EAST BERLIN, Pa. — For a brief, shining moment last summer, Wasabi the Pekingese was the most celebrated dog in America, all hair and hauteur as he posed next to his best in show trophy at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
But a new champion will be crowned on Wednesday, when the 2022 competition comes to a close at Lyndhurst, a mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y. Which raises the questions: What has happened to the old champion? Once a dog reaches the pinnacle of success, what does he do next?
A recent visit to rural Pennsylvania found GCHG CH Pequest Wasabi, as he is officially known (the letters represent his winning credentials), chilling at home, already semiretired at the age of 4. Bestirring himself to say hello, he did not exactly run, but moved with all deliberate speed, his luxuriant locks wafting like wheat blowing in a breeze.
Do not rush a Pekingese. If there’s one thing about Wasabi, it’s that you are not the boss of him. “If I throw a toy for him, he’ll go get it, but he won’t bring it back,” said David Fitzpatrick, Wasabi’s breeder, handler and co-owner. “He knows I’m going to get it for him.”
Wasabi was the country’s top dog in 2021 and has some 50 best in show wins under his collar. Along with his Westminster title, he won best in show at the American Kennel Club National Championship in 2019 and at last year’s Morris & Essex Kennel Club Dog Show, a once-every-five-years event in which the human participants dress up in genteel early-20th-century costumes. These three titles make Wasabi a rare dog indeed, the canine equivalent of a Grand Slam winner in tennis.
But he has hardly spent this time wearing a teeny tiara or taking a Miss America-style championship lap around the country. Wasabi’s life is much the same as it ever was, a nonstop schedule of sleeping, eating, primping, romping and reclining. If he seems largely unchanged by success, it’s because winning Westminster is more glory than lucre.
A top dog might get some free food — Fitzpatrick, 65, is an ambassador for Purina’s Pro Plan brand, meaning he amasses points that can be exchanged for food discounts and other benefits. But no money is exchanged at Westminster, unless we’re talking about the expense to the human of transporting, grooming, feeding and housing the contestant. And unlike in, say, horse racing, winners don’t command very much, or anything at all, in stud fees.
Still, Wasabi has sired six puppies. (Fitzpatrick brought two of them out, in a small flower basket. They declined to comment, being only a couple of weeks old, but did briefly open their eyes.) The dog comes from impeccable stock: His grandfather Malachy won best in show at Westminster in 2012; his nephew Fortune Cookie is competing in the show this year.
Even when he was a baby himself, just a tiny scrap of sentient fluff, Wasabi seemed destined for great things.
“I knew it when he was 4 months old,” Fitzpatrick said. “He just had a lot of presence, a ‘Hey, look at me’ attitude. And then when we put him on the lead — sometimes it’s a struggle to get them to move — he took to it like a bat out of hell.”
Not everyone instantly appreciates the subtle allure of a Pekingese. When they are resting on the ground, they can resemble magnificent sprawling hairpieces. Their flowing fur, which rises to a crest at their tails and then cascades down, has a way of obscuring their legs, so they seem to be moving via levitation, rather than perambulation. Their minute faces give nothing away.
During last year’s show, social-media commentators compared Wasabi to, among other things, a tribble, a Furby and Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” New York magazine called him “a gorgeous cotton ball.”
“People are always making fun of Pekingese — ‘Why is your dog so slow?’ or, ‘Your dog looks like a mop,’” Fitzpatrick said. “People will say things right to my face. I say, ‘You wouldn’t appreciate a Pekingese. They’ve appealed to people of good taste for hundreds of years.’ It goes right over their heads.”
Other contestants jogged enthusiastically into the ring last year; Wasabi was carried in Fitzpatrick’s arms, entitled as an emperor. But the best in show judge, Patricia Craige Trotter, saw the dog’s star quality immediately.
“On this evening he could not be denied,” Trotter said by phone. According to the rules of the show — that the winner is the dog that best embodies the perfect version of its breed — Wasabi was the runaway champion.
Part of it was how closely he adhered to the Pekingese standards, approaching peak Peke with his pear-shaped body, splendid coiffure, high-set tail, cunning leonine face, rolling gait and his front half heavier than his back half. He did truly resemble a “little lion,” as the breed is meant to, Trotter said.
And part was the je ne sais quoi of a true champion. Wasabi has a confident charisma, a regal bearing that speaks of his breed’s noble origins in imperial China many centuries ago, Trotter said.
“They’re not just a little jumping ball of fur,” she added. “This little breed was honored in the Chinese court, and he signaled to me that he had that sort of dignity.”
Fitzpatrick said he preferred Pekingese for their lofty attitudes and proud refusal to beg for attention, abase themselves for treats, fetch sticks, herd livestock, run for help, perform feats of agility or do anything that suggests “working for a living,” as he put it.
“Spaniels are very needy, they’re clingy, they’re pawing at you,” he said by way of counterexample. “Golden retrievers — they’re always right there, and they make fabulous pets, but that’s not the kind of temperament I like. I wouldn’t even like that in a person.”
By contrast, he said, “Wasabi is trained to be a loving dog. He’ll come when he’s called, but otherwise he doesn’t do anything except walk on a lead. I don’t want my dogs to do anything but enjoy their little lives.”
Dan Sayers, editor at large of Showsight Magazine, which covers the dog-show world, said that it took some expertise to recognize what made a Pekingese great.
“I have to admit, the Pekingese is a breed I don’t fully understand,” he said. “When a dog has little legs and a lot of hair, all you and I see is that it looks like a ball of hair.
“But I have visited David and sat on his floor and played with his dogs, and they are 100 percent dogs,” he continued. “They can move and run around and jump and be fun and funny. They are definitely more doggy than we think they are.”
It was clear by the end of the visit that Wasabi was his own dog. Like the most successful celebrities, he exudes an alluring mix of intimacy and mystery, revealing just enough of himself to keep the fans hungry for more. One minute he is rolling on his back, his paws waving happily in the air; the next he is reclining languidly on the ground, all but murmuring “I want to be alone” from behind his thick curtain of hair.
“He loves it when people visit; he thinks everybody’s here to see him,” Fitzpatrick said. “He doesn’t need to win the dog show to feel special. He always feels special.”