takes lots of conditioning and bond-building to get a dog to sparkle in the show ring.

“Owner-handlers” are often overshadowed at Westminster by star professional handlers, some of whom started competing as children.

“It’s hard to have confidence when you go out there with a group of professionals, but you can do it,” Thomas says. “A lot of people feel that only professionals can win, and it’s not true. If you have a good dog, your dog’s going to win.”

For all the professionals’ polish and experience, she and some other owner-handlers feels they bring something of their own to the show ring: their dog.

“The ribbons are nice, but it’s the journey that you’re on with your dog,” Diana Gerba of Menlo Park, California, said Monday after showing her Tibetan spaniel, Marco, at Westminster. “The bond is really strong between him and me.”

Still, Thomas notes, there are other challenges — like juggling dog shows with a full-time job in human resources before her retirement last year. But her professional background helped a bit.

In H.R., she notes, “you have to learn to deal with all types of characters, and bull terriers are characters. And so are show people.”

One show person, Robert Thomas, became a particularly big part of her story.

They met in 2015 in a show ring. He was the judge.

“He fell in love with my dog,” she says.

With her dog?

Yes, “the dog came first,” she says with a laugh.

About a year after that 2015 show, the two started talking about dogs, “and it just grew from there,” Grace Thomas says. They married in 2018.

“I teased her, you know, ‘I only started dating you because I wanted your dog,’” her now-husband jokes. All kidding aside, he calls their relationship “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Nearly three years ago, he gave her a puppy as a birthday present.

Now that pup, Vinny, just might bring the couple an early Valentine’s Day present at Madison Square Garden.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Clear The Shelters

Shelters near you


TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) - Thousands of pets are looking for their forever homes and News Channel 8 is On Your Side helping to make that happen in the Tampa Bay area.

We are teaming up with hundreds of shelters across the country to host Clear the Shelters, a nationwide pet adoption drive from Aug. 1 through Aug. 31, featuring virtual pet adoptions to make it easy for people to donate online to participating shelters and rescues.

More than 150,000 pets found their forever homes since 2015 and we want to add to the number.

Find a shelter near you:

  • Pasco County Animal Services, 19640 Dogpatch Lane, Land O'Lakes
  • Paw Warriors, Inc., 355 Spring Time Street, Spring Hill
  • Pinellas County Animal Services, 12450 Ulmerton Road, Largo
  • Cat Haven Rescue, Inc, 1231 Bruce B. Downs Blvd, Wesley Chapel
  • Cat Haven Rescue, Inc - Pasco, 8529 Little Road, New Port Richey
  • SPCA Tampa Bay, 9099 130th Ave N, Largo
  • Bishop Animal Shelter SPCA of Manatee County, 5718 21st Ave West, Bradenton
  • Hernando County Animal Services, 19450 Oliver Street, Brooksville
  • SPCA Florida, 5850 Brannen Rd S, Lakeland
  • Barking Out Loud Rescues, Inc, 300 N Lake Drive, Lorida
  • Precious Paws Rescue, Inc., Citrus County Florida, 5164 S. Florida Avenue, Inverness
  • Humane Society of Pinellas, 3040 State Road 590, Clearwater
  • Hernando County SPCA, 9075 Grant St, Brooksville
  • St Francis Society, PO Box 261614, Tampa
  • Humane Society of Tampa Bay, 3607 N Armenia Avenue, Tampa
  • Rebels Rescue, Petco 136 S. West shore Blvd, Tampa
  • SPCA Suncoast, 7734 Congress Street, New Port Richey
  • Friends of Strays Animal Shelter, 2911 47th Avenue North, St. Petersburg
  • Florida English Bulldog Rescue, P.O. Box 754, Odessa
  • The Humane Society of Polk County, Inc, 3195 Dundee Rd, Winter Haven
  • The Humane Society of Sarasota County, 2331 15th Street, Sarasota
  • Hands Helping Paws Rescue Inc., 53 W Bay Blvd S, Lake Wales
  • Humane Society of Manatee County, 2515 14th Avenue W, Bradenton
  • Highlands County Sheriffs Animal Services, 7300 Haywood Taylor Blvd, Sebring
  • Manatee County Animal Services, 305 25th St W, Palmetto
  • SPCA Suncoast, 7734 Congress Street, New Port Richey
  • Citrus County Animal Services, 4030 S. Airport Rd, Inverness
  • St Francis Society, PO Box 261614, Tampa
  • FLUFF Animal Rescue, 9400 SEMINOLE BOULEVARD, SEMINOLE
  • SPCA Tampa Bay, 9099 130th Ave N, Largo
  • Polk County Sheriff's Office Animal Control, 7115 De Castro Rd, Winter Haven
  • The Greener Side Haven, Inc., 3892 N Lecanto Hwy, Beverly Hills
  • Humane Society at Lakewood Ranch, 26920 Gopher Hill Road, Myakka City
April 24 2021 08:00 am

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