It takes a lot to be top dog. Last year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Best in Show, CJ, a German short haired pointer, exercises daily, is groomed meticulously, and always eats a carefully curated breakfast of quality dog food, some human food, and vitamins. The best of his breed, CJ's path to success was facilitated by his owner and professional dog handler/breeder Valerie Nunes-Atkinson. Nunes-Atkinson, who in addition to CJ, has five other household dogs and is the mother of two teenagers, does not lack for experience in grooming young pups for greatness. A second generation breeder, she also runs a pet resort in Southern California, which on one acre of land is complete with salt water dog pools, trotters (or dog treadmills), dog bikes, and is a destination for some of the world’s top large show dogs.
Though this year CJ will not be competing, but rather shaking paws at the booth for Cosequin (a popular canine joint health supplement), Nunes-Atkinson is returning to Westminster with several other large breeds including a Dogue de Bordeaux and young Doberman. We spoke to her about a champion dog’s diet, training, and what it takes to be crowned Best in Show.
Extra Crispy: What does CJ eat for breakfast?
Valerie Nunes-Atkinson: He always has ProPlan performance, which is a high protein variety of dog food. Because CJ's a sporting dog, we have to keep his protein high, which builds great muscle and keeps him in tip top shape. He has a variety of supplements, fresh chicken, and a fresh vegetable, just to have a nice overall balanced diet.
This morning he actually had a bit of peanut butter on toast. All the dogs like that because that’s what my son eats in the morning, and it’s actually kind of comical to watch them eat it because peanut butter gets stuck on the roofs of their mouths.
How many dogs do you have?
I have six dogs in the house, CJ, 3 whippets (Dot, Ramona, and Apollo), a rescue greyhound (Coco), and rescue terroir mix. All of them are ex-show dogs except the rescues.
Does CJ eat three meals a day, like a human?
No, he wishes. He eats a light meal in the morning and a bigger meal in the evening. He probably eats a total of three cups of food a day and then his additives. He gets about a cup, cup and a half in the morning.
Does time of day effect what a dog eats? Like are their different breakfast vs. dinner foods?
No, it’s all throughout the day.
What’s a typical day in the life of a show dog?
He rolls out of bed with me at about 6:30 in the morning, runs downstairs and goes outside. I live on a fenced-in three acres so first thing in the morning I let the dogs out. They know all the secret spots where the bunnies hide, that’s probably the first thing they all go and do. They run the property and about 10 minutes later I put them into the backyard, which is a smaller fenced in area, and they rip around the pool. I let them settle down for a little over an hour and then I give breakfast, just allow the system to calm down a little bit before they eat any meals.
Then they have their breakfast and relax in the house while I take kids off to school and run a couple errands. Then usually I take them out and they get to rip around again. I have dogs that go out and have a good time and play hard and run hard and expend a ton of energy in a short amount of time, and they’re spent and ready to come in and lay on the couch.
CJ gets a bath, his nails done once a week, his ears cleaned once a week, his teeth done four times a year professionally and then we clean them, brush them, and scale them monthly as needed.
What do you have to do to prepare a dog for Westminister?
I’d like to say we do something extraordinary and different, but we don’t and that’s what’s so important about that show. If you are campaigning a dog it should all be the same. Yes, that’s a bigger show on a bigger stage, but the way he looks at Westminster should be the way he looks at the show the weekend before and the weekend after. You really want to keep everything the same. There might even be a small superstition with that. You don’t change the laundry detergent for the bedding, god forbid you never change the food, because you never know how something out of the ordinary may affect them.
How did you get involved with dog breeding and handling?
I’m a second generation breeder. My dad started our line of German Shorthaired Pointers 45 years ago. I started showing when I was 7 and bred my first litter when I was 15 years old.
I went to school, got a degree, I was a journalism major. I worked for a variety of different magazines for six years, [but] my desire and my need to do something with the dogs was becoming more evident, so that’s when I jumped in with both feet. My stepdad always told me if you can find your passion in life and make it your business then you will be a success, and that is true. I can’t call this work, it’s something that I love with every ounce of my inner being. I get to play with dogs every day and travel all over the world.