NEW YORK - Nestled in the benching area of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show - barely noticeable in a sea of handlers, hounds and spectators - one family was having a moment.
PHOTO GALLERY: See scenes from the Westminster dog show in a gallery at the end of this story
Dolly, an indomitable, 2-year-old, Pembroke Welsh corgi, had failed to earn a ribbon in a competition meant to highlight the very best of her breed. With her first time showing on the country's grandest stage all but over, Dolly returned to her crate on the bench. For a few moments, she sat alone in the dark, seemingly destined to be a Westminster footnote.
Then Sean Sullivan reopened the gate.
The dog's owner beamed as his prized corgi reemerged, the one he credits with helping overcome his illness. Sullivan was unfazed by Dolly's results.
"There's so much more to her than walking around a ring, oh my God," he exclaimed.
Sullivan said that even though his cancer diagnosis came out of the blue two years ago, Dolly had long sensed something was wrong.
When Sullivan turned lethargic in 2018, the dog was reluctant to leave his side. If he went upstairs, Dolly was right behind him, and if Sullivan napped, Dolly slept, too. When he became too sick to travel and was forced to work from home, the dog spent hours nestled by his feet.
The illness was identified soon after. Sullivan had stage 2 colorectal cancer, and the road to recovery would be arduous: six months of chemotherapy, 28 radiation treatments and two surgeries. The 58-year-old recalled that his doctors urged him to keep a "positive mental attitude."
An already successful show dog, she was progressing rapidly toward American Kennel Club grand-champion status before Sullivan was diagnosed. With Dolly's primary handler, Ann Sullivan, sidelined at home in New Jersey caring for her husband, a family friend offered to show the dog. Sue King kept the couple in the loop as Dolly nabbed wins across the country and rose in AKC-status, offering Sean a distraction from his intense treatment.
"Every win from the road, every ribbon, we could just take our mind off cancer," Ann Sullivan said, tearing up as she looked at her husband inside Pier 94 in Manhattan, where all the breed-judging events were held. "It put us on a different plane. When you're going through cancer, fighting it and trying to stay positive, everything helps."
Dolly is one of 2,500 dogs representing 204 breeds, 49 states and 19 countries at the Westminster competition. The spectators here are eager to see who wins the coveted best in show, but many fans are unaware of how the dogs' abilities translate beyond the arena - in ways that can't be captured by awards and accolades.
Dolly, for example, could tell Sean was sick before he recognized his symptoms, the Sullivans say. Like all performance dogs, Dolly is conditioned to read and react to even the most subtle nonverbal cues during shows. The animals, having experienced dozens of competitions with their handlers, are often more in tune with their owners' emotions than are other pets, Westminster Kennel Club spokeswoman Gail Bisher said.
Sometimes a show dog's full capabilities become apparent only after its performing days are over. Such was true for Burns, perhaps the most successful longhair dachshund in history, who retired from the competition life last year after winning best hound at Westminster.
While he fell short of best in show - causing a stir among spectators who believed he was snubbed for the grand prize - Burns took on a new role less than four months after his retirement: therapy dog.
For Burns, who lives in Sulphur, Louisiana, long trips to performance venues transitioned to visits to hospitals and nursing homes. Stadiums packed with thousands are now libraries filled with dozens of children eager to read to him. And rather than trotting laps around a ring to win over a judge, Burns' only job now is to provide comfort to the young, elderly and sick, said his owner, Kim Vidrine.
And by all accounts, Burns's latest venture is going as well as his last gig.
Burns passed three tests to be certified in therapy that gauged how well he handled crowds and noises in various settings. Vidrine said Burns aced each of his tests with zero preparation, which she credits to his three years of performing.
"It made him a natural; he's very patient and calm . . . It's like he's been training for this his whole life," Vidrine said. "I saw the impact he made on the public, so I wanted to do something positive with that."
Burns's story underscores what handlers say is another underrated trait about show dogs: their capacity to take on service-related roles easily. Their hyper-specific breeding takes temperament into account, and they tend to be socialized from birth, making them ideal for working in chaotic settings.
"They're not sound-sensitive, they're not unstable, they're not phased by things," Bisher said, recalling how Burns flourished last year while performing at Madison Square Garden. "They're not going to startle - they've heard it all at this point."
In telling Dolly's story, Sean Sullivan said he hopes people will look beyond her beauty. Even though the 6-foot-7 man towers over his pet, he can't help but smile softly when talking about the dog he views as the secret weapon that helped him beat cancer. Sullivan has been in remission for five months.
In March, as Sullivan was enduring a difficult three-week hospital stay, King called him with incredible news: Dolly had completed the last step needed for her to finish her championship.
"I said: 'Your bitch is now a champion!'" King recalled, using the show term for female dogs.
Sullivan was discharged a few days later, and he credits that call with helping him turn a corner.
"I've had the privilege of showing a lot of dogs and bitches, but that day to call them and tell that news, was a highlight for me," King said. "It really helped Sean along."
Sullivan said he now feels like "a million bucks." He and his wife were at Pier 94 Sunday morning as King showed Dolly in the best of breed competition. Dolly held her own among the other corgis in her group and displayed a clear bond with King, and while her work didn't result in any awards, King said she had no complaints about the dog's performance.
Out of her crate and on the bench after her showing, Dolly eagerly greeted her owners and handler with kisses.
The results of Sunday's contest never mattered.
"She's still a champion in our eyes," Sullivan said, "a grand champion."
PHOTOS: THE 2020 WESTMINSTER DOG SHOW
Scenes from the annual dog show so far:
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