Westminster: Malibu's wire fox terrier Eira goes for the double-crown

Westminster Kennel Club Dog ShowHuman InterestThe Adventures of Tintin (movie)Documentary (genre)Myrna LoyChristopher Guest

I’m a mutt fancier myself -- or "multicultural canines," as my dogs prefer -- but like millions of other lovers of canines of all kinds, I’ll be tuning in Monday to watch the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the 136th.

There’s at least one hot California dog in the running, a wire fox terrier nicknamed Eira. She’s four years old, and she belongs to breederTorie Steele of Malibu. Eira took Best in Show at the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving, and Steele hopes she will become only the third dog to win the canine double-crown, the National Dog Show and Westminster.

Wire fox terriers have a lot of star quality -- Asta practically stole "The Thin Man" from under Myrna Loy and William Powell. Perhaps history’s most famous wire fox terrier was little Caesar, King Edward VII's pet. Caesar wore a collar reading "I am Caesar. I belong to the King." In 1910, Caesar walked -- or trotted -- in the king’s historic funeral procession, behind the dolorous riderless horse.

Steele, who has had many champion wire fox terriers, will be watching Eira as a handler takes her through her paces to try to add another trophy to her collection.

Westminster is the dog show most people know about – what are the other biggies?

As a terrier person, we consider the  Montgomery [Pennsylvania] show as one of the biggest, the all-terrier show. For wire fox terriers, Cincinnati. Eira won the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving [2011] – there were 18 million people watching.

I didn’t get into [terriers] wanting to show. I just  got into them as a pet. One that I loved dearly died, and the [breeder] wouldn’t let me have the new one unless I agreed to show it.

The funny thing is, my grandfather, who died the year I was born, had show dogs back in the '20s. I have a picture of him in 1929 on the front of the society pages showing his dog. He had a Doberman, but there’s a fox terrier [pictured] right above it!

Does Eira know when she’s on duty and off?

Absolutely! She’s a big ham. Fox terriers are that way – on the fox hunt, they were the head huntsman’s individual dogs, the hounds were in a pack. In their heads they think they’re the little top person, like "I’m the queen bee," with all these little antics. [In] the movie "Tintin," they really captured some of the fox terrier’s personality.

When she gets into the hotel room [before a show], her first thing is to run to the bed because she wants her spot. She hogs the pillows.

Have you heard from more people since "The Adventures of Tintin" came out?

Between [the National Dog Show] and  "Tintin," Eira's become very well known. The guy who does our ads put up a Facebook page for her – she had 250,000 hits within the first 24 hours!

You wanted a fox terrier after you watched "The Thin Man."

And my mom goes, "You can’t have a fox terrier!" And I remember "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" [TV series] had a fox terrier. My dad liked German shepherds or boxers, and I thought fox terriers were interesting and elegant. I [was] in the fashion business, and to my eye the fox terrier is one of the most fashionable dogs, because of their angles and design.

As a dog breed becomes popular, the wretched puppy mills go into overdrive to sell more.

Believe me, I’m so conscious of that, which is why I’m trying to work with the Canine Health Foundation to get a documentary [done] about the work they’re doing for purebreds and non-purebreds that can help all dogs.

You call her Eira but her registered name with titles is "Grand Champion and Champion Steele Your Heart"?

Eira means "snow" in Welsh. Eira was bred from frozen semen from the top-winning dog in 1985 and 1986. My handler for years was Peter Green, who came from Wales. So I wanted a Welsh name, and Eira’s mostly white, white as snow. And her mother’s name was Emma. I usually take the first letter of the mother’s name so I [found] a Welsh name [beginning] with E.

My kennel name is Steele, and her name is Steele Your Heart because she’s such a love.

What do you think of people cloning the dogs they love?

I don’t think I could do that.  There are enough dogs in this world that need homes without doing that.

Do you remember your first dog show?

I was as nervous at my latest show as I was at my first show!

You don’t handle the dogs in the actual competition – Gabriel Rangel does. But you’re sitting there, watching nervously.

Inevitably, someone comes up to me and tries to talk and I’m like, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.

So you must have seen the Christopher Guest movie "Best in Show," about the world of show dog competitions.

The funny thing about it, everybody says, "Oh, it must be such a spoof." I say no – [reality] is actually worse. I couldn’t even get into it – I’d be embarrassing!

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive:

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Westminster Kennel Club Dog ShowHuman InterestThe Adventures of Tintin (movie)Documentary (genre)Myrna LoyChristopher Guest
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