Orange County

NC pug won top ‘Toy’ at Westminster Dog Show because of a family tragedy. Here’s how.

Biggie the pug takes center stage after winning the toy group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.
Biggie the pug takes center stage after winning the toy group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Courtesy of Carolyn Koch

She started crying while talking on the telephone, as she spoke about her dog.

Because, sometimes winning is hard.

Carolyn Koch, of Chapel Hill, is the owner of the pug, Biggie, who won the Toy Group at the 142’nd annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this month.

And with his victory, Biggie won fame across the Western Hemisphere’s dog breeding and showing world, and now his name is also known by thousands of new fans who watched this year’s telecast on Fox Sports – live from Madison Square Garden.

People want to meet and know Biggie, so he’s started making celebrity appearances.

Biggie mainly lives with his handler, Esteban Farias, in Pittsboro. A handler is the one who guides a dog around a show ring during a dog show. Outside of the arena, a handler has the responsibility of caring for, feeding, prepping and training a dog for its shows.

Wednesday morning, Biggie made a local appearance in Pittsboro at the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.

“He arrived with his entourage,” said Chatham County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sara Pack. “He came in and people were like ‘Aww, cute dog.’ Then someone was like “Oh, that’s Biggie!”

Chatham Deputy Rocky Smith said, “It’s not everyday that you see a guy from your hometown take home the big ticket.”

For a show dog, winning Best in Show at Westminster is like winning at Wimbledon, winning the Rose Bowl, the final game of March Madness or the Super Bowl. It is the most anticipated, watched and esteemed title that can be taken home.

The best thing that ever happened to me is my wife and my kid. Winning the Toy Group is the second.

Esteban Farias

Biggie didn’t win Best in Show, though. He won his “group” — the Toy Group, for toy-size dogs. Their are seven dog groupings; for example, the Non-Sporting and Herding groups are two of the seven.

The winners of the seven groups compete against each other for the title of Best in Show. But winning one’s group is honorable enough to merit automatic acclaim and fame across the show-dog coterie.

Chatham Sheriff Mike Roberson proclaimed Biggie an Honorary K-9 Deputy with his office, citing Biggie’s having brought honor to all Chatham County.

Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson holds Biggie, the famous pug
Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson holds Biggie. Chatham County Sheriff Lt. Sara Pack Courtesy of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office

Biggie is an incredibly young dog to have already accomplished so much. He’ll turn 3 this April.

He wasn’t expected to have begun truly competing at the upper echelon of the dog show circuit until next fall. That was until the unexpected happened. Koch’s and Farias’s former protégé, Rumble, died.

Rumble was Biggie’s big cousin – a very promising pug too, with a famous gait.

“He was doing awesome last year,” Koch said of Rumble.

At the time of his death, June 5, 2017, Rumble was the No. 1-ranked dog nationally over all competitors, breeds and groupings. Rumble died young, near the zenith of dog celebrity – the top dog in America.

“He was doing his exercise routine and he just keeled over,” Koch said. “Esteban was there, right there, with him. Esteban’s wife and his whole family were right there and tried to revive him, took him to the vet, but, he was gone.”

A necropsy revealed no definitive cause of death. Dog experts reviewed the case and told Koch that Rumble most likely suffered sudden onset cardiac arrhythmia, she said, “Boom, you’re gone.”

The sound of her crying carried over a cellphone. She can picture that little, smooshed-like face. When she thinks Biggie’s winning, she also remembers Rumble’s demise. Tears come.

“One of the hardest calls I’ve ever had to make was to the breeders,” she said about Kristy and Kevin Ratliff of Hill Country Pugs in Llano, Texas.

Kristy Ratliff and Koch work together for the pugs. Ratliff sells her best show dogs to Koch, who then hires Farias to train them. But Rumble was supposed to go back to Kristy Ratliff at the end of his career.

“He was my heart and soul dog,” Ratliff said. “No one had ever seen a pug move like that before. He just floated … judges were mesmerized.”

Koch not only loves but is an expert on pugs. In 2001, Koch’s pug CH Broughcastle Bugatti – which is his official name as registered with the Raleigh-based American Kennel Club (AKC) – was a Westminster breed winner.

Her pug CH Kendoric’s Riversong Mulroney – or “Dermit” for short – was also a Westminster breed winner in 2004, 2005 and 2006; and, in 2006, like Biggie, Dermit won the Toy Group moving on to the Best in Show competition. But Dermit came up short in the finale as well.

Koch had another Westminster Breed Winner in 2013, and Rumble was the 2016 Westminster Breed Winner.

Koch taught third grade at Hope Valley Elementary School in Durham before her retirement and her husband, Gary Koch, is a biostatistics professor and Director of the Biometric Consulting Laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill. They founded a research fellowship for veterinary medicine graduate students in Rumble’s name.

Biggie’s official AKC name is GCHG Hill Country’s Puttin’ On The Ritz. Rumble’s was GCGP Hill Country’s Let’s Get Ready To Rumble.

“Biggie was supposed to have started this year as a special and Rumble was supposed to have retired this year, at “The Garden” – at Westminster,” she said.

What a beautiful dog

But, Biggie pawed up and took his cousin’s place, standing in in the big leagues.

He garnered the required 15 championship points from the AKC – making him “a special” –needed to qualify for Westminster by winning weekend tournaments before Westminster; because, Biggie is quite the handsome male specimen.

His physical attributes fit nicely into the AKC’s “Official Standard of the Pug” guidelines. The AKC states that the perfect, pug head should be be large but not “apple-headed.”

Biggie’s head is shapely and unlike any fruit.

No one had ever seen a pug move like that before. He just floated … judges were mesmerized.

Kristy Ratliff

Fitting the guidelines, Biggie’s pug eyes are dark, prominent, globular and may well be described as “soft and solicitous.” The AKC desires pug eyes that “when excited” are “full of fire” and evidently Biggie’s fit the hot ticket.

Additionally, his buttocks are full and muscular. Not to mention, his gait is, in fact, “jaunty” and most certainly seems “self-assured.”

Plus, Biggie gets a lot of attention. Unlike most professional show dog handlers, Farias only handles one dog – Biggie. Most professional handlers handle at least a dozen dogs.

Carolyn Koch and Biggie
Biggie sits in owner Carolyn Koch’s lap following his victory in the toy group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Courtesy of Carolyn Koch

Seven years ago, Farias was living in and transporting 45 dogs across the South every weekend to tournaments in the Florida dog show circuit. But Koch wanted a special handler for her pugs and Farias said he can now afford to live with just one client with one dog.

As Koch says: “Honey, no, it’s not like horses. There aren’t big paydays at the tail-end of a dog show.

But dog show people are intense. The film “Best in Show” released in 2000 parodies their intensity.

Long time dog show-ers say that the movie’s characters are all based on real individuals’ quirks, Ratliff said.

“It’s such second nature to comb dog hair that people carry on whole conversations standing there combing, combing and combing dog hair not even realizing that they’re combing it,” Ratliff said.

The last weekend in February, Biggie was in San Diego, California. The one before that he competed in Maryland. And the one before that he and his team were all in New York City.

Honey, no, it's not like horses.

Carolyn Koch

“Wednesday through Sunday, I’m working constantly,” Farias said. “Monday and Tuesdays are our weekend. On those days Biggie is just like a normal pet pug. He sits on the couch and gets rubbed.”

You have to love it, Koch said. As an 8-year-old girl her mother took her from their home in Pinehurst up to one of the oldest kennel clubs in the country in the state capital, the Raleigh Kennel Club.

The little girl chatted with a breeder, from all the way up in mountains, all about a potential pet, and the talk thrilled her. Several weeks later, her very own Shetland Sheepdog came down to Pinehurst on the train from Asheville, Koch remembered, “Like Lassie, but – of course – much smaller.”

When Koch’s daughter went off to St. Mary’s School in Raleigh – then offering two years of college – in the early 1990s, her daughter got a pug to live with in a small apartment. And Koch wanted one too. She bought her first pug from a breeder whom she befriended and from whom she learned about the world of dog showing.

Koch entered the game in 1992. Biggie is her most successful dog to date.

family photo
Esteban Florias (in tuxedo, center right) holds “Biggie,” who’s getting a pet from owner Carolyn Koch, far right. Pictured, from left, are Jeannie Grejda and Jennifer Farias hold the Farias’ twin daughters, with Maureen Esposito. Courtesy of Carolyn Koch

“Just to compete in Westminster is amazing. It’s a dream for every breeder and handler,” Farias said. “You don’t need to win, just to be there … Winning the breed is very very prestigious.”

When Biggie won best of the Toy Group, Farias held Biggie in one hand and a microphone in his other. Standing at center court in Madison Square Garden he said, “… It’s a dream come true. And – uhm – I have a little friend who is looking for us up in the sky, and this is for him.”

Biggie still has at least one, but maybe two years, of high-level competition left in him. Exempting a two-week break around Christmas, the plan is for Biggie to travel to a tournament every weekend until he retires from the show dog life.

“The best thing that ever happened to me is my wife and my kid,” Farias said. “Winning the Toy Group is the second.”

A perk of his prettiness, when Biggie retires he’ll be put to stud to make handsome pug puppies. It’s a good dog’s life.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks