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Westminster 2020: N.J. dog wins obedience for 5th time, retires trophy. Just call us the alpha state.

NJ.com logo NJ.com 2/9/2020 By Amy Kuperinsky, nj.com
a dog jumping to catch a frisbee: Pamela Blackstone and her dog Sedona. This is the dog's last year at Westminster. She'll retire this summer. © Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Adva /Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media/nj.co... Pamela Blackstone and her dog Sedona. This is the dog's last year at Westminster. She'll retire this summer.

She already had a lot of heart. Now, Heart, a Labrador retriever from New Jersey, has soared to a fifth consecutive victory in the Masters Obedience Championship at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

Heart, 7, and her owner and trainer, Linda Brennan, have won the competition every year since it was added to the dog show in 2016. With their fifth win, the the Jersey duo retires the trophy.

a dog sitting on a table: Heart, the obedience champion, with the ribbon and trophy. The winning team will be presented with the trophy again during competition at Madison Square Garden this week. © Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Adva /Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media/nj.co... Heart, the obedience champion, with the ribbon and trophy. The winning team will be presented with the trophy again during competition at Madison Square Garden this week.

A successful obedience run hinges on a solid communication between dog and owner. Dogs must quickly and consistently heed their owner’s commands, whether that means coming to a complete stop, sitting or jumping over a hurdle to retrieve an object. Competitors must also deliver on scent discrimination, which means they have to pick up an item that carries their owners scent from a group of objects.

a person holding a dog: Linda Brennan looks at the obedience trophy she and Heart won. The award will now reside in their home in Columbia, Warren County. © Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Adva /Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media/nj.co... Linda Brennan looks at the obedience trophy she and Heart won. The award will now reside in their home in Columbia, Warren County.

Brennan and Heart, who live in Columbia, Warren County, topped a full slate of Jersey winners at the 144th Westminster Kennel Club dog show Sunday at Pier 94 in New York. The dog is almost preternaturally attuned to Brennan’s every look and move.

Even though they’ve taken home the "W" every year, Brennan, a trainer at Top Dog Obedience School in Flanders, said the honor never loses its luster.

“It’s a little overwhelming, really 1/4 u201a" Brennan told NJ Advance Media after the win. “It’s hard to believe. She’s an amazing dog.”

Westminster’s traditional breed competition continues Monday and Tuesday at Pier 94 in New York. The Westminster Kennel Club says 2,630 dogs will be competing in the breed show, representing 204 breeds. Best in show will be named Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

a group of people standing next to a person holding a dog: Linda Brennan and her Labrador retriever, Heart, celebrate winning the Masters Obedience Championship for the fifth time Sunday afternoon at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. With them are fellow New Jersey winners Jan Curran and her golden retriever, Riot, left, and Pamela Blackstone and her Belgian Tervuren, Sedona, far left. © Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Adva /Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media/nj.co... Linda Brennan and her Labrador retriever, Heart, celebrate winning the Masters Obedience Championship for the fifth time Sunday afternoon at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. With them are fellow New Jersey winners Jan Curran and her golden retriever, Riot, left, and Pamela Blackstone and her Belgian Tervuren, Sedona, far left.

Brennan, 55, doesn’t use treats to motivate Heart during competition (it’s an obedience no-no). However, after the dog’s historic win, she was open to getting Heart “anything she wants ... within reason.”

“She likes training, too," Brennan said. “So it’s not like she thinks time off is a great reward.”

While Heart will continue to compete in obedience at large, Brennan said this is the last year for her dog in the obedience ring at Westminster.

“We’re not done,” Brennan said. “But I think we’re gonna rest on our laurels for Westminster. We can’t ask more than five times in a row."

After all, the dog and owner have little left to prove after they’ve reached the pinnacle of achievement in their sport at the Super Bowl of dog shows.

“I don’t want to risk breaking our streak now,” Brennan said.

That doesn’t mean Heart won’t make an appearance or two at Westminster in the future. Brennan offered to return with the obedience champion for a demonstration of a freestyle obedience routine.

The freestyle portion of competition, which often features audience-friendly “dog dancing" and choreographed routines set to fanciful themes, was eliminated this year in favor of keeping the event more in line with other standard obedience contests.

Obedience and agility, which was added to Westminster in 2014, are the only parts of the dog show to allow mixed-breed dogs, though border collies have won the agility contest in six out of seven years. On Saturday, P!nk, a border collie from Ohio, triumphed in the Westminster Masters Agility Championship after completing an obstacle course in 29.35 seconds.

But Heart wasn’t the only Jersey dog to triumph in obedience. In fact, this year’s competition boasted a Jersey sweep.

New Jersey is home to the most obedience competitors overall at this year’s competition — six of a total 22. New Jersey also accounts for the fourth largest group of dogs at Westminster’s traditional breed show — 156 out of 2,630 dogs — and the second largest number of agility dogs (47).

Zeal, 7, a Labrador retriever from Washington in Morris County, took first place in the first half of obedience competition, the utility championship, when Heart placed second.

Heart has more than a passing connection to that win, too. The two black Labrador retrievers were part of the same litter, and their father was an obedience champion.

This was Zeal’s first year competing in obedience at Westminster, but his owner and trainer, Petra Ford, has been working in obedience for more than 20 years. She starts training puppies when they’re eight weeks old.

“I’m beyond excited, but it’s really not me, it’s him,” said Ford, 53, as Zeal rested up for the next part of competition. “He’ll get a little massage in between,” she said.

Ford works as a physical therapist for dogs and dog trainer, holding webinars in the subject. She named her dog Zeal because she was hoping the Lab would manifest a dynamic energy.

“I like my dogs to become what their names mean,” Ford said.

In fact, Jersey dogs took first, second and third place in the utility part of the obedience competition.

Heart and Brennan won second place in utility, while Pamela Blackstone and her Belgian Tervuren, Sedona, from Bernardsville, took third.

“I’m amateur!” said Blackstone, glowing about the win, pointing out how everyone else at the top was a professional trainer. Blackstone, 71, committed herself to dog training full-time after retiring from a career in sales and finance.

“The connection in obedience is greater than any other dog sport,” Blackstone said. “I love that.”

The win was especially sweet for Blackstone and Sedona, 9, since it’s the dog’s last trip to Westminster.

“This is her retirement lap,” Blackstone said. “She will be retiring from obedience in June.”

She recalled Sedona facing down the daunting Westminster contest a few years ago.

“This year she was just like, ‘Yeah, I got this,'" Blackstone said. In the second segment of obedience competition, the “open” contest, Sedona again placed third.

The dog claims another title that not many other obedience competitors can: mother. She gave birth to a litter of eight puppies three years ago, Blackstone said.

“Her kids are already out competing on their own."

Riot, a golden retriever from Titusville, won the open portion of competition after a runoff with Heart, who came in second. For that part, dogs had to perform tasks like pacing around two people to trace a figure 8.

The dog’s owner, Jan Turner, 53, has a day job working in human resources for an oncology company. She came back to obedience nine years ago after first trying the sport in the ’90s.

“I’m thrilled,” she said of Riot’s win, which exceeded her expectations. But to Curran, the Jersey sweep was no big surprise.

“The New Jersey area is the best area of competitive dog activities," Curran said.

“We have a good, strong obedience community in New Jersey,” Brennan added. “Our dogs shows on a regular weekend are very competitive here, so we’re well prepared, which is a good thing.”

FS1 (Fox Sports 1) will broadcast the Westminster Masters Agility Championship from 8 to 10 p.m. EST Sunday, Feb. 9 (see channel finder for FS1 on your TV).

Westminster Kennel Club dog show’s group breed judging will air live from Madison Square Garden on Monday and Tuesday, from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on FS1 (Fox Sports 1), ending Tuesday with the naming of best in show.

Have a tip? Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at akuperinsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.

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