‘Sky’s’ the Limit

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Sky, a five-year-old wire fox terrier co-owned by Malibu breeder Torie Steele, shows her playful side in this photo. 

Malibu resident Torie Steele had been breeding wire fox terriers for nearly a decade—with considerable success—when she first laid eyes on a six-month-old pup named Sky.

“I could tell she looked like a good one,” Steele said.

Each breed, Steele explained, has strict standards for perfection: temperament, as well as very specific measurements and proportions for heads, noses, ears, tail, shoulders and more. Sky passed all the tests.

Five years later, Steele’s instinct turned out correct—in a big way.

Last Tuesday, Sky beat out 2,845 other canines to be named “Best in Show” at the 138th Westminster Kennel Dog Show, the most prestigious event in the sport.

While she expected Sky to show “really well,” Steele said she was extremely surprised when her effervescent pooch came out on top.

“The judge isn’t normally a terrier judge,” said Steele, who has lived in Malibu since 1975. “When she announced the wire fox terrier, I was in total shock. It was surreal.”

After the contest, Judge Betty Regina Leininger said Sky had “it.”

“She owned this night,” she said.

Sky’s win at the esteemed event, which has been held since 1877, caps off a year in which she won the National Dog Show and the top American Kennel Club event. She is currently the U.S.’s No.1 show dog. The Westminster win was Sky’s 129th Best in Show ribbon overall. Since the victory under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden over a week ago, Sky, who lives in Rialto with her handler, Gabriel Rangel, has appeared on morning TV news programs, dined on a steak lunch at renowned Manhattan restaurant Sardi’s, and appeared on ESPN2’s “Olbermann,” a late-night show.

Steele, who owns Sky with Brazilian economist Victor Manzoni, Jr., took a circuitous route to the show circuit.

While growing up in Texas, Steele had an affinity for wire fox terriers, a hound breed known for energy and intelligence, due to the “Thin Man” film series that featured a perceptive wire fox terrier named Asta that helped solve crimes. When she purchased her first wire fox terrier, appropriately named Asta, the two would watch re-runs of “Thin Man.”

When Asta died, a saddened Steele searched for a new pet.

“When my dog died, I looked all over the country,” she said. “I found this lady, and she said the only way she’d sell [a wire fox terrier] is if I’d agree to show it. She said she’d pay to do all the training and showing.”

That launched a new passion in Steele, who had already found success as the owner of Torie Steele boutiques, with six shops in Beverly Hills and six in Texas.

She traveled to kennels across Europe and studied everything on breeding dogs and wire terriers including a dog’s ancestry, which she said is key to avoid recessive genes that could produce poor health.

“When I do something, I want to do it right,” she said. “I have a passion for what I do.”

After the purchase of her second wire terrier, Steele hired a handler, spoke with wire terrier experts, and built her own kennels in Malibu in the late 1990s. After hiring Peter Green, a terrier expert and handler, Steele’s dogs began to bark up the wins. She won Best of Breed at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship Dog Show in 2001, 2002, 2008, 2009, and 2010, and Best of Breed at Westminster in 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2010.

At her Malibu facility, Steele Kennels, Steele said the show dogs receive far more affection than a typical pet. Each one is groomed, petted and walked each day by two full-time employees. On the road, it is standard practice among most show dogs to sleep on hotel beds with their owner, Steele said, especially if it’s the “top” dog.

When asked if she’d seen the Christopher Guest mockumentary “Best in Show,” Steele said she gets asked that all the time—and it’s actually more extreme in reality, in terms of show dog owners obsessing over their dogs.

But she said she didn’t go as far as some regular pet owners.

“I don’t dress [the dogs] up in clothes, [or] put them in baby carriages,” she said.

So now that she’s Best in Show at Westminster, what’s next for Sky?

Steele said Sky has shown for two years, and won all the major shows possible.

“It’s time now [for her] to retire and have puppies,” she said.